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Pell Bridge Newport Background & History

Beginning in the late 1940s, efforts towards the construction of a bridge linking Jamestown to Newport were started. A Newport-Jamestown civic commission was formed with the goal of having the General Assembly pass an enabling act to create a functioning agency to finance and build a bridge. From the 1940s on, at least 32 engineering studies were made for possible location of a suspension or cantilever bridge, a tunnel or combinations thereof.

The original proposal of 1950, tying a bridge to Newport’s Ocean Drive, was approved by the Navy but not by many local residents. The engineering firm of Parsons,Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas, first made famous for founder William Barclay Parsons’ designs of the New York City subway system and the Cape Cod Canal, recommended a bridge on the line that has now been used, from Taylor’s Point in Jamestown to Washington Street in Newport. Unfortunately, a 1960 referendum that would have given the Authority its necessary bond-selling power was not approved by voters, but in 1964, the bonding measure was finally ratified and later re-approved in 1965.

Once Navy requirements regarding clearances were met, and definite locations for the tower piers were decided, construction began. 838 steel piles had to be driven under the concrete ‘footing’ or foundation blocks of the east and west towers. The west piles go to the bedrock, reaching up to a pier footing whose bottom is 162 feet underwater. No one had ever driven piles from a deeper point. In order to cut off the tops of the piles with torches, divers stayed down half an hour and could only complete about one pile a day. To fix this problem, a diving tank was brought to Newport and sunk. Using this tank, the divers could stay submerged for a week, living in the chamber and emerging to work six hours a day, completing 15 piles a day.

To build the piers, prefabricated forms were brought to Newport by barge, the largest weighing more than 400 tons and standing 10 stories high. To remove these forms from the barges and set them in place, substructure contractor Perini Corp. hired one of the world’s biggest floating lifters, a 309-foot vessel called the Avondale Senior, all the way from New Orleans, which had twin booms that could handle 500 tons. This task was one of the more difficult ones encountered during the project. Soon after the forms were put in place, two storms hit, and the forms had to be straightened. Concrete was then poured for the tower piers, as well as the 52 other piers. All the foundations and anchorages contain about 90,000 cubic yards of concrete poured by tremie method, believed at the time to be a world's record for any single construction project.

For the steel superstructure, Bethlehem Steel introduced prefabricated cable strands, made in Pennsylvania and then sent to Newport as a package, instead of spinning each strand wire by wire, from anchorage to tower to tower to anchorage. Another recent innovation at the time, Bethlehem and DuPont used their new plastic protective sheath, which was used to coat the cables.

The Newport/Pell Bridge faced many challenges in its construction, but the benefits of its existence have far outweighed the cost of its creation. The bridge has grown with Newport and the surrounding areas, encouraging trade, travel and tourism for over thirty years.