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It’s Bridge Day

As millions of Americans get onto planes, trains and automobiles for what is one of the busiest travel days of the years, The Legal Genealogist would like to officially dub this Bridge Day.


It’s the anniversary of the official opening of one very important bridge — the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York. 1


Now… 54 years ago, on 21 November 1964, when that bridge opened, it wasn’t exactly shaving weeks or days or hours off the crossing of the New York Bay to Staten Island. The Staten Island Ferry was running then and had been, in one form or another, since 1817.2

But vehicular traffic had a lot longer road to travel — the only connections were via 39th and 69th Streets in Brooklyn. So the first plan to build a bridge was floated in the mid-1920s. Then again in 1933. And in 1936. And in 1943. And 1945. And 1947. And …3

It wasn’t until 1959 that ground was officially broken — and it was on this day on 1964 that the official opening ceremony took place. And, within its first two months, more than 1.8 million vehicle had crossed what was then officially called the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, with one Z.4

So… what’s Bridge Day got to do with genealogy?

Think about it. Think about the differences our ancestors saw before and after some of the big transportation-related advances of their time:

• First U.S. Toll Road, January 1, 1794: “The Lancaster Turnpike opens connecting Lancaster and Philadelphia, PA, providing travelers an easier route to the Northwest territory.”5

• Erie Canal, January 1, 1825: “The Erie Canal opens, creating an efficient and less costly way ship goods. The water route, dug by hand, results in an economic boom for the country. A number of canals are built between 1825 and 1840.” 6

• The Golden Spike, January 1, 1869: “On May 10, the first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, UT, when the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad join together just six years after construction began.” 7

• Eads Bridge, July 4, 1874: “Opened in 1874, Eads Bridge was the first bridge erected across the Mississippi south of the Missouri River. … Eads Bridge is the oldest bridge on the river.”8 Well, we won’t count the one built in 1856 that was open for 15 days before it was hit by a steamboat and burned.9

• Electric Streetcars, January 1, 1888: “Frank Julian Sprague puts the first electric streetcar into operation in Richmond, VA. Streetcars are eventually used in 850 American towns and cities.” 10

• First Scheduled Airline, January 1, 1914: “On January 1, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line becomes the world’s first scheduled airline. A one way fare costs $5.00. The airline closes on March 30.” 11

• Pennsylvania Turnpike January 1, 1940: “The Pennsylvania Turnpike Opens.”12

• St. Lawrence Seaway Complete, January 1, 1959: “The St. Lawrence Seaway opens along the Canada and U.S. borders, allowing increased ship traffic between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. On April 25, the icebreaker ‘D’Iberville’ begins the first through transit of the St. Lawrence Seaway, officially opened by Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower on June 26.”13

Every one of those changes opened travel doors for our ancestors. Travel was faster. It was safer. It was more affordable. Those differences by themselves may explain how an ancestor born in New York ended up, seemingly overnight, in California.

We can begin to understand what these changes meant just by looking at the differences we’ve experienced in our own lifetimes. When I was a kid,14 with traffic and traffic lights and backroads and more, the trip by car from our home in Central New Jersey to my grandparents’ farm in Central Virginia was about 350 miles could take as long as 10-12 hours.

Then the New Jersey Turnpike opened — then the Delaware Turnpike and John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway in Maryland in 1963, all the way up to the Fort McHenry Tunnel underneath the harbor of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1985, and work on the complex set of interchanges in Northern Virginia called the “Mixing Bowl” all the way up to 2012.15

It’s a straight run for 305 miles now. And it’s now about a five-hour drive.

So as we all set off today, over the river and maybe even through the woods, think about the ways transportation has changed… and everything those changes mean to us … and everything they meant to those who came before.


Image: Matthew Proujansky, “Verrazano-Narrows Bridge during construction,” CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Wikipedia (, “Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge,” rev. 20 Nov 2018.
  2. Ibid., “Staten Island Ferry,” rev. 16 Nov 2018.
  3. Ibid., “Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge,” rev. 20 Nov 2018.
  4. Ibid. The spelling was officially corrected in October 2018. See Carl Campanile, “Cuomo finally fixes a 50-year-old typo,” New York Post, online edition, 1 Oct 2018 ( : accessed 20 Nov 2018).
  5. “First U.S. Toll Road, January 1, 1794,” A Journey Through American Transportation: 1776 – 2017, ( : accessed 20 Nov 2018).
  6. Ibid., “Erie Canal, January 1, 1825.”
  7. Ibid., “The Golden Spike, January 1, 1869.”
  8. Wikipedia (, “Eads Bridge,” rev. 19 Nov 2018.
  9. See David A. Pfeiffer, “Bridging the Mississippi: The Railroads and Steamboats Clash at the Rock Island Bridge,” Prologue (Summer 2004, Vol. 36, No. 2), ( : accessed 20 Nov 2018). See also Jonathan Turner, “First Mississippi bridge opened 155 years ago, ushering in new era, new jobs,” Rock Island Dispatch-Argus, online edition, 13 Feb 2011 ( : accessed 20 Nov 2018).
  10. “Electric Streetcars, January 1, 1888,” A Journey Through American Transportation: 1776 – 2017, ( : accessed 20 Nov 2018).
  11. Ibid., “First Scheduled Airline, January 1, 1914.”
  12. Ibid., “Pennsylvania Turnpike, January 1, 1940.”
  13. Ibid., “St. Lawrence Seaway Complete, January 1, 1959.”
  14. No, despite what my nieces and nephews say, it was not in the 19th century.
  15. Interstate 95,” ( : accessed 20 Nov 2018.
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