THE LAST GREAT PLAN OF ZENAS KING
CONNECTING THE PARTS OF NEW YORK CITY
By Allan King Sloan – October, 2005
The New York Times of February 5, 1892 carried a story on its front page of a bill introduced in the New York State legislature in Albany to incorporate the Manhattan and Long Island Bridge Company to build a series of bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers to connect Manhattan with Long Island, then virtually inaccessible to New York and the U.S. mainland. The incorporators of the company were Zenas King and a number of other Cleveland and New York investors and industrialists who would furnish the money for the bridges as a venture capital enterprise requiring no local government funding.[i]
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The first bridge was to connect what is now midtown Manhattan with Long Island City in a location close to where the Queensboro Bridge was built in 1909. The second bridge was to be built farther north to provide the functions now served by the Triboro Bridge, built in 1936. The bill also provided for the construction of other Harlem River bridges and permitted the company to acquire land and collect revenues from the “wagons, pedestrians, and traction operations” that were expected to use the bridges. Detailed plans had been drawn up for the two bridges by King Bridge Company engineers and others. The whole venture was design to be a profit-making enterprise.
As was the case in this era of urban development, private investors were the main furnishers of transportation facilities and services used by the general public, like streetcars, railroads, ferry boats, and including bridges. There were a number of other proposals in the State legislature to set up other private companies to build bridges including crossings of the North (Hudson) River, so that the program proposed by Zenas King and his collaborators was not unique.
Apparently this grand plan was to be the culmination of Zenas King’s career as one of the nation’s great bridge-builders. The King Bridge Company had successfully completed the construction of the multi-span Central Bridge across the Ohio River in Cincinnati (1891), just next to Roebling’s famous suspension bridge, and the very large Central Viaduct across the Cuyahoga Valley in Cleveland of close to 4,000 feet (1888), as well as the Grand Avenue Suspension Bridge in St. Louis (1889). The Company had gained notoriety for its mastery of cantilever bridge construction as well as the construction of spandrel and suspension bridges. The King Bridge Company had a battery of noted civil engineers whose exploits were written up in the engineering journals of the times.
From a financial point of view, Zenas appeared confident that he could raise the capital for the venture from his Cleveland friends who by the 1890’s had reached the height of financial power from the booming railroad and steel industries. Zenas himself had invested in banking and street railway ventures and was certainly able to contribute a sizeable portion of the initial $1,000,000 in the new venture’s stock assets.
However, Zenas was well into his seventy-fourth year in February of 1892 and hs wife, Maranda, had died in the previous autumn. He had turned over the operation of the King Bridge Company to his sons James and Harry, who were busy furnishing bridges to clients all over North America. His health was not very good at the time that a great deal of energy would have been required to pull off this dramatic plan and program.
Zenas died in October of 1892 and with him this great plan for the bridging of New York City. His dream of becoming the master bridge builder in the nation’s first city and matching the Roeblings in fame and fortune were not to be realized. The task of building the city’s great bridges would be left to a later generation of engineers and entrepreneurs, including Gustav Lindenthal, Othmar Amman, and Robert Moses. None of the major bridges built by the King Bridge Company under Zenas King presidency are still standing. All have succumbed to modern traffic requirements and urban renewal. Despite this fact, the legacy of Zenas King can be found in a large number of his smaller, more modest bridges that continue to serve local communities all over North America and are being recognized as important historical artifacts.
1. The incorporators included in addition to Zenas King, his sons James and Harry, Daniel Eells, a Cleveland banker and railroad developer and long-time director of the King Bridge Company. Charles Otis, President of the Otis Steel Company of Cleveland, Daniel Magone of Ogdensburg, N.Y., former Collector of the Port of New York,J.J. Morehouse, an iron manufacturer of Chatham, N.Y., Charles F. Stowell of t5he Railroad Commissioner’s Office as consulting engineer, John J. Donovan, a New York Contractor, and several others