The Newport Pell Bridge will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Friday, June 28th, 2019.

With the celebration just days away, as well as our love for sharing history and fun facts, we turned to Brian Stinson, author of Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims To Fame, for a look back at this moment in Newport history.

NEWPORT IS THE SITE OF THE FIRST SUSPENSION BRIDGE IN THE WORLD TO USE SHOP-FABRICATED PARALLEL-WIRE STRANDS FOR THE MAIN CABLES; A NEW PLASTIC COVERING SYSTEM FOR CABLE PROTECTION; AND A NEW TYPE OF CABLE ANCHORAGE.                          (OPENED TO TRAFFIC: JUNE 28, 1969)

Before the Newport Bridge was built, motorists could wait hours to catch the ferry between Newport and Jamestown. The ferry was not a 24-hour operation. 

It was Bethlehem Steel Corporation was who was responsible for the construction of the bridge, which began in January of 1966. Estimated to cost $39 million, it was completed at a staggering $61 million dollars. Measuring 2.13 miles in length, the Newport Bridge was opened to traffic on June 28, 1969. The two main spans – tower 400 feet above Narragansett Bay.

However, engineering history was made with a series of  firsts: the first suspension bridge in the world to use shop – fabricated parallel – wire strands for the main cables; the use of a new plastic covering system for cable protection and a new type of cable anchorage system.

The use of shop-fabricated parallel-wire strand system, eliminated the time consuming practice of spinning bridge cables wire by wire. These strands were constructed at Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania, placed on reels, and barged from the Long Wharf area to the bridge for quick assembly. Most of the superstructure was  built on land and then assembled on the bay.

The roadway has a vertical clearance over 200 feet, above the mean high watermark. Tall enough to allow aircraft carriers to pass underneath. It is believed the Wasp become the first in August of 1968, when she went under the partially completed center span and onward to Quonset Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown, RI. The crew in whites, surrounded the flight deck. But only four years later, under the Nixon Administration, Quonset Point was ordered closed. 

Oddly, not long after the bridge opened, lawsuits between the state and Bethlehem Steel Corporation, arose due to the faulty paint job, as it began peeling. As a result, painting is a continuous  part of present day life.

The Newport Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in New England, surpassing the Mount Hope Bridge in Bristol, RI, which held that distinction for forty years. In 1993, the bridge was renamed the Claiborne Pell Bridge, in honor of U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Newport, who is best known as the sponsor of the Pell Grant – the financial-aid funding vehicle for college students. However, Newporters still call it by the original name – The Newport Bridge.

Presently, $66 million is slated for the creation of new ramps and a roadway system for the Newport terminus. However, with the exception of only ramp, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this interchange, except the project was never finished. America’s Cup Avenue is in a direct straight line to intersect with the bridge. Only 4/10ths of a mile to the north and  the same distance to the south, completes the original project. 

One of the major reasons behind constructing the bridge was to connect with the downtown business wharf area as part of Urban Renewal. The goal was to clean up the blight and not let that spread further, and spur business development, as Newport was dying economically. Once a bridge for tourist, is now a bridge for commuters. 

Stinson, Brian. Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame. Charleston, SC. 178,179.

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Ryan Belmore is the Owner & Publisher of What's Up Newp, LLC. Belmore has led What's Up Newp since December 2012. Belmore also serves as the Sr. Editor - North America for Mountain News - publisher of OnTheSnow. In his spare time, Belmore serves as the Vice President for the Board of Directors at Fort Adams Trust and serves on the Board of Directors at Lucy's Hearth. Belmore is also a member and supporter of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. Send questions, tips, and story ideas to Ryan@whatsupnewp.com.