Janis and Marvin Epstein were children the sunny November day in 1931 when the Bayonne Bridge opened for the first time, yet for both the memories are so clear it seemed only yesterday.
The Bayonne Bridge will celebrate its 75th anniversary at a ceremony Nov. 14, although several local ceremonies are also taking place to mark what many consider one of the most important events in Bayonne’s history.
Both Janis and Marvin were born and raised in Bayonne with deep family roots here.
Janis (Block) is the granddaughter of the Wigdors, who owned and operated a historic jewelry store on Broadway and East 21 Street. Marvin ran Bayonne Plumbing.
Construction on the Bayonne Bridge started in the late 1920s and was often compared with the Empire State Building – which also opened in 1931 – as among the architectural marvels of the time.
At 1,675 feet, the Bayonne Bridge when opened was the longest arch span bridge in the world, a record it maintained for almost 50 years. Currently owned and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge links Port Richmond, Staten Island with Bayonne over the Kill van Kull.
The bridge was designed by Othmar H Ammann, a noted Swiss American bridge builder. At the time, the Bayonne was the only one of its kind in the world.
Mayor Joseph Doria said officials in Australia used the plans from the Bayonne Bridge to construct a bridge in Sydney.
“Our bridge is about three feet longer than theirs,” Doria said.
The Epsteins, who winter in Florida, said the opening the Bayonne Bridge remains a moment fixed in their minds for a number of reasons.
Most prominently in their minds was the image of then Gov. Franklyn Delanor Roosevelt, who had come by motorcade to Bayonne for the ceremony.
Marvin along with his friends came to what was then Hudson Boulevard to watch the open car that carried the man who would go on to become one of America’s greatest presidents.
“I remember following the car down the boulevard,” he said.
The bridge was opened for business at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 15, 1931 and saw more than 7,000 vehicles pass over it the first day. The ceremonies were broadcast by WOR Radio and featured an 18-gun salute from the USS Wickes and the release of more than 50 carrier pigeons.
Janis’s uncle Abe Turdeldaub was chairman of the bridge opening, and Janis said one of the great thrills of her life was being asked to come upon the stage with her uncle and the other dignitaries.
Turdeldaub, a charismatic man with the looks of a movie star, greeted Gov. Roosevelt and Janis remembers getting to shake Roosevelt’s hand at the event.
The first vehicle to cross the bridge was a Rolls Royce owned by then Bayonne Mayor Dr. Lucius F. Donohue.
Marvin recalled the platform was located at the Eighth Street Train Station before taking the ceremony west to the foot of the bridge for the ribbon cutting.
“Roosevelt came by motorcade,” Marvin said. “I remember people were very careful to disguise his disability.”
At age 39 in 1921, Roosevelt was struck down by polio. He was never able to walk again. Generally the press avoided reporting on the disability and Roosevelt’s staff did much to disguise it during public functions.
“Most of the time he sat while on the platform,” Marvin said. “He seemed to use the platform to hold himself up when he spoke.”
Marvin also recalled the song that was created that day for the event, and sang it for the interview, “Bayonne will shine tonight, Bayonne will shine, when the sun goes down and the moon comes up, Bayonne will shine.”
Marvin said he was impressed by the fact that the bridge was named after Bayonne not Staten Island.
“I thought that was wonderful,” he said.
Doria, during a ribbon cutting ceremony for a historic exhibit on the bridge at Bayonne Public Library, said the bridge had become a symbol of the city, one of those visual elements in which residents took pride and seemed to reflect the industrial nature of the city at the time.
“The bridge was meant to be a link, between Bayonne and Staten Island, New Jersey and New York, but also the past and present into the future,” Doria said.
The bridge had a huge economic impact on Bayonne, and has since become a means of access to New York as well as other parts of New Jersey.
Indeed, history shows that Bayonne Bridge gained in importance after the opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964, allow motors to access Brooklyn and Long Island rather than traveling through lower Manhattan.
Some bridge history and artwork at the library
Although several events are being planned to celebrate the anniversary – including an official ceremony on Nov. 14 in Dennis Collins Park, the ribbon cutting in the library on Nov. 1 was the first of the events.
This was a kind of birthday party that included musical rendition by the Bee Sharp Music Group of Bayonne High School, a display of artifacts on the 75 year history of the bridge, drawings and photographs of the bridge by Bayonne High School students, and – of course – a birthday cake.
Representatives from the Bayonne Historical Society and Jerry Deltufo, general manager of Staten Island Bridges for the Port Authority joined city and other officials in the library’s ribbon cutting on an exhibit dealing with the bridge’s rich past and present, as well as student artistic impressions of the bridge as seen today.
Library Director Sneh Bains said the exhibit features photographs on loan from the Bayonne Historic Society and an original shovel from the Bayonne Bridge groundbreaking in 1929 donated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The exhibit features original art work by Bayonne High School students who participated in a collaborative visual and language arts project entitled Postcards from the Bridge.
Joseph Preminger, who was on hand for the birthday celebration, had also witnessed the opening of the bridge in 1931. He said he was impressed by Roosevelt and the motorcade which brought him to the site from New York.
“I remember he rode in an open car,” he said.