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Apr 10, 2017 4:34 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Bridges Have Long, Rich History

The Beach Lane bridge in Westhampton Beach has a long history, and is one of two that will undergo a massive renovation project over the next several months. BY ERIN MCKINLEY
Apr 12, 2017 9:52 AM

The two drawbridges linking mainland Westhampton Beach with Dune Road, which are scheduled to receive $8.1 million in repairs starting later this month—work that is expected to take the rest of the year to complete, requiring sporadic closures of both overpasses—still serve similar purposes today, though their respective histories are much different.

Both bridges, on Beach and Jessup lanes, were designed to connect Westhampton Beach residents and visitors alike to Dune Road and the popular ocean beaches that line it. While neither bridge is the original structure, many locals and historians still consider both to be integral parts of village history, with the towers of one serving as a safe haven during the deadly Hurricane of 1938 that flooded Dune Road, and their exteriors featuring works of art that capture the unique character of the seaside community.

“The bridges have been the main thoroughfare to get the beaches, linking the village to the ocean,” John Stanat, president of the Westhampton Beach Historical Society, said during a recent interview. “They inspired artwork that we have that was designed for the bridges, so they are important.”

The Beach Lane Bridge was built in 1935, replacing an older swing bridge, with funding provided through the Works Progress Administration, an initiative created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and designed to create jobs for Americans and help pull the country from the Great Depression. Under the program, thousands of new buildings, bridges and dams were commissioned by the federal government, including the Beach Lane Bridge, also known simply as Rogers Bridge, as it is near Rogers Beach. The exact amount earmarked for the structure in the early 1930s was not clear, however.

The younger of the two crossings in Westhampton Beach, the Beach Lane Bridge replaced an older swing bridge—believed to be constructed in the early 1900s, though an exact date was not clear. Swing bridges were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as they were of simple construction and allowed the crossing portion to swing out over the water whenever someone needed to access the barrier island, and then swing back toward the shore to allow boats in the Quantuck Canal to pass.

The structure that replaced it in 1935 was a Strauss Trunnion double-leaf bascule bridge, one of the earliest drawbridge designs and named, in part, after structural engineer Joseph Strauss, the designer the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, one of the world’s most famous suspension bridges. Constructed of concrete and steel, the original Beach Lane Bridge boasted four approaches, according to Vanessa Baird Streeter, a representative of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

The bascule, or portion of the bridge that moves to allow boats to pass, had to be completely reconstructed by the county between 1993 and 1996 as part of a $9.2 million federally funded project. “The structure continues to be supported on concrete towers and abutments, which are supported by concrete piles,” Ms. Streeter said.

Local historian Meredith Murray noted during a recent interview that the bridge’s concrete towers served as safe havens during the deadly Hurricane of 1938, when many of those who waited too long to evacuate their homes on Dune Road attempted to move inland and simply could not complete the journey. The storm, which was packing 130 mph winds when it pummeled the East End, killed almost 700 people across the Northeast, including more than 50 on Long Island. The powerful hurricane completely flooded Dune Road and leveled most of the houses on the barrier island.

“There are several stories about people who just made it to the bridge before the ocean came over the land,” Ms. Murray said. “Several people spent the night, or at least many hours, in the guard shack in the tower until the hurricane was over. It was very dramatic.”

Because the original bridge was commissioned under the Works Progress Administration program, Lieutenant H.M. Ericsson, a local artist, was hired to design several concrete tiles, or friezes, once featured on the overpass that depicted life in Westhampton Beach at the time. The tiles—two of which have been saved and preserved by the Westhampton Beach Historical Society—featured images of hunters and fishermen, as well as seagulls in flight. The ones now featured on the bridge are replicas of the original concrete creations.

The Beach Lane Bridge’s counterpart, which stands roughly one mile to the west and spans Moriches Bay, is the Jessup Lane Bridge. The original structure was built in 1888 by National C. Jessup, a member of the prominent Jessup family, and was a wooden framed bridge that would remain up allowing boats to pass the channel unless a pedestrian wanted to cross. It has also come to be known as the West Bay Bridge.

After he finished building the bridge linking the road next to his property to Dune Road, Mr. Jessup found himself embroiled in multiple fights with Southampton Town officials, specifically the Town Trustees, who believed that he should not be allowed to charge people for crossing his bridge, which they argued should be a public structure. The Trustees also argued that he disturbed their land to build the bridge, though he had a resolution from the governing board authorizing its construction.

Mr. Jessup, who was also known to sit at the foot of the bridge armed with a shotgun to collect an unspecified toll, according to archives and Ms. Murray, would go on to win a 1900 U.S. Supreme Court ruling awarding him complete ownership of the structure, but not the water or bay bottom.

After Mr. Jessup died in 1911, the bridge’s ownership was briefly turned over to the newly formed West Bay Company, which demolished the original structure and replaced it with a turnstile bridge. Turnstile bridges can be rotated in order to allow boats to pass. That bridge was demolished in 1928 when Southampton Town acquired the land and financed the construction of a new Scherzer Rolling bridge, named after engineer William Scherzer. The lift bridge, which cost the town $84,527.50 to construct, featured a belt that would roll back lifting the section of the bridge stretching over the water, allowing boats to pass underneath.

Suffolk County took over ownership shortly after the bridge was damaged by the Hurricane of 1938, according to Ms. Streeter, thought the required repairs, which cost $25,000, were not completed until the following year. In 1981, after decades of use and exposure to salt water, the bridge was leveled and rebuilt three years later for a cost of $5,549,675, according to records. That bridge has since been labeled as “functionally obsolete” by Suffolk County officials, meaning that although it is not in any danger of falling down, it is not built to today’s construction standards.

The current version of the Jessup Lane bridge is made of laminated timber placed on top of reinforced concrete slabs. It also features a five-foot-wide sidewalk on its west side.

The upcoming $8.1 million overhaul will be completed by Suffolk County, which owns both bridges, and will likely continue through the end of the year. The extensive work includes replacing all rusted steel and all deteriorating timber, as well as updating the mechanical systems that control both drawbridges. The work also calls for repairing all railings and bridge bearings, sealing cracks, and replacing doors and windows on the control towers. Both structures will also receive fresh coats of paint.

Crews will also attempt to reduce the angle of the arch of the Jessup Lane Bridge, with county officials explaining that its current level often limits the vision of drivers crossing it.

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