Big Complicated Machines

The Amtrak Dock Vertical Lift Bridge


I don’t envy bridge designers. Bridges which cross shipping lanes, particularly those with large cargo ships, can often be an exercise in trade-offs. A suspension bridge soaring well over the water surface would be the preferred bridge, but they also require significant amounts of land on either side of the river that may not be there or available. So, other types of bridges are built. One of those bridges is called a vertical lift bridge. The entire road bed lifts to allow shipping to pass underneath.

The Amtrak Dock Vertical Lift Bridge is one such bridge. Crossing the Passaic River at Newark, NJ, the Dock Bridge is actually two bridges with an east and west span. The two spans can lift 135 feet above mean water level. Built in 1935, the roadbed of the Dock Bridge is several sets of tracks for the PATH rapid transit system and NJ Transit on the east span and tracks for the Northeast Corridor on the west span.

While space efficient, vertical lift bridges are limited in that the lift limits the height of the shipping passing underneath. Comparatively, draw bridges and swing bridges allow unlimited clearance for passing ships.

[Image Credit: James P Fisher III]

  • I used to like to ride my bicycle down the Cape Cod Canal Trail and stop at the museum of the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge. Once the longest vertical lift, now demoted to second longest. They renovated it in the early 2000s, and there's plenty of good pics of the innards there. Fun Fact: All of the garbage from Cape Cod has to go over this bridge, as it's not trucked out but shipped in rail cars. Anything to cut down on traffic over the Bourne and Sagamore bridges!

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    The Bourne Bridge is in the background.
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    • NotJustDucky

      The only time I've ever seen that bridge up close was in the fall of 2001, but at the time they were repainting it. All covered up in tarps it lost a bit of its majesty.

  • cruisintime

    The Forges and the Steelworks, all those talents and capacities are fading away.

  • Another interesting concept is the suspended ferry:

    • cruisintime

      What imagination.

  • <img src=""&gt;
    Kansas City is home to a nearly unique* vertical lift rail bridge, the former ASB (Armor/Swift/Burlington) Bridge. It originally conveyed rail traffic on its lower deck and auto traffic on an upper deck. The rail bed could be raised and lowered without disruption of the auto traffic above. It's still there, and still in use by BNSF, but it was closed to automobile traffic in 1987 and the top road deck was removed soon after.

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    *Only two other similar bridges were ever built, both in the Ukraine.

    • Vairship

      Wouldn't it have made more sense in the long run to re-route the train over the UPPER deck, so that the lower deck would never have to be lifted again?

      • The center of the upper deck was originally interurban rail. Since the roadway was removed, they investigated using the upper level of the bridge for a new (proposed) light urban rail system, but decided it was not structurally sound enough up top, and would have to have major refurbishment ($$$). The bridge itself was not too bad in the '80s, but the long approach viaducts were buckling and darn near falling to pieces. But that's only part of the reason they built a new vehicle bridge next to it. The real reason was the narrow lanes, convoluted outside paths, and lack of divider between opposite traffic on the inner lanes caused all sorts of nasty collisions on a nearly daily basis.

        <img src="; width="500">

      • And according to one online source, the lower deck sometimes isn't raised for years at a time.

        • NotJustDucky

          Huh, you'd think that they'd run it up and down with some regularity just to make sure all the moving parts are in working order.

  • NotJustDucky

    Vertical lift bridges? I love 'em!

    Close to my home, there are two that run between Portsmouth, NH and Kittery, ME:

    <img src="; width="600">

    In the foreground is the former Memorial Bridge which had to be demolished in 2012 and replaced with a new bridge that looks like the old one due to the fact that Maine and New Hampshire spent so many years not bothering to fund maintenance for the bridge that it reached a point that it could no longer be saved. The replacement bridge opened just in time for New Year's. It looks similar, but without the rivet-lattice girders, it just doesn't look as elegant to me. But on the upside, US Route 1 doesn't have a river-sized gap in it anymore.

    In the midground you can see the much more solid looking lift towers of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, which has the US 1 Bypass on its upper deck and railroad tracks on the lower deck. This is the bridge that Maine is more concerned about keeping in good repair, since the train tracks are how nuclear sub fuel gets in and out of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but that bridge has had it's share of problems the past few years as well (just because Maine is 'concerned' doesn't mean that they necessarily back up their concern with funding) and is now going to be replaced as well after being struck by a wayward ship last April.

    The high-arch Piscataqua River bridge is in the background, but it has no moving parts and is therefore boring.

    Up in mid-coast Maine, just upstream from Bath Iron Works in Bath is the Sagadahoc Bridge, which crosses the Kennebec River:

    <img src="; width="600">

    You can see that a new high concrete bridge has been constructed in the foreground to replace the road portion of the bridge, but the old bridge remains because, like the Long bridge on the border, the old lift bridge carries railroad tracks. However, since they don't have to worry about keeping the road contiguous, the lift span is kept partially elevated to allow for river traffic and only lowered when there's a train. Also, the bridge was featured in this classic Sesame Street clip from the '70s:

    [youtube o2VAF0LDp-o youtube]

    (Apparently when he wasn't working on All in the Family, Rob Reiner was a bridge operator in Maine. Who knew?)

    • Very cool!

      • NotJustDucky

        Thanks, although I do have to a minor correction: having wasted spent a good amount of time on bridgehunter after finding it linked through a Wikipedia article about one of the other bridges noted here, I should point out that the old bridge in Bath is actually the Carlton Lift Brige, and the Sagadahoc Bridge is the name of the new concrete road bridge.

    • Vairship

      That Renault/AMC made it all the way from Kenosha to that bridge before it rusted away?

      • NotJustDucky

        That's how you know it was shot during the hight of summer; any leftover springtime road salt would have eaten the poor thing up before it got much beyond Pennsylvania.

    • I thought there was a railroad swing bridge around there, somewhere as well? I always saw it when I drive from Boston to Portland. It's been some time since I've done that, though. I just remember it was always open. Somewhere off I-95 to the eastern side.

      • NotJustDucky

        I can't think of one offhand, but if it's an old RR bridge somewhere right over the border in Maine, it would make sense, since all of the shoreline railroad in that area is long abandoned, and there are a lot of visible bridges seaward from 95 where the rails and then Route 1 took a path closer to the shore.

        (Although, now that I think about it in the other direction, I think there might be an old swing bridge over the Merrimack River near where 95 crosses it on the north shore of Mass., but I wouldn't swear to it, so that might be what you're thinking of.)

  • jalopjackie

    Not far from where I live (hopefully for not too much longer) is a much smaller lift-span:

    <img src="; width="400">

    It was built in '50 apparently (according to the picture) and has been slowly deteriorating ever since. I've never seen the lift mechanism in use. Apparently, they're trying to raise funds to repaint it now.

  • mallthus

    I grew up close to this classic, the Commodore Schuylter Heim Bridge…
    <img src=" Heim and Ford Bridges Today.jpg" width="500/">

    It's on Terminal Island, part of the Port of Long Beach, and is a frequent star of TV and movie chases. It's being replaced by a fixed span…eventually.

    The other vertical lift bridge is the 1996 replacement of the original 1924 Henry Ford bascule bridge.

  • <img src="; width="450">

    The Steel Bridge (1912) in Portland, Oregon, has a lower deck for rail and pedestrian traffic and an upper deck for automobiles and light rail. The two decks can be moved independently; in the above photo, the lower deck has been raised while the upper remains in use.

    • It was built by Wile E. Coyote in an attempt to trap the Roadrunner. Hilarity ensued when the lower deck went up late, letting RR through and leaving WEC paused in midair looking sheepish. A second attempt was foiled when both sections raised instead of just the lower, foiling WEC's plans to squash RR between the decks.

      Interesting trivia, the bridge was used to open what was thought to be a time capsule from the Steam Age, but turned out to be a prehistoric variety of walnut.

  • Prop-er

    Cool. The Amtrak Dock bridges look 100% identical to the two bridges we have here in the Netherlands. They are about 10km spaced from each other, and were build in 1938.

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