Another bus ride brings me to Fort Lee, New Jersey, named for the Revolution-era fortifications from which the Continental Army defended the upper Hudson River. Today, the town is better known for hosting the western end of the George Washington Bridge and, I’m told, a substantial group of people affiliated with Columbia University who don’t want to pay Manhattan rents.
Fort Lee has a small-scale downtown area, complete with those indicators of prosperity, Starbucks and Borders. Many of the stores and restaurants serve the area’s large Korean population.
But in some sense the real center of Fort Lee shifted north after the George Washington Bridge was built and the convenience of driving across it was realized. Much of the city was built in what appears to have been one colossal belch of ill-considered, garage-based, post-war development.
But Fort Lee has one really, really huge thing going for it: Palisades Interstate Park stretches north from here, passing the New York state line. The southern tip of the park just south of the George Washington Bridge is called the Fort Lee Historic Park.
Entering the park from Fort Lee involves walking up a long set of stairs into a dark forest and emerging shortly to find a 1970s-style visitor center. It was here, the center explains, that George Washington defended the Hudson River (unsuccessfully) against the approaching British in 1776.
The museum includes everything you’d expect from a visitor center in a historic park, including lots of reproduction flags and big displays where small flashing lights show the positions of Washington’s troops. Classic.
Just a hundred yards or so beyond the visitor’s center, the woods open up and an overlook provides a spectacular view of the river, the bridge, and the city.
The Bridge’s sinewy construction is magnificently displayed from here. It was one of the first major works of Swiss engineer Othmar Ammann (whose last major bridge was the Verrazano-Narrows). The towers had been intended to be clad in stonework designed by Cass Gilbert, but cost considerations left the steelwork exposed.
Beneath the Manhattan tower is the lighthouse immortalized in Hildegarde Swift’s The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.
From here, we can see two more major bridges: on the left in the picture below is the superstructure for the Hell’s Gate Bridge, a railroad bridge said to be one of the strongest in the world, on which Othmar Amman did some engineering work. To the right are the towers of Robert Moses’s great Triborough Bridge.
From here it’s easy to get to the sidewalks across the bridge.
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