The picture above is not, unfortunately, the oldest bridge in New York City. It's a picture of the Manhattan Bridge, arguably the prettiest in the area, under construction in 1909. While that's plenty old, it's still not the oldest bridge in New York. Not by a longshot. And you'll never find it.
(In truth, I put that picture up of the Manhattan Bridge partially because any surviving pictures of the oldest bridge in New York City are not that impressive, and mostly because I am absolutely in love with it. Here's a nice and big high-res version of the photo. You can see the beautiful architecture of the era, combined with all of the piers, most of which have been long-since demolished. Okay, so it's not a photo of the oldest bridge, but it's a great photo nonetheless. A few pictures of the oldest bridge are coming up below, but I don't want to ruin the surprise. It was a huge surprise to me when I found out about it, so let's preserve the magic just a little while longer.)
The New York natives right now might be thinking to themselves that it's the Brooklyn Bridge, connecting Manhattan to the western end of Long Island, which was completed in 1883. It is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States, but it's not the oldest bridge in New York City.
The history nerds among us might be smugly thinking to themselves that the oldest bridge in New York City is actually the High Bridge, built in 1848, and closed since the 1970s. It spans the Harlem River, and the reason why the history nerds are all so smug about it is because yes, it technically is the oldest bridge in the city.
But I'd like to add a caveat to that title, as it should be the Oldest Bridge In The City That You Can See Just By Looking Out A Window.
Because the true oldest bridge in the city is much older, and not nearly on the same grand scale as the city's modern bridges. And you'll never find it.
That's because it's underground. It is rumored to still exist, however, thus making it the oldest bridge in New York on a technicality. And technically correct is the best kind of correct.
It's the King's Bridge.
The King's Bridge that I'm referring to was built before even the American Revolutionary War. In a time period when New York wasn't so much the huge bustling megalopolis it is now, but more of a soggy outpost of the British empire, the land that we now think of as the City of New York was more unkept, and a bit wild.
Nowadays the island of Manhattan that centers the city has been carefully sculpted and cleaned, with most traces of its more-natural past completely removed from view. If you walk through New York now, it'll seem mostly flat, and topographically it'll be pretty boring. But mountains were moved, valleys were filled in, and whole rivers were erased from the map to create that effect.
It got to the point that one section of Manhattan, known as Marble Hill, isn't even connected to the rest of the island anymore. It's now connected to the Bronx and the mainland, sutured on after the construction to the south of the Harlem River Ship Canal in 1895.
Map credit: Wikicommons user iseeaboar
For almost 20 years, Marble Hill was actually an island unto itself, separated from Manhattan by the canal, and separated from the Bronx by an ancient marshy waterway called the Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
In 1914, the original creekbed began to be filled in, to eliminate Marble Hill's island status.
And the King's Bridge, by then known as Kingsbridge (and to which a Bronx neighborhood now takes its name), was still there.
That first iteration of the King's Bridge, built in 1693, was so called because everyone had to pay money to cross it, except for the King's soldiers, who were allowed to cross for free. Which is pretty nice.
It was just made out of wood, however, and wood can't support a lot of weight, so when it was replaced in 1713, it was partially made out of mortarless stone with wooden decking, and was 24 feet wide.
That second bridge lasted a long time, was even part of a major motoring event in American history, according to Sharon Reier's The Bridges of New York:
It was also the starting point for the second automobile race ever held in the United States. The race, on Memorial Day in 1896, was sponsored by Cosmopolitan Magazine, which offered a purse of $3,000 to the victor.
Other sources dispute whether or not the Kingsbridge was the starting point, but it almost certainly was along the route of the race, which finished some 30 miles north of the city.
But here's the weird part. We know that the Kingsbridge was built in 1713. We know that it was partially rebuilt after the Revolutionary War. We know that it existed in 1856, from period engravings, and that it existed in 1896, at the time of the aforementioned race. We even know that it existed when engineers first began to fill in what remained of Spuyten Duyvil creek in 1914.
One bit of uncertainty remains, however, which is what happened to the bridge. It was never blown up with explosives, or taken down by a wrecking ball, or moved to another place halfway across the world, like the original London Bridge.
Most agree that it wasn't even properly dismantled and demolished. Instead, it was simply buried in place in 1917, deep under the landfill, hidden away for eternity like the lost pirate ship of The Goonies.
Meaning that if you went digging deep into the South Bronx, you might be able to find the oldest bridge in New York City.
Of course, you'd have to obtain permission from the current landowners, and all the impossible permits in the world, just to start digging to find the mystery bridge.
Good luck with that.
Photos credit: The New York Public Library