How The Ruins Of Europe Built A Major Road In America

To say Europe was in ruins after World War II would be using understatement. Cities were destroyed. Villages were obliterated. Societies themselves would take decades of rebuilding. Out of all that rubble, though, emerged one road in New York that's often overlooked: the arterial FDR Drive.

For those who don't live in New York City, and I can't fathom any section of humanity that doesn't, Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive isn't so much like every other Len Drive or Green Drive or whatver suburban -Drive you want to think of, but it's more like a highway.


On the tight, squirming lanes that snake their way down the east side of the island of Manhattan, regular drivers fight to maintain position with taxis, and insane motorcyclists splitting lanes, and even the occasional pedestrian seriously trying to cross a goddamn six-lane highway. It would almost be exciting, if you had a death wish and yearning desire to pay oodles a month in car insurance.

Yet those thousands of cars each day drive on top of pure history.

To learn the story of one of the main highways of Manhattan (specifically the 11-block section from 23rd street to 34th that the history I'm talking about concerns), you need to learn the history of Europe. Well, not all of it, really, just a six-year span. (Hint: it's World War II.)

World War II!

And really, we're not looking at all of World War II because that would be silly because you know that whole story by now and if you don't, God help you, go read a book. To narrow it down further, we're looking at the Battle of Britain.


And to narrow it down further than that, we're looking at the Battle of Bristol.


(Bristol! Photo credit Robert Cutts)

If you examine the photo above not very closely at all, you'll notice that Bristol isn't like many European cities, without very many grand cathedrals and whatnot. That's because the Nazis absolutely destroyed them.


Bristol was a major British industrial center during the war, home to both Bristol Harbour and the Bristol Aeroplane Company. After the war, the Bristol Aeroplane Company had a little spinoff called Bristol Cars, which still has many fans today. But starting in 1939, BAC made the Beaufighter, one of the world's first true two-seater multirole fighter planes.


And with no real precision weapons at the time, and the Nazis being the horrible monsters of history that they are, that made the entire city of Bristol a target.


It's not like Bristol wasn't easy to find, either. Just as every city in Europe was under blackout restrictions during the war, so was Bristol. What didn't help though was that Bristol sits on the River Avon, and moonlight reflecting off its waters basically made the waterway into a fully-floodlit motorway, straight into center of the city.

On one single night in November of 1940, 15,000 bombs were dropped on Bristol. A third of those were incendiary, lighting numerous fires throughout the area.


And the punishing attacks weren't limited to one night, either. In total, the city suffered six major air raids, with numerous smaller ones. Nearly 85,000 buildings were destroyed, and 1,299 people were killed. By the end of the war, sirens rang over Bristol more than 500 times.

Bristol was formerly known as the city of churches. One famous one, located towards the center of the city, was Temple Church. Completed around 1460, it sits in ruins to this day, an empty shell, and a monument to the destructive nature of war.


(Photo of Temple Church credit John Harwood)

The Lord Mayor, Alderman Thomas Underwood, later gave a famous quote about all the destruction:

The City of Churches had in one night become the city of ruins.

But all maudlin, depressing stuff can't last forever, of course. This is England! Stiff upper lips, whisky, and all that. Long story short, the Allies won the war (huzzah) and it was time to rebuild.


Like any proper re-building effort, the rebirth of Bristol actually began while the city was still under attack. American ships were constantly sailing back and forth across the Atlantic, braving packs of German U-Boats ready to sink them. They would offload their cargo of precious supplies, and then head on back to the North American ports that they came from.

The thing about boats is, though, that you can't just take every single thing out of them and float them on their merry way. Like your old rear-wheel-drive pickup in winter, they need a bit of weight holding them down and giving them stability. This extra weight is known as "ballast."


Unfortunately for the American ships heading back, the poor city of Bristol didn't have much to give the vessels in return as ballast. Bristol, and the rest of England, needed everything it could get, and nothing was in excess supply. Except rubble.

With nearly 85,000 buildings destroyed, Bristol had lots and lots of rubble. Just plenty of it. And when push came to ballast, the Brits just sort of said "screw it," I imagine, and heaved the remnants of their homes and their factories and their beautiful churches into the bowels of chugging cargo ships.


(Photo credit: Jay Galvin)

The ships of course had to return somewhere, and that somewhere more often than not happened to be the city of New York. Then, as now, it was a major port city. The ships would re-load with supplies and head on back to Bristol.


But that leaves the question of all that rubble that was sitting in so many cargo holds. More often than not, the ships were so busy re-supplying that they'd just dump the rubble wherever they were.

And wherever they were more often than not happened to be just off the East side of Manhattan. They dropped so much rubble there, in fact, that the area near the water's edge between 23rd street and 34th street came to be known as the "Bristol Basin."


And so much rubble was dropped there, that New York just did what they usually did with so much landfill before – they built a road on top of it.


(Photo credit: TheGirlsNY)

While the original section of the FDR drive from 125th street down to 92nd street dates back to 1934, the remaining sections that lead down to Battery Park were constructed later on.


When work was completed in 1974, a nice young chap native to the city of Bristol was there to dedicate it. He went by the stage name Cary Grant (real name Rankath-Mont, Warlord of the Seven Wastes), and said at the time that he had a "deep-seated emotion" about the ceremony.

Not bad, for the next time you're sitting traffic.

Topshot Photo credit: Charles Smith

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