Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hidden names bridging the Turnpike

I expected that a quick stop at the Turnpike's Alexander Hamilton Service Area might elicit a brief lesson on our first Secretary of the Treasury, but I found something I didn't anticipate. Walking to the building from my parked car, I saw not one, but five large plaques arranged in a semicircle, ringing an accompanying brass map. They're dedicated to a valorous group of New Jerseyans: six war heroes plus two individuals who distinguished themselves in service to the Turnpike.

A little research revealed that most if not all of the plaques were once affixed to Turnpike bridges that were named for each of the honorees, as noted on the brass map. Each bridge is nearest the pike gets to the honoree's hometown, more or less.

Given the history of the Turnpike, it's entirely fitting that several bridges are named for those who died during wartime. The highway was constructed not long after the conclusion of World War II, and several of its executives and employees were veterans.

  • The Wallberg-Lovely Bridge crossing the Rahway River above Exit 12 is dedicated to the first two New Jerseyans to die in World War I. Martin Wallberg of Westfield was a Private with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces when he died on November 10, 1917, while Private Luke Lovely of South Amboy died 20 days later, while serving with the American forces.
  • The Lewandowski Bridge is named for three brothers from Lyndhurst - Army Private Alexander, Marine Sergeant Walter and Air Force Lieutenant William - who perished within 18 months of each other during World War II. Their bridge is better known as the Eastern Spur, which soars over the Meadowlands, hugging Laurel Hill.
  • The Chaplain Washington Bridge honors Rev. John Washington of Newark, one of four heroic chaplains who gave their own life jackets to sailors during the sinking of the Troopship Dorchester during World War II. His bridge spans the Passaic River north of Exit 14.
  • An additional bridge honors Marine Sergeant and Medal of Honor winner John Basilone of Raritan, yet it's not represented at the Hamilton Service Area. Basilone's bridge spans the Raritan River north of New Brunswick.*  

Two more bridges honor civilians:

  • The Laderman Bridge crosses the Hackensack and honors toll collector Harry Laderman of Fair Lawn. The first Turnpike employee to die on the job, Laderman was killed when a truck rammed his booth. His death also spurred the Turnpike Authority to protect the booths with cement blocks to prevent additional accidents. 
  • The Vincent Casciano Bridge recognizes the State Assemblyman from Bayonne who advocated the construction of the Newark Bay Extension. Linking the Turnpike to the Holland Tunnel, the Extension was designed to ease congestion on the Pulaski Skyway. Appropriately, his bridge is the cantilever structure on the Extension over Newark Bay.

There are a few ironies attached to these plaques and their original placement. For safety reasons, the Turnpike was designed to create as few distractions to the motorist as possible. It's utilitarian, curves are virtually non-existent on the main road, and elevations are generally gradual to reduce the need for acceleration. Bridges were expressly designed to be virtually undetectable to the motorist - consider that a good percentage of the Eastern Spur is elevated, but just about nobody would equate it to the nearby Pulaski Skyway. If you define a bridge by the metalwork or wire rope seen on the George Washington or Goethals, you could say the Turnpike has precious few bridges. And if people did consider the bridges at all, they wouldn't have time to read a commemorative plaque at highway speed.

So, perhaps it's a good thing those plaques are posted at Alexander Hamilton, where motorists can pause for a few moments to appreciate the honorees. Now if the Turnpike would just put more effort into sprucing up the markers that memorialize the folks the service areas are named for...

* I later discovered a similar plaque for the Basilone bridge at the nearby Joyce Kilmer Service Area.

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