This tiny park which serves as part of the approach to the Washington Bridge is named in honor of World War I soldier Corporal Richard J. McNally. McNally lived at 392 Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights. He served in Company M of the 107th Infantry, and was killed in action on September 29, 1918, shortly before hostilities ceased.
The original design for the Washington Bridge was determined by a competition in the 1880s, which was won by Charles Conrad Schneider. After reviewing Schneider’s plans, however, the project was deemed too expensive, and his proposal was combined with the simpler design of second-place finisher William Hildebrand. The result was what many consider the finest steel-arched bridge of the 19th century, a bridge that was described as the “glory of the Harlem River.” Approaches to the bridge were made of arched masonry, which gave way to two broad steel spans, one across the Harlem River and the other across the tracks of the New York Central Railroad. The bridge also includes a decorative cast-iron cornice and balustrade. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, the bridge was also technically innovative, as it was the first arched bridge to use plated girders. Opened in 1889, the bridge was named in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s (1732-1799) inauguration as president. Washington Bridge is the third oldest surviving bridge in the city, after the High Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The surrounding neighborhood of Washington Heights was named for the brilliant military leader and our nation’s first president because of the history of the area. Nearby Laurel Hill Terrace dates back to the time before the Revolution when it was covered with Laurel bushes. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army constructed a fort on a westerly ridge at what is now Fort Washington Avenue, between 181st and 186th Streets. Washington’s outnumbered troops lost the fort on November 16, 1776, as part of his unsuccessful defense of Manhattan. On November 25, 1783, exactly seven years after the city was evacuated by the Americans, Washington and his army returned triumphantly to watch the British retreat. Washington later lived in Manhattan from 1789-90 when the city served as the fledgling nation’s capital.
During the mid-18th century, Washington Heights became an exclusive retreat for prominent New Yorkers. By 1904, the Broadway subway line stretched up to the southern portion of the neighborhood, and was extended northward in 1906. This transportation improvement led to the widespread growth of the area. In 1912, developers built the Polo Grounds stadium on 155th Street, at Coogan’s Bluff, where the New York Giants played baseball from 1913 until 1957, when they left for San Francisco. In 1931, the George Washington Bridge was completed, thereby linking New Jersey with 181st Street in Manhattan. In 1932, the 8th Avenue subway opened on the west side to serve the growing community. The population of Washington Heights continued to swell in the 1980s, when it attracted the largest number of immigrants of any neighborhood in New York City.
Parcels of land in the area, including this site, were acquired by the City between 1876 and 1895 to create Highbridge Park which boasts important natural assets including open vistas and an unusual geologic makeup. Among its strongest features are the magnificent cliffs and large rock outcroppings that dominate the park. On December 14, 1920, the Board of Aldermen named this small section of the park McNally Plaza and erected a plaque to honor the local soldier who had recently been killed in World War I.