This wondrous bridge was the first to span the East River and connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. Upon completion it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, with its towers standing taller than the rest of the country’s man-made structures!
Designed by bridge-builder genius John Augustus Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge was an astonishing feat of engineering. Even though John Roebling could not have possibly anticipated the demands of our times — traffic and the sheer number of people in the city — his 19th-century design provided for them. At the time, the aerodynamics of bridge building had not been worked out, wind tunnel-testing for bridges did not exist, and many did indeed collapse. Roebling famously stated about the Brooklyn Bridge, however, that “The Bridge may sag, but it will not fall.”
The Brooklyn Bridge took 15 years to build and claimed 27 lives, starting with the life of its creator, John Roebling. During an inspection of the work site, an incoming ferry crushed his foot. The eccentric genius, who did not believe in medicine and treated every ailment with cold water, died of tetanus before the actual work on the bridge began.
The project fell on the able shoulders of his son Washington Roebling. In order to lay the foundation of the bridge, he designed caissons that were lowered to the riverbed, allowing workers to drill them into the riverbed. Since no one knew of the effects of underwater pressure at the time, the caissons were raised too fast for the workers’ bodies to adjust, causing terrible pains. This condition, which left some people paralyzed and others dead, was dubbed “the bends,” or caisson disease. Working alongside hired laborers in these caissons, Washington Roebling himself fell ill with “the bends” and was subsequently paralyzed for life.
When the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883 and connected the cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time in history, 1,800 vehicles and 150,000 excited people crossed it! The honor of being the first person to officially cross the bridge was bestowed upon Emily Roebling, the wife of Washington Roebling, who facilitated communication between her paralyzed husband and the workers.
Sometime after the bridge opened, an unfortunate accident occurred. A woman tripped and fell down the wooden stairs leading off the bridge on the Manhattan approach, inspiring another woman to scream, “The bridge is falling.” Assuming that the bridge was falling down, the panic-stricken crowd started a stampede trampling people to death (12 people were killed and 35 injured). Public confidence in the bridge was temporarily shaken but later restored in a most theatrical way by P. T. Barnum, the creator and co-owner of the famous Barnum and Bailey circus. A huge elephant named Jumbo, beloved by New Yorkers, fronted a group of 11 elephants paraded by Barnum down Broadway and across the Bridge. Due to the widely-held belief that an elephant would never set foot onto a wobbly surface, the elephants’ trek across the bridge proved the structure’s stability once and for all while simultaneously creating quite an advertisement for the Greatest Show on Earth.
The connection that the majestic bridge provided between the massive cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the course of New York City forever. In 1898, a mere few years after the bridge opened, the city of Brooklyn formally merged with New York City and other boroughs, forming Greater New York.
- Opened: 1883
- Architects: John Augustus Roebling, Washington Roebling
- Length: almost 6,000 feet (1.8 km)
- Lanes: 6 car lanes, with additional pedestrian walkways
- Cost: $15 million
- Casualties: 27 people dead
- Tower height above high water: 276 ft
- Foundation depth below high water: Brooklyn – 44 feet, Manhattan – 78 feet