Monday, May 24, 2010

Brooklyn Bridge Opens on May 24, 1883

After 14 years and 27 deaths, the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River, was opened. It connected the cities of New York and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Thousands of residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan turned out to witness the dedication ceremony, which was presided over by President Chester A. Arthur and New York Governor, Grover Cleveland. Designed by the late John A. Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge was the largest suspension bridge ever built to that date.

John Roebling, born in Germany in 1806, was a great pioneer in the design of steel suspension bridges. Roebling is credited with a major breakthrough in suspension-bridge technology: a web truss added to either side of the bridge roadway that greatly stabilized the structure. Using this model, Roebling successfully bridged the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls, New York, and the Ohio River at Cincinnati. On the basis of these achievements, New York State accepted Roebling's design for a bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan--with a span of 1,595 feet--and appointed him chief engineer. It was to be the world's first steel suspension bridge.

Just before construction began in 1869, Roebling was fatally injured while taking a few final compass readings across the East River. A boat smashed the toes on one of his feet, and three weeks later he died of tetanus. He was the first of more than two dozen people who would die building his bridge. His 32-year-old son, Washington A. Roebling, took over as chief engineer. Roebling had worked with his father on several bridges and had helped design the Brooklyn Bridge.

The two granite foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge were built in timber caissons, or watertight chambers, sunk to depths of 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the New York side. Compressed air pressurized the caissons, allowing underwater construction. At that time, little was known of the risks of working under such conditions, and more than a hundred workers suffered from cases of compression sickness, or the "bends," is caused by the appearance of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream that result from rapid decompression. Several died, and Washington Roebling himself became bedridden from the condition in 1872. Other workers died from collapses and a fire.

Roebling continued to direct construction operations from his home, and his wife, Emily, carried his instructions to the workers. In 1877, Washington and Emily moved into a home with a view of the bridge. Roebling's health gradually improved, but he remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. On May 24, 1883, Emily Roebling was given the first ride over the completed bridge, with a rooster, a symbol of victory, in her lap. Within 24 hours, an estimated 250,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, using a broad promenade above the roadway that John Roebling designed solely for the enjoyment of pedestrians.

The Brooklyn Bridge, with its unprecedented length and two stately towers, was dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world." The connection it provided between the massive population centers of Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the course of New York City forever. In 1898, the city of Brooklyn formally merged with New York City, Staten Island, and a few farm towns, forming Greater New York. (Information was taken from several on-line sources. The pictures are from Wikipedia.)

Two movies that feature the Brooklyn Bridge: the awesome Moonstruck with Cher and Nicholas Cage and the cute Kate and Leopold with Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman.

Also, on May 24, 1941, the German battleship, Bismarck, was sunk in the Atlantic, which provided a much needed victory to the British and raised British morale.


  1. "Roebling continued to direct construction operations from his home, and his wife, Emily, carried his instructions to the workers."

    This shows total dedication. Their hearts and souls were in it.It is an inspiring story.

    I've been to New York, one of my few trips to your country, and seen the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge is a synthesis of purpose and design. The fact that it is still used today, greatly loved and an iconic part of the New York skyline, is testimony to the designer and builders.It is a work of art.

  2. Just checked Wikapaedia. You said that the Brooklyn Bridge was the first steel suspension bridge. I thought the suspension bridge at Bristol, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel might be earlier. The Clifton suspension bridge, at Bristol, was opened in 1864 but it was made of iron and only 702 feet.
    There were even earlier suspension bridges(smaller) but they were also made of iron.

  3. About 20 years ago, I was stuck in traffic near the Brooklyn Bridge on a long Thanksgiving weekend. It was a Friday, and there is a significant Hasidic Jewish community that lives in Brooklyn, but works in Manhattan. As sundown approached, there were all these Jewish men running across the bridge with their black hats and side curls trying to get home before sun down on the sabbath. I wish I had a camera b/c it was a fasicnating juxtaposition between ancient and modern. The bridge itself is a marvel.

  4. Thanks Mary. This is a very interesting post, and something I was always curious about.