Iconic suspension bridge connecting Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn
Written for Place Matters by Prithi Kanakamedala
Dubbed the âEighth Wonder of the Worldâ when it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River from City Hall Park to Brooklyn Heights, is one of the oldest bridges in the United States. The Brooklyn Bridge is a designated National Historic Landmark and New York City landmark, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The bridge continues to receive worldwide recognition both as an historic engineering milestone and for its elegant architectural design.
On January 23, 1867, five thousand New Yorkers walked across the frozen East River. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one man âwith more lungs and vanity than the majorityâ ran across six times. The frozen ice restrained the ferries that usually transported commuters between the separate, vibrant cities of Brooklyn and New York (or Manhattan) and crippled business. Brooklynites had...
Written for Place Matters by Prithi Kanakamedala
Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River from City Hall Park to Brooklyn Heights, is one of the oldest bridges in the United States. The Brooklyn Bridge is a designated National Historic Landmark and New York City landmark, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The bridge continues to receive worldwide recognition both as an historic engineering milestone and for its elegant architectural design.
On January 23, 1867, five thousand New Yorkers walked across the frozen East River. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one man “with more lungs and vanity than the majority” ran across six times. The frozen ice restrained the ferries that usually transported commuters between the separate, vibrant cities of Brooklyn and New York (or Manhattan) and crippled business. Brooklynites had often remarked during the nineteenth century that their city contained none of the chaos and overcrowding that typified neighboring New York. The Brooklyn Bridge eventually changed these neat distinctions.
The unusually harsh winter of 1866/ 1867 provided the impetus for city officials to promote the creation of a bridge that would connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Bridge Company hired John A. Roebling, a German immigrant who had settled in Pennsylvania in 1831, as the chief engineer based on his work for the International Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls. On September 1, 1867, Roebling submitted a plan for a suspension bridge of unprecedented dimensions. It would be wider than Manhattan’s Broadway to allow for streetcars, and tall enough to avoid the East River’s strong currents and allow ships to pass through. At the time, it was one of the largest structures ever built in North America, and it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
But the story of the bridge’s construction includes displacement, disease and death. Irish, Italian and African American communities living around Chatham, Water, and Duane Streets in Manhattan were displaced in order to allow for the approaches that would eventually lead to the Brooklyn Bridge. In Brooklyn, an area around the Fulton Ferry landing including James Street was razed. With it the history and achievement of its early African American residents, who had lived there from the early- to mid-1800s, disappeared too. The Brooklyn Bridge’s chief engineer, John Roebling, died on July 22, 1869 after developing an infection from an accident that crushed his foot, left him paralyzed and eventually comatose. His son, Washington Roebling, was appointed chief engineer and oversaw the construction of 300-ton pneumatic caissons. These watertight boxes were submerged into the East River, allowing workmen to dig to bedrock and erect the bridge’s huge towers. The workers were Irish, German, Italian, English, African American, and at least one Chinese-born labored in their ranks. They worked in eight-hour shifts, using limelight to assist with the claustrophobic descent. As the caissons went deeper, the workers suffered immeasurably. They soon developed decompression disease (“caissons disease” or “the bends”) with agonizing cramps, vomiting, blood emerging from their nose and mouths, and sometimes paralysis or death. The disease affected Washington Roebling, who was eventually bed-ridden. His wife, Emily Roebling, taught herself the principles of mathematics and engineering, and oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge until its completion.
On May 4, 1883, fifteen years after it was conceived, the Brooklyn Bridge officially opened. It had cost $15.1 million, twice the budgeted amount. Its first passenger was Emily Roebling, who traveled across the Brooklyn Bridge in a horse-drawn carriage carrying a rooster. The bridge’s neo-Gothic piers were realized in stone, and the steel-wires won accolades for their spidery strength. However, several days after the bridge opened, rumors about a potential collapse began to circulate, causing a stampede that resulted in the death of twelve of people. P.T. Barnum soon allayed the public’s fears by successfully and safely parading a cadre twenty-one circus elephants, seven camels, and ten dromedaries across the structure. The crossing, which began at 9:30pm, was illuminated by the bridge’s electric lights.
In 1898, Manhattan united with Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island to form Greater New York City. The Brooklyn Bridge displaced New Yorkers who had lived on either side of the East River where the approaches to the bridge now stood, but it also made Brooklyn accessible to Manhattan’s immigrant working class. As a result, many Irish, Italian and Jewish families moved to Brooklyn from the overcrowded lower Manhattan tenement districts. The bridge also obviated the ferry service that had shuttled commerce and communities between Brooklyn and New York for over a century. As the 20th century progressed, the area’s shipping industry declined, as did its once-booming waterfront. Between 1956 and 1964, the New York City Dock Company built thirteen piers to accommodate larger ships, but cargo ship operations were ceased in 1983.
Today, residents and visitors alike cross the historic Brooklyn Bridge by the thousands on a daily basis. The Manhattan approach to the bridge begins at City Hall Park, and on the Brooklyn side, the bridge connects vehicles to Middagh Street, Old Fulton Street, Tillary Street, Adams Street and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. At the bridge’s eastern foot, the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park was developed to revitalize Brooklyn’s post-industrial waterfront. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy began advocating for the park’s creation in 1989, and in 2002 Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki agreed to the park’s construction. Two years later, landscape architects from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associations created designs for Brooklyn Bridge Park, the first portion of which opened in 2010.
Featured in poems, novels, photography, television and movies, the Brooklyn Bridge continues to capture our imaginations and serve as an inspiring symbol of the great city of New York.
Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
Ellen M. Snyder Grenier, Brooklyn! An Illustrated History (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1996)
Bridge: noun/verb - A connection / to bring together
The sight of flowing water makes me feel hopeful and free. I was born near a river, and live next to another one. Now I live near the Brooklyn Bridge and walk it at least once a week in every season. At mid-span, I look out on the East and Hudson RIvers which flow out to the open sea. Other have been here before, to fish, and hunt, to explore, to settle, to set down their roots. Every day people come to take in the big view; the ferries, the yachts, the sailboats, the famous landmarks, the distant freighters and tankers, the far-off cranes, the swirl of gulls and pigeons, the vigorous flow of car traffic, the curve of the Bridges cables, the solidity of its soaring towers, its dizzying mix of curve and line, as if its very design invoked the connectivity it brings about. Two sides of the city I love, water and land, are bound to each other, and along the Bridges span, in fair weather and foul, people come from all over the world to look, to marvel, to celebrate the moment of being there, on the Brooklyn Bridge. (March 2012)