Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States. Completed in 1883, it connects the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River. At 5,989 feet (1825 m), it was the longest suspension bridge in the world from its opening until 1903, and the first steel-wire suspension bridge. Contemporaries marveled at what technology was capable of and the bridge became a symbol of the optimism of the time. John Perry Barlow wrote in the late 20th century of the "literal and genuinely religious leap of faith" embodied in the Brooklyn Bridge ... "the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology."

Originally referred to as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, it was dubbed the Brooklyn Bridge in an 1867 letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle , and formally so named by the city government in 1915. Since its opening, it has become an iconic part of the New York skyline. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1972. At the time it opened, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50% longer than any previously built—and it has become a treasured landmark. For several years the towers were the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere. Since the 1980s, it has been floodlit at night to highlight its architectural features. The towers are built of limestone, granite, and Rosendale cement. Their architectural style is neo-Gothic, with characteristic pointed arches above the passageways through the stone towers.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to great fanfare in May 1883. The names of John A. Roebling, Washington Roebling, and Emily Warren Roebling are inscribed on the structure as its builders. It was initially designed by German-born John Augustus Roebling in Trenton, New Jersey. Roebling had earlier designed and constructed other suspension bridges, such as Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio, that served as the engineering prototypes for the final design.

During surveying for the East River Bridge project, Roebling's foot was badly injured by a ferry, pinning it against a piling. This badly crushed his toes, causing those toes to be amputated, leaving him incapacitated; he died shortly afterward of a tetanus infection caused by his injury and leaving his son, Washington Roebling, in charge of the bridge.

Construction began on January 3, 1870, under the supervision of the younger Roebling. Not long after taking charge of the bridge, Washington Roebling suffered a paralyzing injury as well, the result of decompression sickness. This condition plagued many of the underwater workers, in different capacities, as the condition was relatively unknown at the time and in fact was first called " caisson disease" by the project physician Dr. Andrew Smith. The occurrence of the disease in the caisson workers caused him to halt construction of the Manhattan side of the tower 30 feet ( 10 m) short of bedrock when soil tests underneath the caisson found bedrock to be even deeper than expected. Today, the Manhattan tower rests only on sand. Roebling's wife Emily Warren Roebling stepped in and provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on-site. Under her husband's guidance, Emily had studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting Washington Roebling helping to supervise the bridge's construction.

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed thirteen years later and was opened for use on May 24, 1883. The opening ceremony was attended by several thousand people and many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion. President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Franklin Edson crossed the bridge to celebratory cannon fire and were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low when they reached the Brooklyn-side tower. Arthur shook hands with Washington Roebling at the latter's home, after the ceremony. Roebling was unable to attend the ceremony (and in fact rarely visited the site again), but held a celebratory banquet at his house on the day of the bridge opening. Further festivity included the performance of a band, gunfire from ships, and a fireworks display.

On that first day, a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross the bridge. The bridge's main span over the East River is 1,595 feet 6 inches ( 486.3 m). The bridge cost $15.5 million to build and approximately 27 people died during its construction.

One week after the opening, on May 30, 1883, a rumor that the Bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede, which crushed and killed at least twelve people. On May 17, 1884, P. T. Barnum helped to squelch doubts about the bridge's stability—while publicizing his famous circus—when one of his most famous attractions, Jumbo, led a parade of 21 elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge.

At the time the bridge was built, the aerodynamics of bridge building had not been worked out. Bridges were not tested in wind tunnels until the 1950s—well after the collapse of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge (Galloping Gertie) in 1940. It is therefore fortunate that the open truss structure supporting the deck is by its nature less subject to aerodynamic problems. Roebling designed a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as he thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished into history and been replaced. This is also in spite of the substitution of inferior quality wire in the cabling supplied by the contractor J. Lloyd Haigh—by the time it was discovered, it was too late to replace the cabling that had already been constructed. Roebling determined that the poorer wire would leave the bridge four rather than six times as strong as necessary, so it was eventually allowed to stand, with the addition of 250 cables. Diagonal cables were installed from the towers to the deck, intended to stiffen the bridge. They turned out to be unnecessary, but were kept for their distinctive beauty.

After the collapse in 2007 of the I-35W highway bridge in the city of Minneapolis, increased public attention has been brought to bear on the condition of bridges across the US, and it has been reported that the Brooklyn Bridge approach ramps received a rating of "poor" at its last inspection. According to a NYC Department of Transportation spokesman, "The poor rating it received does not mean it is unsafe. Poor means there are some components that have to be rehabilitated." A $725 million project to replace the approaches and repaint the bridge was scheduled to begin in 2009.

The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is detailed in the 1978 book The Great Bridge by David McCullough and Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the first PBS documentary film ever made by Ken Burns. Burns drew heavily on McCullough's book for the film and used him as narrator. It is also described in Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, a BBC docudrama series with accompanying book.


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