A Mini History Lesson on the Brooklyn Bridge, Downtown’s Stunning Suspension
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of New York’s most famous landmarks, an incredible achievement in engineering that forever changed the city’s landscape. In addition to its impact on the skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge has been a pop culture phenomenon, earning starring roles in movies like “Newsies,” “Kate and Leopold” and “Enchanted,” as well as on this season of HBO’s “The Gilded Age.” Below, we’ve compiled the history of our favorite (er, only) Lower Manhattan bridge; read on, and be sure to add a walk over the East River to your next downtown visit.
Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869 after New York legislators approved John Augustus Roebling’s plan to build the first steel suspension bridge across the East River. Upon its completion in 1883, it was the longest, tallest suspension bridge in the world.
Almost immediately, the project was marred with mishaps. While standing on a dock just months before construction was to begin, John Roebling was fatally injured when an incoming ferry crushed his foot. He died of tetanus 17 days later, and his son Washington Roebling assumed leadership.
Explosions, fires, fraud and fatalities continued to hinder construction. But perhaps the most perilous element of the job was working in the caissons — large, airtight boxes that allowed the crew to work underwater and dig out a strong foundation for the bridge.
Workers, many of them immigrants making $2 a day, would crowd into the hot, uncomfortable boxes pinned to the riverbed by heavy rocks. Though it was fairly safe to work inside the caissons, it was the risk of getting “the bends” during the descent and ascent that proved especially dangerous.
Washington Roebling himself suffered from a case of decompression sickness so paralyzing, that he was forced to supervise the rest of the bridge construction through a telescope from his home. It was then that his wife, Emily Roebling, stepped into an essential role in the project.
Emily Roebling became a constant presence at the site, and took on the responsibilities of managing workers and city officials, attending board meetings and reporting information back to her husband. When the bridge opened in 1883, she was the first person to cross it.
From the gilded age to the 21st century, the Brooklyn Bridge has stood as a true feat of civil engineering. Each day, hundreds of thousands of pedestrians drive, walk or bike across its expanse, taking in the magnificent views of Lower Manhattan and the glittering blue of the river beneath it.
photo: iStockTags: brooklyn bridge