Amazing Feat of the Brooklyn Bridge

On this day in 1883, the The New York and Brooklyn Bridge is opened for cart, carriage and pedestrian traffic. Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony, and many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion. President Chester A. Arthur and 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. However, the good tidings belied the arduous tasks required to even get approval for a span.

The bridge was conceived by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling in 1852, a civil engineer who spent part of the next 15 years working to sell the idea. He had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges, such as the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky, but had not built a span as long as required over the East River in NYC. After years of lobbying, in February 1867, the New York State Senate passed a bill that allowed the construction of a suspension bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company was incorporated.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869; ironically, Roebling himself had passed leadership of the project to his son Washington Roebling before dying from tetanus that very year. The bridge’s two towers were built by floating two caissons, giant upside-down boxes made of southern yellow pine, in the span of the East River, and then beginning to build the stone towers on top of them until they sank to the bottom of the river. 

Compressed air was pumped into the caissons, and workers entered the space to dig the sediment, until the caissons sank to the bedrock. The whole weight of the bridge still sits upon 15-foot-thick southern yellow-pine wood under the sediment. Stranger still, an anchorage of the structure sits on property known as 1 Cherry Street, the first Presidential mansion which housed Ga. Washington and family.

Young Roebling, partially paralyzed by a case of the bends during underwater hands-on work, supervised construction from his apartment window. Meanwhile his brilliant wife Emily Warren Roebling worked on sight providing the higher mathematics, calculations of catenary curves, strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and intricacies of cable construction to make the project run. She spent the next 11 years helping to supervise the bridge’s construction.

On opening day, 135 years ago, 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. The bridge cost $15.5 million in 1883 dollars (about $393,964,000 in today’s dollars) to build, and an estimated 27 men died during its construction.

Contemporaries marveled at what technology was capable of, as it was the longest suspension span in the world–50% longer than any previously built and holding that record for several years. A cultural icon and symbol of the optimism at the time of construction, modern Poet John Perry Barlow wrote in the late 20th century of the “literal and genuinely religious leap of faith” embodied in the feat; “the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology.”