Elegantly spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge has been one of New York City’s most famous and celebrated landmarks for well over a century now. Though no longer the longest bridge in the world, it remains one of the most beautiful and iconic to this day, crossed by millions of tourists each year and often used in establishing shots of movies set in New York City. Few people, however, recognize the bridge’s true importance to the city’s history and the blood, sweat and tears that went into building this marvel of engineering. Here’s a quick look at the hidden history of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In the middle of the 19th century, plans were first proposed to link New York City and Brooklyn, then separate cities, via a new bridge spanning the East River. Plans for a bridge to link the cities were finally solidified in the 1860s and construction began in 1869. The construction process of the bridge, initially known as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge and then the East River Bridge before finally becoming known as the Brooklyn Bridge, was fraught with difficulty and took over a decade to complete.
The bridge’s designer, a German immigrant named John Augustus Roebling, died from a tetanus infection after accidentally crushing his foot between a ferry and a piling while overseeing the early stages of the construction process. His son, Washington Roebling, took the helm of the construction process and vowed to see it through until the end. Further complications arose when some workers suffered from decompression sickness while building the bridge’s caissons in the East River while other workers perished in falls, falling stones and other deadly accidents that plagued the bridge’s construction. All in all, some 27 people died while working on the construction of the new bridge.
Finally, after some 14 years of construction, the bridge opened to the public as the longest suspension bridge in the world on May 24, 1883 with great fanfare in an event attended by thousands of New Yorkers and Brooklynites as well as President Chester A. Arthur. Tragedy struck just days after its opening when a stampede on the bridge’s crowded walkway killed 12 people. Despite the bridge’s popularity, many doubted it could hold up for long with so many people crossing it on a daily basis. Helping to put to rest any doubts about the bridge’s stability – as well as promote his circus – P.T. Barnum famously led 22 elephants across the bridge on May 17, 1884, putting to rest any doubts about its strength and engineering.
Ultimately, the bridge helped to strengthen the economic links between Brooklyn and New York City, leading to a drive to consolidate the two. This ultimately led to the creation of the modern five boroughs of New York City after a public vote in 1898. Attesting its preeminent engineering, architectural and historical importance, the Brooklyn Bridge was named a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1972.
Today, well over a century after its opening, the Brooklyn Bridge remains a New York City icon. Just as in the 19th century, thousands of New Yorkers and visitors alike cross the bridge on a daily basis to commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan and take in the sweeping views all around.