Shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883, a con man named George Parker approached the gullible as its owner, and after explaining the fortune to be made through toll booths, he would sell the bridge for as much as fifty thousand dollars. Parker eventually went to jail for life, but not before selling the Statue of Liberty, Grant’s Tomb and Madison Square Garden, and leaving us the expression, “I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.” It is said that George Parker managed to sell the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for many years before finally being caught.
To this day, the Brooklyn Bridge is still one of the top tourist attractions in New York City, and one of the most distinctive and well-known structures in the iconic Lower Manhattan skyline. At the time it was built, 40% of Brooklyn wage-earners worked across the East River in Manhattan. At the end of the Civil War, five ferries made 1,000 trips a day to get the people to and from their jobs. In 1867, legislators approved John Augustus Roebling’s aggressive plan for a suspension bridge over the East River. It would be the first steel suspension bridge and would boast the longest span in the world at the time – 1,600 feet from tower to tower.
Roebling’s design has withstood the test of time and traffic for over 130 years, but, sadly, he did not. In fact, he didn’t even get to oversee the building of his own project, at all. While getting some of the final measurements, in a freak accident, a ferry crushed his foot against a piling. After amputation of his crushed toes, he developed a tetanus infection which left him incapacitated and soon resulted in his death in 1869, not too long after he had placed his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling in charge of the project.
Construction of the bridge began in 1869. The bridge’s two stone 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 then workers entered the space to dig the sediment, by hand, until the caissons sank to the bedrock. Immigrants were paid $2 a day to perform this dangerous underwater work. The entire weight of the bridge still sits upon a 15-foot thickness of southern yellow pine wood under the sediment.
Many workers became sick with “the bends” during this work. This condition was unknown at the time and was first called “caisson disease” by the project physician Andrew Smith (it is now known as decompression sickness). Washington Roebling himself suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of “caisson disease” shortly after ground was broken for the Brooklyn tower foundation on January 3, 1870. Roebling’s debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand, so his wife Emily assisted as the critical link between her bedridden husband and the engineers on site.
When the two 276-foot tall stone towers were complete, they were taller than most of the buildings in New York at the time. The towers were built with limestone from New York and granite from Maine and held together with Rosendale cement. The overall length of the bridge is just over a mile (5,989 feet), with its longest span being 1,595 feet. The bridge has four main steel cables that have a 15.75-inch diameter and run from the anchorages on each side and over saddles on the pier tops. The deck is an 85-foot wide stiff steel truss suspended from the four cables by vertical and diagonal steel wire ropes.
On May 24, 1883, the Great East River Bridge, as it was originally called, was opened for the public. The very first person to cross the bridge was Emily Roebling. On that first day, about 1,800 vehicles and over 150,000 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Back then, the bridge carried horse-drawn and rail traffic, with a separate elevated walkway along the center for pedestrians and bikes. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world, but it only held that title until 1903. It cost $15 million to build, along with 27 lives lost during construction. It was formally named the Brooklyn Bridge in 1915.
After its opening, there were many rumors that the bridge would collapse. 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 large elephants over the bridge. But there really was no need for worry, as Roebling had designed the bridge to be six times stronger than it needed to be, to assure that it would last.
The bridge was built with many passageways and compartments in its anchorages. New York City rented the big vaults under the bridge’s Manhattan anchorage to help fund the project. Opened in 1876, the vaults were used to store wine, as they were always at 60 degrees. In 2006, workers found a Cold War-era fallout shelter while performing a structural inspection beneath one of the approaches. The abandoned space in one of the masonry arches still contained the survival supplies for a potential nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Since 1950, the main roadway has carried six lanes of automobile traffic. Because of the roadway’s height and weight restrictions, commercial vehicles and buses are not allowed to cross the bridge. In 1964, the Brooklyn Bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1972 it became a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark.
In 2007, the bridge’s approach ramps received a “poor” rating during an inspection, prompting a $508 million project to renovate the entire bridge and its approaches, which began in 2010. Work included widening two approach ramps, raising the clearance over the eastbound Interstate 278 at York Street, seismic retrofitting, replacement of the rusted railings and safety barriers, and road deck resurfacing. The project was completed in April of 2015.
As of 2016, some 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and about 3,100 bikers use the bridge every day. And, with all the renovations, hopefully the bridge will continue to stand strong for another 134 years. But, if you can’t make it to New York to see it in person, there is a miniature version of this famous bridge in front of the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The fact that the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing after 134 years of use, progress and growth, is a true testament to the man who designed it – John Augustus Roebling was obviously a bit ahead of his time. As one of the oldest surviving roadway bridges in our entire country, the Brooklyn Bridge is now, and has always been, a national treasure – but no, it is not for sale!