How many times have you heard someone comment, “If you believe that I’ve got a bridge I can sell you…” Needless to see there are several different versions of conveying the message but most of us who have spent time in New York, know that the bridge in question is the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge spans New York City’s East River, linking the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since May, 24, 1883, its granite towers and steel cables have offered a safe passage to millions of commuters and tourists, trains and bicycles, pushcarts and cars. It has been named in books, used in movies, and when the World Trade Center was hit by terrorists, it gave safe passage to throngs of traumatized people escaping lower Manhattan on foot.
It took 14 years to build the bridge with 600 workers at a cost of $15 million (more than $320 million in today’s dollars). At least 27 people died during construction, including its original designer. Now 128 years old, this iconic feature of the New York City skyline carries approximately 150,000 vehicles and pedestrians every day.
The bridge was designed by John A. Roebling and was the largest suspension bridge ever built. Thousands of residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan Island turned out to witness the dedication ceremony, presided over by Chester Arthur (1829-1886 the 21st U.S. president, took office after the death of President James Garfield 1831-1881) and New York Governor Grover Cleveland.
Although suspension bridges were widely used, they were known to fail under heavy loads or strong winds. Roebling was credited with a breakthrough in the technology by adding a web truss to either side of the bridge roadway, which greatly stabilized the structure.
By using this model he successfully bridge the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls, New York, as well as the, Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio. Because of these achievements he was given the go-ahead to start work on the world’s first steel suspension bridge.
Roebling, however, was never to see his great achievement. Just before construction began in1869, he was fatally injured while taking final compass readings across the East River. A boat smashed the toes on one of his feet and he died three weeks later of tetanus.
His son Washington A. Roebling took over as chief engineer. Washington had worked with his father on several bridges and had helped him design the Brooklyn Bridge.
John Roebling’s death was just the start of a difficult journey. The two granite foundations of the bridge were built in watertight chambers need to be sunk to depths of 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the New York side. Compressed air pressurized watertight chambers but little known about the compression sickness we know as the “bends”, caused by nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. Over 100 workers suffered from the “bends” and several died. Washington Roebling himself became bedridden from the condition in1872 and continued to run construction from his home. Other workers died as a result of other construction accidents.
On May, 24, 1883, Emily Roebling was given the first ride over the bridge, carrying a rooster (a symbol of victory) in her lap. And, within 24 hours about 250,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge using a promenade above the roadway.
The bridge was dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” and the connection between the massive populations of Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the course of New York City. In 1898, the city of Brooklyn merged with New York City, Staten Island, and a few farm towns, to form Greater New York.