One of the world’s most famous bridges, who could think that a steel roadway could engender such controversy and passion? Yet, that’s the history of the Brooklyn Bridge since before its construction began to the present day.
Initiated by John A. Roebling, who by 1867 had already created other noted bridges, the project took years to even begin. As with most large-scale efforts, finance and politics struggled while the citizens of Brooklyn and Manhattan waited.
Finally, in 1870, construction began – sadly, without J.A. Roebling who by that time had died from an injury sustained earlier on the site. His son Washington, by now also an accomplished bridge engineer, immediately took over direction of the project.
He threw himself into the effort with such active participation that he too eventually suffered a debilitating injury. He became crippled from the bends. Excess nitrogen build-up in caissons, large airtight cylinders used to house men and equipment under the East River, produced the now-familiar ‘diving sickness’ when men moved back to the surface. At the time, the causes were poorly understood.
Though bedridden, after partial recovery Washington continued to supervise from his apartment. Active management of the project passed to his wife, Emily. Their joint efforts led – after many stalls from political interference and financial and construction difficulties – to the completed structure, in 1883.
On its first day the new roadway above the East River joining Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights hosted 150,000 people and 1,800 cars. Each person paid one cent to cross, vehicles five cents. The bridge was a success – artistically, financially, and technologically.
This National Historic landmark now provides a path for over 140,000 vehicles daily across its 1,595 foot (486m) span. The bridge is recognized the world over for the two Gothic towers 276 feet (84m) high, which support the at-the-time innovative suspension cables. The distinctive red paint and numerous designs add to the beauty that’s perfectly integrated into the brilliant engineering.
Still today thousands stand far away to get a breathtaking view, then walk the bridge to see both the view of Manhattan and to experience the structure itself.
The breezy walk can take as short as half an hour, to an hour or more. Along the way there are several plaques that provide interesting historical tidbits about the construction, the participants, and the views one might have seen in 1883.
They provide descriptions of Ellis Island, the first stopping point for many of the immigrants arriving in America at the time, as well as Governor’s Island (a former Coast Guard installation).
From the bridge, pedestrians can look out and see the Statue of Liberty off the southern tip of Manhattan as well as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island to the south.
Getting there is easy from either the Brooklyn or Manhattan side. In Manhattan, just take the 4,5,6 to Brooklyn Bridge or the J/M/Z to Chambers St. In Brooklyn just take the A to High St. The walkway entrance is near the Federal Court Building.
Be sure to take a jacket and guard your hat. The wind over the East River can be cold and strong.