It is arguably the most famous bridge in the world, totaling 6000 feet in length, making it one of the longest bridges ever built. Its construction was made possible by a special “steel rope” suspension wire, which was invented and manufactured by the engineer, architect and visionary who designed the bridge, John Roebling. He was born in 1806 in Prussia, but he would die before work on the bridge even began — one of some two dozen lives sacrificed to the bridge’s creation and completion.
John Roebling was succeeded by his son, Washington Roebling, who also nearly died of the bends while overseeing the bridge’s construction, and although the son survived, he was permanently bedridden. As a result, his wife Emily became the de facto chief engineer, relaying his instructions (from his sick bed he could see the site) to the crew chiefs, while also supervising the construction, negotiating with local politicians, dealing with the media and even checking the books. Of all of the heroes of the Brooklyn Bridge story, Emily Roebling is the most unsung.
Worker death and injury were not the bridge’s only problems. Over the 14 years it took to build it, there were several fires, numerous explosions, and one memorable compressed air blast that destroyed one of the pneumatic caissons that allowed workers to lay the underwater foundations. Fraud was also a problem, with one contractor indicted for supplying substandard cable.
But like its home city of New York, the Brooklyn Bridge thrived on adversity, and finally, this week (May 24) in 1883, it was opened to the public, majestically spanning the East River and connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn. An opening day toll of one penny was charged to the pedestrians and cyclists who crossed the bridge (another 25 years would pass before Henry Ford’s massed-produced autos began clogging its six lanes), which was later increased to three cents and charged until the bridge — which cost $15 million to build (more than $1.7 billion today) — was finally paid for.
Today, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge is internationally renowned and an integral part of the lore of New York City. It has starred in films, inspired poets, and served as a backdrop for countless photographs and paintings. It is, in a way, the quintessential American story, designed by an immigrant and built by his native-born son — a vision made into a monument by hard work, sacrifice, pluck and luck.
“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” is a familiar refrain in Brooklyn, but the truth is they have never made ‘em like the Brooklyn Bridge. It spans a river, but also an era. It connects two city boroughs, but it also connects our present with our past.