Human Interest

The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, May 24, 1883

How Was the Brooklyn Bridge Built?

May 23, 2008 01:01 PM
by Rachel Balik
As the famed monument celebrates its 125th anniversary, findingDulcinea looks back at the origins of the Brooklyn Bridge.

30-Second Summary

On May 22, the city of New York celebrated the 125th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge with fireworks and a performance by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Here, we recount some of the bridge’s most significant moments, beginning with its construction.

The visionary who designed the bridge and invented the metal cables essential to its construction died before the first stone was laid.

John A. Roebling, a German immigrant, had his foot crushed by a ferry in 1869. He died 16 days later, bequeathing the plans and the responsibility for completing them to his son Washington, a Civil War veteran.

Work began in 1870 with the submersion of the first caissons, airtight underwater chambers in which laborers worked in cramped, damp and dangerous conditions.

Returning to the surface, numbers of these men succumbed to the mysterious “caissons disease,” an illness now known as the bends or decompression sickness.

Between 20 to 50 men are said to have died from various causes while building the bridge.

According to Life magazine, Washington Roebling spent “more time in the caissons than anyone.” He fell ill and never fully recovered. By 1872, he had to withdraw from the site and oversee operations from his Brooklyn home.

The bridge opened on May 24, 1883, at a cost of $15 million. Originally, it was a toll bridge, charging 1 cent for humans and 2 cents for sheep to cross its 1,595-foot span.

During the Cold War, the bridge was used to store provisions in case of nuclear conflict, a fact forgotten until the stores were discovered in 2006.

In 2003, U.S. investigators uncovered an al-Qaida plot to destroy the bridge by cutting its support cables.

Washington Roebling died in 1926. He had completed his father’s work, but at a ruinous cost to his health.

Headline Link: ‘Brooklyn Bridge turns 125 with a bang’

Background: The building of the bridge

Historical Context: From Cold War to War on Terror

Reference: Take me to the bridge

Reference: Books


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