On This Day

brooklyn bridge, east river bridge
Library of Congress
The Brooklyn Bridge pictured in 1885.

On This Day: Brooklyn Bridge Opened to the Public

May 24, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge, which took 13 years to construct, opened, owning the title of longest suspension bridge in the world for nearly a decade.

Ceremony Held for Opening of Brooklyn Bridge

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The Brooklyn Bridge, also known then as the Great East River Bridge, opened after 13 years of construction at a cost of $15 million. The world’s largest suspension bridge, it was dubbed the eight wonder of the world.

The May 24, 1883, issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote: “Proudly uprearing its mighty towers, secure in the integrity of its massive cables, spanning with the graceful arch of its splendid superstructure the perilous rush of the swiftly flowing river, the great bridge, which is in the future to weld together the two cities, stands to-day a completed monument to human ingenuity, mechanical genius and engineering skill.”

The first person to cross was the wife of bridge project engineer Washington Roebling, Emily Roebling, who traversed in a carriage. Mrs. Roebling was a key figure in the construction of the bridge: She took over many of her husband’s duties after he suffered a case of caisson disease, now known as decompression sickness or the bends.

President Chester A. Arthur led the first walk over the bridge, afterwards visiting the bedridden Washington Roebling at his home. The bridge opened to traffic at 2 p.m. after an opening ceremony, at a cost of one cent per person and two cents per sheep.

That night, “Torches, bon fires and rockets lit up the sky on that wildly celebrative night,” wrote Life magazine in 1954. “So on the bridge itself did 80 big lamps that were miraculously operated by electricity.”

Six days after the bridge opened, at least 12 people were killed in a stampede caused when thousands of pedestrians, skittish about the stability of the bridge, became panicked after hearing a scream. A year later, circus giant P.T. Barnum took up the task of proving the bridge’s strength when he ushered 21 elephants back and forth across it.

Background: Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

John Roebling, an engineering visionary, designed the Brooklyn Bridge and invented the metal cables essential to its construction. But a freak accident wound up killing Roebling before construction even began.

Roebling’s son, Washington, a Civil War veteran, inherited the task of overseeing the bridge’s construction. Work began with the submersion of the first caissons, airtight underwater chambers that were construct the foundations.

Many of the laborers who worked in these dangerous conditions succumbed to what was then called caisson disease. Between 20 to 50 men are said to have died from various causes while building the bridge.

Reference: Visiting the Brooklyn Bridge

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