On This Day

Brooklyn Bridge, great east river suspension bridge, great east river bridge
Underhill/Library of Congress
The Brooklyn Bridge pictured in 1901.

On This Day: Construction Begins on the Brooklyn Bridge

January 03, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 3, 1870, Washington Roebling began construction on the Brooklyn Bridge; when it opened 13 years later, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world.

Spanning the East River

German immigrant John A. Roebling, the visionary who designed the bridge and invented the metal cables essential to ite construction, died before the first stone was laid. His foot crushed by a ferry in 1869 and 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, many of these men succumbed to the mysterious “caissons disease,” an illness now known as the bends or decompression sickness.
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 total 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.

The ‘Great East River Bridge’ was the largest bridge of its era, a technical achievement of unparalleled scope, marked by enormous construction problems, equally ingenious solutions and heroic human achievement,” writes PBS. “In unexpected and wonderful ways, the Brooklyn Bridge captured the imagination of all Americans, and in the process became a symbol in American culture of strength, vitality, ingenuity and promise.”

Historical Context: From Cold War to War on Terror

The Brooklyn Bridge has played a part in history, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. During the Cold War, the bridge was used to store provisions in case of nuclear conflict, a fact forgotten until water drums, medical supplies, paper blankets and 352,000 crackers were discovered by workers in 2006.

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

Reference: Viewing the bridge


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