Brooklyn Bridge During Snowstorm at Sunset, 2010 by James Maher.
(*I write these articles because I love the city and the incredible stories behind each grand structure. You can help support my photography by purchasing an archival print of the Bridge for your home. Photos with links below them are for sale.)
The single greatest wonderment of the Brooklyn Bridge is not its size, beauty, function or even technology, but the fact that it was created by hand. When construction began, neither the light bulb nor the telephone (nor the jackhammer) had been invented. It is truly the Great Pyramid of bridges.
(*For the best personal and private Brooklyn Bridge Walking Tour in the city, take the tour given by Levy's Unique New York. They are my favorite tour guides in the city.)
The fourteen year construction took the lives on many men, killed the architect, and crippled his son. It was construction on a scale that had never been done before, and without some of the modern conveniences that we now take for granted.
John A. Roebling
Because of the scale of the bridge, suspending over one of the largest and busiest waterways in the country, the plans for it were a work of true vision. The creator, famous bridge designer John A. Roebling, was perhaps one of the few people who could have even dreamed of the practical possibility at the time, and it was his invention of the wire rope that even made it possible.
Building a bridge across the East River had been talked about since the early 1800s, but had never been attempted because of the difficulty. But in just three months in 1867, Roebling created the entire plan for the bridge, down to the exact specifications. These plans were soon accepted and funded by the New York Bridge Company, run by a group of prominent leaders dedicated to erecting the bridge.
Brooklyn Tower, 2003 by James Maher.
"The contemplated work, when constructed in accordance with my design, will not only be the greatest bridge in existence, but it will be the great engineering work of the continent and of the age. Its most conspicuous feature - the great towers - will serve as landmarks to the adjoining cities, and they will be entitled to be ranked as national monuments. As a great work of art, and a successful specimen of advanced bridge engineering, the structure will forever testify to the energy, enterprise, and wealth of that community which shall secure its erection."
- "Report" to the New York Bridge Company, September 1, 1867 by John A. Roebling.
A month after his plans were accepted, while examining locations for the Brooklyn tower site, Roebling's foot was crushed on a pier by a ferry. Roebling died 17 days later from tetanus.
Suddenly, Roebling's 32 year old son Washington, also a bridge builder, was in charge of one of the toughest engineering projects in history. The plans had been created, but they had never been tested on a project with close to the same magnitude.
"Here I was 32 years old, suddenly in charge of the most stupendous engineering structure of the age, with only preparatory plans, nothing fixed or decided. The prop on which I hitherto leaned had fallen. Henceforth, I must rely on myself."
- Washington Roebling.
Soon after ground was broken, problems became immediately apparent with the two 3,000 ton caissons (airtight cylinders sunk to the riverbed that allowed workers to build a foundation for the towers into the bedrock). Caissons of this magnitude had never before been created, and work in them was miserable and deadly.
The Caisson, 1883
"Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance. There was a confused sensation in the head, like the rush of many waters. The pulse was at first accelerated, then sometimes fell below the normal rate. The voice sounded faint, unnatural, and it became a great effort to speak. What with the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, if of a poetic temperament, get a realizing sense of Dante's inferno. One thing to me was noticeable, time passed quickly in the caisson."
- E.F. Farrington, master mechanic for Washington Roebling.
Construction of the Brooklyn caisson hit bedrock after around 44 feet and was filled with concrete to create the base. The Manhattan caisson was much more dangerous. The plan was originally to lower it 106 feet to hit the bedrock, but as they got lower and lower, and the dangers became more apparent, Washington Roebling made probably the riskiest decision of the entire construction. By taking soil samples he discovered that the soil hadn't shifted in millions of years, and so he decided that it was stable enough itself to hold the bridge. To this day one tower of the Brooklyn Bridge rests on bedrock, while the other rests on sand.
In the caissons, fires, explosions and the bends (caisson disease) took the lives of 20 men. A case of the bends nearly killed Roebling himself. He survived, but became crippled, confined to his house for the remainder of his life.
Unable to oversee the construction in person, besides from his window view of the bridge from his Brooklyn Heights home, Roebling relied on his wife Emily to be his eyes and ears for the project. Under his assistance, Emily Roebling studied higher mathematics and bridge engineering, and soon became very fluent in the construction of bridges.
The Stone Towers
Towers in a Snowstorm, 2010 by James Maher.
Finally in 1873, construction began of something that was visible to the public, the towers. The 276-foot neo-Gothic towers were built of granite and featured two arched portals. These towers were of both fundamental and psychological importance to the bridge. First, they were taller than any other building in the city, except for the very top of the Trinity Church. Second, they were to hold the weight of the cables that were to be strung, as well as the roadways so that the bridge would not interfere with traffic on the Hudson.
The towers had to be as tall as they were, to allow the bridge to give enough clearance for ships. And all of this would have never been possible without John Roebling's invention of the steel rope.
The Cables and Roadways
By the time the cables were to be strung, major doubts began to encircle the project. There had always been doubters of the project, but when William 'Boss' Tweed was convicted of stealing between $40 million and $200 million from New York tax payers, the public began to look upon all public works, and particularly the construction of the bridge with more scrutiny.
To create the 4 main suspension cables, wires were pulled, strand by strand by a traveller rope from one tower to the next. Each cable held 6,289 of these wires, 331 wires to a strand and 19 stands to a cable.
While the cables were being strung, a major problem was discovered. The J. Lloyd Haigh company that was responsible for providing wire for the cables, was found to have given faulty wires. It was virtually impossible at the time to redo the wires, and so the story was kept as quiet as possible and 150 extra wires were added to each cable to strengthen them. The owner of the company, J. Lloyd Haigh was eventually put in jail.
The near final straw occurred at the 10 year mark, when the cables were completed and the roadways were beginning to be put down. Because of extreme delays from the companies providing the materials to create the roadways, the public began to become severely impatient. This, coupled with the fact that Washington Roebling hadn't actually set foot on the bridge in nearly 10 years due to his disability, made him a convenient scapegoat.
Despite the fact that the bridge engineers testified to the importance of Washington Roebling to the completion of the bridge, enough of the bridge trustees got together to vote on his removal. After a very tight vote, they were narrowly defeated.
The Bridge was completed in 1883, to a huge celebration. Emily Roebling became the Bridge's first passenger, riding in an open carriage and carrying a rooster, a symbol of victory.
The site of the completed bridge took away most of the anger towards the delays and costs and all of the businesses in the city closed for its opening. President Chester A. Arthur attended and crossed the bridge with New York Mayor Franklin Edson to meet Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low. 14 tons of fireworks were used in the celebration.
On the first day of its opening, a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed the bridge. But the opening week was not without controversy, as a week later, a rumor that the bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede that killed 12 people. Soon after, to publicize his famous circus, P.T. Barnum led 21 elephants across the bridge and calmed any doubts about its stability.
The bridge itself is just above 6,000 feet long and 270 feet tall and was designed by John Roebling to be six times stronger than it needed to be. Because of this, the bridge is still standing today, although it is only about four times stronger than it needed to be, due to the inferior wire supplied by J. Lloyd Haigh.
View of the Financial District from the Brooklyn Bridge, 2003 by James Maher.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are many reasons for why the Brooklyn Bridge was built. Previous to its completion there were no bridges connecting Manhattan to a quickly growing Brooklyn. The invention of the steam ferry greatly improved transit between Brooklyn and Manhattan and allowed people to commute across the East River daily for work, but the trip was treacherous and unstable and ferry's often got stuck in the ice or stopped by bad weather.
A bridge would allow many more people to pass between boroughs much quicker and safer, as well as by foot or carriage. It alleviated the stress of traveling daily by boat in the dead of winter.
Also the Brooklyn Bridge was built so it could greatly increase the value of living in Brooklyn. People at the time began to see Manhattan as a fixed city because of its lack of land and Brooklyn was being increasingly seen as the fix to this. People settle in the more spacious area of Brooklyn while commuting quickly and easily to the large buildings in Manhattan.
Finally, the last reason for the question of why did they build the Brooklyn Bridge is because of its architect John Roebling. People had always wanted to build a bridge connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan because of its obvious benefit, but nobody previous had the technology to pull off such a feat, nor the reputation to convince the City and Government that a plan was actually feasible. It was John Roebling's invention of the wire rope and his perfection of the suspension bridge that even brought up the possibility of successfully completing the bridge, but it was his reputation and standing in the community that allowed people to trust him in his belief that he could pull it off.
Washington Street in Dumbo is probably the place most associated for filming the Brooklyn Bridge, but there are many place to get great shots. Empire Fulton Ferry State park, on the east side of the bridge in Brooklyn is a great place to film the bridge with a view of the sun during sunset or with a wonderful background view of Manhattan. On the Manhattan side, my favorite place to film the bridge is on the edge of the East River and under the FDR just 3 or 4 blocks east of the Fulton Fish Market. This is another great place to get a sunset shot of the bridge.
Yes you can walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. There is a wide pedestrian passage in the center of the bridge that is elevated more than 12 feet above the roadways to allow a breathtaking view of New York City and the East River.
To enter on the Manhattan side of the bridge from Park Row and Centre Street, take the 6 train to the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station or the J train to Chambers Street.
When you exit the bridge on the Brooklyn side, go get some of New York's best pizza from Grimaldi's. Although keep in mind that there is often to long wait. To get here, go south on Front Street until you hit Old Fulton Street. Turn right and walk to 19 Old Fulton Street.
TIP: Take an umbrella and go during the rain or at night. In my opinion the best time to visit the Brooklyn Bridge is during the rain or at night. The bridge is much less crowded and the site of an empty Brooklyn Bridge is much more magical than a crowded one. Also, the rain saturates the bridge and adds an amazing atmosphere to the East River and the City. It is a breathtaking site that not many people know to take advantage of.
The Brooklyn Bridge is 5,898 feet long, which comes to 1.13 miles.
- 150,300 people crossed the bridge on opening day in 1883.
- 1,800 vehicles crossed the bridge on opening day in 1883.
- The height of the towers above the water is 276 feet.
- 21 people died in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, including the main architect, John Roebling.
- Total weight of the bridge is 14,680 tons.
- Cost of original struction was $15,100,000
- John Roebling initially estimated that the bridge would take 5 years to complete. It took almost 14 years.
- The bridge was designed to be 6 times stronger than needed. Because of low-grade wires used to make some of the cables, the bridge is only 4 times stronger than needed.
- Con man William McCloundy was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for "selling" the Brooklyn Bridge to a tourist in 1901.
- 144,000 vehicles cross the Brooklyn Bridge each weekday.
- The Brooklyn tower of the bridge rests on bedrock, while the Manhattan side rests on sand.
The Brooklyn bridge is a suspension bridge. When it opened in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and the first steel-wire suspension bridge.