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The Brooklyn Bridge opens

This Day in World History

May 24, 1883

The Brooklyn Bridge opens


On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to great fanfare. With schoolchildren and workers enjoying a rare holiday, thousands flocked from Brooklyn and Manhattan to attend the dedication, led by President Chester Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. The crowd cheered as Emily Roebling – wife of the chief engineer and an integral figure in its construction — became the first person to cross. That night, fireworks illuminated the sky.

A bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan had long been appealing but faced obstacles. The swift waters of the East River seemed impossible to span. Also, any bridge would have to rise high above the river to allow the tall ships to pass beneath.

Bird's-eye view of the great suspension bridge, connecting the cities of New York and Brooklyn, from New York looking so... (1883). Source: New York Public Library.

In the 1850s, bridge designer John Roebling proposed a design to overcome these problems: build a suspension bridge, with the deck held aloft by cables hung from lofty towers. Not until 1869 did Roebling win approval for the project, however.

Almost immediately, the bridge seemed jinxed. Exploring the site, Roebling suffered a serious foot injury that led to a tetanus infection and his death. But with his son Washington supervising construction, work began.

Source: NYPL Labs Stereogranimator.
The first task was to build the foundations for the two soaring towers. That work, too, was plagued. Several workers who descended into the riverbed in caissons died from a mysterious “caisson disease” — now known to be the result of nitrogen bubbles forming in their blood by being raised too quickly from the high pressures below sea level. Washington Roebling himself was paralyzed and had to direct the work from his home. Carrying out his instructions was the redoubtable Emily, who taught herself advanced mathematics and engineering to meet the duties. Labor disputes and cost overruns also plagued the project.

By 1877, work on the towers and the cables was complete. Next came the task of building the 1,600-foot-long roadway, the longest suspension span then known. Workers finished that work in 1883, and the celebrating began. As a sign hung in Brooklyn proudly declared, “Babylon had her hanging gardens, Egypt her pyramids, Athens her Acropolis…; so Brooklyn has her Bridge.”

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