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Brooklyn Bridge

Much of what you see as you look at the Brooklyn Bridge depends on where you stand.

Look at it architecturally and you’ll notice its piers: Constructed of limestone and granite with gothic arches, they stand 276 feet and 6 inches above the high water line, 117 feet above the roadway. (Some believe that when the bridge opened on May 24,1883, the piers were the tallest structures not only in New York, but also in the Western Hemisphere. However, the 281-foot spire of Trinity Church, built in 1846, was higher.)

Look at it as an engineering feat and you’ll concentrate on its wire cables. Each of the four steel cables that support the 85-foot wide bridge deck measure 15 ¾ inches in diameter and 3,578 feet, six inches in length. Each cable consists of 5,434 individual wires with a total length of 3,515 miles protected by 243 miles, 943 feet of wire wrapping. Each one weighs 1,732,086 pounds. These cables enabled John Roebling, the designer and builder of the bridge, to build the first steel suspension bridge spanning a record 1,595 feet, 6 inches.

If you look at it in human terms, you’ll consider that between 20 and 30 people lost their lives building this bridge. John Roebling was among them. While conducting survey work for the Brooklyn pier, his foot was pinned against a dock by a ferry. After a few weeks of ineffective self-treatment, on July 22, 1869, he died from tetanus. His son, Washington Roebling took over construction. He got the bends from ascending too quickly in the caissons used for under-water excavation. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life. He viewed construction through a telescope from a window of his house in Brooklyn Heights while his wife, Emily, managed the construction on-site. By the time the bridge was completed, many assumed she was the chief engineer. When the bridge was completed, Emily was the first to ride over it.

Six days later, on May 30, 1883, an unprecedented number of people crossed the bridge on foot. A woman stumbled on the stairs, shrieked and started a stampede of people who feared the bridge was collapsing. Twelve were trampled.

If you look at the bridge in animal terms, you’ll find that on May 17, 1884, P. T. Barnum led 21 elephants, including Jumbo, from Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge, proving that it was strong and stable and putting to rest the fears that triggered the stampede. Today the bridge is home to some of the estimated 20 pairs of nesting peregrine falcons that live in New York.

If you look at it through an artist’s eyes, you’ll see not only a “physical bridge that stands astride the East River,” but a cultural bridge “of the mind and the imagination.” That bridge stands in the writings of Hart Crane and in the photography of David Hockney, to name only two who have been inspired by the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge.

– Carol Cofone


1867 John Roebling presents design for bridge across East River
1869 John Roebling is injured and dies of tetanus
1872 Washington Roebling incapacitated by "caisson disease”
1883 Bridge completed

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