Free time in New York: Brooklyn Bridge

New York City:  Brooklyn Bridge

New York City: Brooklyn Bridge

The pedestrian and cycle path across Brooklyn Bridge is one of the great cost-free experiences of New York City.

Some people think the Brooklyn Bridge is the most beautiful bridge in the world.  It has a unique place in the development of the most elegant of all bridge designs – the suspension bridge.  Its stone piers with their Gothic arches, the fanning suspension cables and its unparalleled setting make it unmistakable.

The bridge was designed by John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), whose adoption of 3,000-ton pneumatic caissons to dig through the river silt to the bedrock below made possible the 276-foot Gothic towers that carry the span.  Roebling’s expertise, which included building the first suspension bridge across the gorge below Niagara Falls (1855), came from his ownership of a wire-manufacturing company.

Surveying began in 1867, but before construction began Roebling was injured in a ferry accident and shortly afterwards died of tetanus.

The project passed to his son, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), who also lost his health to the Brooklyn Bridge.  He fell victim to the then unknown condition we now call decompression sickness, and was so debilitated that he had to supervise the project remotely, using his wife Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) as his amanuensis and messenger.  She became so knowledgeable and capable about bridge engineering that many thought she was the actual designer.

Its 1,595-foot central span was at the time the longest in the world, half as long again as the previous record-holder, J A Roebling’s Cincinnati-Covington Bridge (1856-67)  [].  The clearance-height above the river, 135 feet, became the international standard for bridging waterways that carry sea-going vessels.  This was the first suspension bridge to use galvanised steel cables, and the first project to use dynamite in bridge construction.  Its cost was $15,100,000 – more than twice the initial budget.

It opened on May 24th 1883 with a procession led by Emily Warren Roebling, accompanied by President Chester Arthur and the Governor of New York State, Grover Cleveland (later 22nd and 24th President) and the Mayors of New York and Brooklyn.  Washington Roebling remained at home in Brooklyn Heights where he hosted a celebratory dinner later in the day.

The Brooklyn Bridge has hidden depths.  At least one of the vaults within the Brooklyn approach, originally planned as a shopping arcade, was leased to a wine-merchant and has been periodically rediscovered:  In 2006 a disused nuclear bunker was discovered in the Manhattan foundations, containing “more than 350,000 items, including half-century-old water drums, food canisters, and medical supplies”:

There is a comprehensive series of photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge at

Footage dating from 1899 shows a cab-ride in an elevated railway train, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at the time when it was shared between pedestrians, road vehicles, trains and streetcars:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

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