Brooklyn Bridge Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic, it was considered an engineering marvel that set new standards for aesthetic design of utilitarian structures. More than a century later, its reputation remained undiminished.

Summary of Event

On May 24, 1883, U.S. president Chester A. Arthur Arthur, Chester A. [p]Arthur, Chester A.;and Brooklyn Bridge[Brooklyn Bridge] and New York governor Grover Cleveland Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and Brooklyn Bridge[Brooklyn Bridge] , together with the mayors of New York and Brooklyn, met with thousands of citizens in attendance to open the majestic Brooklyn Bridge, which was described as the eighth wonder of the world. A marvel of engineering, this suspension bridge seemed to many people to be a symbol of the American way of life—free, useful, and beautiful. The height of the bridge’s Gothic towers, from which hung the great cables and suspenders that supported the roadway, was matched only by the tower of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Completion of the bridge made it possible to cross the entire North American continent without once having to use a ferry or get one’s feet wet. Brooklyn Bridge Engineering;bridges Bridges;Brooklyn New York City;Brooklyn Bridge Roebling, John Augustus Roebling, Washington Augustus [kw]Brooklyn Bridge Opens (May 24, 1883) [kw]Bridge Opens, Brooklyn (May 24, 1883) [kw]Opens, Brooklyn Bridge (May 24, 1883) Brooklyn Bridge Engineering;bridges Bridges;Brooklyn New York City;Brooklyn Bridge Roebling, John Augustus Roebling, Washington Augustus [g]United States;May 24, 1883: Brooklyn Bridge Opens[5290] [c]Engineering;May 24, 1883: Brooklyn Bridge Opens[5290] [c]Science and technology;May 24, 1883: Brooklyn Bridge Opens[5290] [c]Transportation;May 24, 1883: Brooklyn Bridge Opens[5290] Roebling, Emily Ellet, Charles

The person who envisioned this nineteenth century marvel was John Augustus Roebling, a man whose life in many ways exemplified the American Dream. Born in the Saxon town of Mülhausen in 1806, he acquired his training in engineering at Berlin’s Royal Polytechnic Institute. There he was strongly influenced by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich [p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;on the United States[United States] , who imbued him with liberal ideas and the belief that the United States was the land of hope and destiny. After becoming disillusioned with the repressive politics of Germany, Roebling emigrated to the United States with several friends in 1831.

The Brooklyn Bridge shortly after its completion.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Roebling and his German friends settled in western Pennsylvania, where they established the town of Saxonburg, and most of them became farmers. In 1837, the year he became a naturalized citizen, he gave up farming to become a state canal surveyor. This work brought him into contact with a new invention that hauled railroad cars and heavy loads up steep inclines by means of a stationary engine and a heavy hemp rope. Noticing that the hemp constantly frayed and threatened to break, Roebling designed a superior rope made from metal wire and formed a company to manufacture it in 1841. Roebling’s firm provided Saxonburg with a needed industry and gave Roebling an income that allowed him the financial independence to work only on projects that interested him.

In 1846, Roebling completed his first suspension bridge across the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh. By midcentury he had designed and constructed five others. For more than a decade, his chief rival in the field was Charles Ellet, the first native-born American to receive European training in engineering. The first competition between the two men had occurred in 1841, when both engineers submitted designs for a suspension bridge across the Schuylkill River at Fairmount. At the last minute, Ellet’s proposal was adopted. Although an excellent engineer, Ellet never achieved financial independence because his abrasive temperament cost him numerous contracts. Roebling eventually won the title Master of the Suspension Bridge in 1854, after the bridge Ellet Ellet, Charles built over the Ohio River Ohio River;bridges at Wheeling collapsed, and Roebling was hired to rebuild it. During the 1850’s, Roebling’s reputation soared. His bridge over the Niagara Niagara Falls;bridge River, two miles below the falls, was an advanced structure that carried both railroad tracks and a highway. The hallmarks of his work were utility and grace.

By any standards, Roebling’s greatest structure was the Brooklyn Bridge. Not only did he design it, but he also originated the project itself. He conceived the idea of linking New York City and Brooklyn by bridge in 1857 and did the preliminary planning but was unable to attract sufficient public support to begin construction. Interest in his project began to revive in 1865. When, during the following winter, the East River—which separated Manhattan and Brooklyn—iced over on several occasions and ferry service was disrupted, irate citizens demanded that something be done.

Roebling’s plans were then finally approved, and a company was commissioned in 1869 to build the bridge. However, the magnitude of the project was considered to be so great that pessimists said it could not be done. The total length of the structure was to be 1,596.6 feet (487 meters); its 86-foot-wide (26.2 meters) deck would accommodate two sets of railroad tracks, two electric tram lines, two roadways, and a footpath. Four cables and their accompanying suspenders would have to carry a weight of 18,700 tons.

Construction of the bridge began on January 3, 1870. The chief engineer was a Roebling, but not John. During the previous summer, John Roebling had been injured in an accident while selecting the site for the bridge’s Brooklyn tower. Despite the amputation of several toes, he contracted tetanus and died. Directors of the construction company then selected his thirty-two-year-old son to succeed him. Washington Roebling, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, had worked with his father on several projects, including the great Cincinnati Bridge Cincinnati;bridges . He had earned a reputation as a civil engineer in his own right while serving in the Union army during the Civil War (1861-1865).

Washington Roebling’s first task in erecting the Brooklyn Bridge was to build the huge caissons on which the support towers were to rest. Working as much as eighty feet below the surface of the water was both difficult and extremely hazardous, the greatest danger being from the dreaded caisson disease Caisson disease (bends) known as the bends, which was caused by pressure changes. During the first five months of 1872, more than one hundred men were hospitalized with the ailment, and three died.

One of the most seriously affected by the bends was Washington Roebling himself. He was left disabled, almost mute, and in constant pain for the rest of his life. Unable to inspect work on the bridge personally, he relied upon his memory, a pair of binoculars, and his wife, Emily Roebling, Emily , who taught herself engineering in order to help him. Month after month he sat by a window watching the construction through binoculars, ordering adjustments as needed and sending messages to the workmen through Emily. The design of the bridge remained faithful to the drawings of his father but included numerous alterations devised by Washington Roebling.

With as many as six hundred workmen engaged on the bridge at one time, it slowly began to take shape, but its costs mounted considerably beyond expectations. In 1878, Washington Roebling announced that he had already spent $13.5 million—almost twice the amount of the original estimate. For six months, all work stopped until new funds could be raised. In 1881, Roebling almost was fired when he asked for an extra thousand tons of steel Steel;and Brooklyn Bridge[Brooklyn Bridge] to reinforce the decking, and his demand was met only after a fight.

In 1882, Roebling faced the greatest crisis of his professional life. The newly elected mayor of Brooklyn called into question Roebling’s competence and was determined to oust him as the bridge’s chief engineer. The unexpressed fear was that, given Roebling’s physical infirmity, some of the decisions relating to the bridge were being made by his wife. Many people questioned the ability of women to deal with technical matters. Emily Roebling, Emily maintained that she always consulted with her husband before instructions were given to his assistants. She now was determined to save both her husband’s reputation and his position. She began a letter-writing campaign; she persuaded a key trustee to visit her husband to ascertain his mental capabilities. Largely as a result of her efforts, the effort to remove him failed by two votes. Roebling would still be the bridge’s chief engineer when his masterpiece was completed.

Eight months later, on May 24, 1883, Roebling sat in his chair by a window to watch the ceremonies as the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to traffic. Celebrations followed.


Both the Roeblings and the principle of suspension-bridge design were amply vindicated. Clearly, this type of bridge could be used to span great distances. So soundly was the Brooklyn Bridge constructed that no substantial renovation was necessary until the late 1940’s. Equally important was the establishment of the architectural Architecture;bridges principle that a utilitarian object should be attractively designed, a concept fully accepted by contemporary architects. In 1964, the Brooklyn Bridge was declared a national monument.

Important as it was, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge was but a single detail during an era of great industrial expansion in the United States after the Civil War, when the country emerged as a major industrial power. It was a period of corruption, greed, and the creation of great wealth. It was also the period of the political bosses. By the turn of the century, every major city had one. New York was among the first. However, the Brooklyn Bridge probably never would have been built had it not had the backing of the political bosses of both Brooklyn and New York. By the time William Marcy Tweed, New York’s political boss, fell from power, the bridge had been declared a “public work” by the state legislature, and despite opposition, the project continued to completion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooklyn Museum. The Great East River Bridge, 1883-1983. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983. Commemorative volume on the bridge’s centennial. Contains primary source material, such as eyewitness accounts, cartoons, and articles, as well as reproductions of works of art with the bridge as subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cadbury, Deborah. Dreams of Iron and Steel: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal. New York: Fourth Estate, 2004. Popular history of notable construction projects of the nineteenth century, including the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullogh, David G. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Brooklyn Bridge. 1972. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. One of the best all-around accounts of the building of the bridge. Deals with the technical details in an understandable manner, using a mystery writer’s ability to build suspense.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Boss Tweed’s New York. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990. Often misunderstood, the political bosses and their impact on U.S. political and economic life are being reexamined. This author discusses one of the best-known, most-criticized political bosses and finds much of what he did commendable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Extended essay on the Brooklyn Bridge that fits its construction into a socioeconomic context, not only as a cultural symbol but also as an indication of the transition of the United States from a rural to an urbanized economy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weigold, Marilyn E. Silent Builder: Emily Warren Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge. Port Washington, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1984. Short but thorough study of Emily Roebling’s role in building the bridge, which argues that she was in full charge at times.

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Categories: History