The Brooklyn Bridge opens as the longest suspension bridge in the world and is regarded by some as the eighth “wonder of the world.” The “forerunner of the giants” still stands and is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States.
When architect John A. Roebling first proposed building a bridge to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, N.Y., engineers denounced his plan as visionary and impractical. They said it couldn’t be done. But Roebling had already created several significant suspension bridges, and with undaunted courage moved forward with the project.
Then tragedy struck: Roebling’s foot was crushed while he was surveying the new bridge in 1869 and he died three weeks later of tetanus. Fortunately, he’d mentored his son, Civil War veteran, Colonel Washington “Wash” Roebling, who was appointed chief engineer of the project and “wove the great wire cables over plans made by his father.” Young Roebling’s vision of the bridge would have a main span of 1,596 ft. and navigational clearance over 135 ft. to allow the biggest ships of the day. The bridge required four main cables nearly 16 inches in diameter composed of galvanized steel wire.
Construction of the bridge’s tower caissons required men to work 82 feet below the surface inside a pressurized air chamber. Unfortunately, Roebling’s time inside the chamber left him physically incapacitated from decompression sickness or, caisson fever. While disabled and in constant pain, Roebling continued his work with the help of his wife, Emily, who was strong, grasped her husband’s ideas, and learned to speak the language of the engineers. On the day the bridge opened to the public, May 24, 1883, President Chester A. Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland were in attendance.
There are some incredible photographs in our digitized newspapers, like this aerial view of the Brooklyn Bridge looking into Manhattan. And “to the best of our knowledge, this is the first photo to be published of an airplane flying underneath Brooklyn Bridge.” See superdreadnaught Arizona passing underneath the bridge “on her maiden trip as a regular member of Uncle Sam’s fighting forces” in 1916 and U.S.S. Pennsylvania pass under in 1920.
Over the years, newspapers speculated whether the bridge might fall. Solemn warnings against overcrowding were printed and stories pondered whether the bridge was safe or unsafe or “safe beyond a doubt.“ In 1922, ‘it was found necessary to divert all motor traffic — by far the heaviest part of the vehicular traffic– to the other bridges, saving the plank roadways of the Brooklyn Bridge open only to horse-drawn vehicles.’
Not only can you find the Brooklyn Bridge in headlines in our newspaper collections, but you’ll also see it featured in a number of comic book issues held within our collections. You might know about one of the most infamous stories in the history of one of our favorite comic book superheroes, the Amazing Spider-Man. In the title’s June–July 1973 issues, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, dies as a result of a battle on the bridge between Spider-Man and his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.
Looking for more? This Brooklyn Bridge topics page provides useful information for searching in Chronicling America’s historic newspapers, including significant dates, associated search terms, as well as sample article links. Know any other interesting stories about the bridge? Share them in the comments!