Past and Present: Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

You’re not a Brooklynite, you aren’t a New Yorker, if you haven’t walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s one of the great walks in our city, especially on a nice day, and best of all, it’s completely free. Peasant or king, the wonders of this great work of engineering, determination and skill are open for us all to enjoy. The majestic view across the East River has been thrilling residents and tourists alike for 130 years. But the bridge is more than just a tourist destination. It is a vital link between Manhattan and Long Island, allowing people, goods and services to traverse the city. Before the bridge, we had the ferry. It too was a marvel of its time, but by the 1880s was not enough. Brooklyn was growing. Manhattan was growing, and the rest of the world beyond.

As we all know by now, the bridge was originally designed by German immigrant Augustus Roebling. He died before the first stone ever went into the water, and the project was taken over by his son, Washington Roebling. The 32-year-old Washington would be overcome by decompression sickness, “the bends,” in 1870, thirteen years before the bridge was completed, and his wife, Emily, became the real engineer of the project. It was she who carried out the inspections and learned the complex formulae of curves, stress points and other engineering technicalities, so that she could communicate her husband’s wishes to the engineers on the site. She doesn’t get nearly enough credit for this, but that’s another story.

The bridge opened with great fanfare on May 24, 1883, with President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Frank Edson walking across to meet Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low on the Brooklyn side tower. They shook hands as cannons roared, boats whistled and applause rose from the crowds on both sides of the river. Arthur came to the Roebling house and shook hands with Washington Roebling, who could no longer get around. That day, over 150,300 people crossed the bridge on foot, and they’ve been walking ever since.

Six days later, someone started a rumor that the bridge was going to collapse, which started a panic and a stampede, and at least twelve people were killed. But the bridge was and remains quite sound. It’s a suspension bridge; it’s supposed to move. From the very beginning the bridge has been a road for commuters. Walking to a job in Lower Manhattan was not invented by today’s investment bankers or the health conscious. Laborers, clerks, sales girls and executives, anyone who wanted to walk has always done so. Now they no longer had to wait for a crowded ferry.

The bridge always had the center walkway, separated from the vehicular traffic by a sturdy iron railing. In the 1905 postcard, you can see that that was all that separated people from the nearby trains. The elevated trains of the line ran from Park Row in Manhattan to the Sands Street Terminal in Brooklyn. They were operated by the Brooklyn Elevated Railway Company, and were cable cars, pulled from side to side. In 1898, the cars were electrified, but even after that, the cable was often used anyway. This train only went across the bridge. The fact that it was a cable car must have been reassuring to pedestrians, and to their clothing.

The outer lanes were for vehicular traffic, which shared them with the trolley service that also ran across the bridge. The elevated trains ran until 1944, and the trolleys until 1950, at which time the entire roadway was reconfigured into six lanes for cars only. The pedestrian roadway was raised above the roadway, in part to allow more lanes, but also to prevent accidents or suicides. The pedestrian and bicycle walkway has always been a favorite, but its significance was never stronger than when disasters necessitated a means of escape from Manhattan. Blackouts, transit strikes, and then terrorist attacks have made the pedestrian walkways vital to our safety. GMAP

1905 postcard

Photograph: Wired NY