May 24, 1883. On this day, the Brooklyn Bridge opened for traffic. Over 50,000 pedestrians made an inaugural crossing over the East River on the Great Bridge, which now joined the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. It was an incredible engineering achievement.
From the drawing board, it would take 16 years to complete. It cost $15 Million dollars ($340 Million today). At the time, and for many years thereafter, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50% longer than the next longest bridge—totaling nearly 6000 feet long over a water span of 1600 feet. Each of its neo-gothic towers stretched well over 300 feet from foundation to top–taller than any other man-made structure in the world at the time.
Its structure and design was judged to be 6 times stronger than what it needed to be, allowing it to far outlast other bridges built during that time. The introduction of steel, instead of iron, gave the bridge added strength. (At that time, building metal bridges with iron was a standard practice.) And it was built by men using picks, shovels, and hand tools.
The building of the Great Bridge had its problems. Several deaths occurred during its construction; workers had to grapple with a new sickness—known today as “the bends”—as they worked underwater inside air-sealed caissons; delays, political graft and cost overruns were commonplace; and a doubting public grew weary of whether the project was worth it.
But it was worth it. The critics were largely silenced after President Chester Arthur and many others first walked across the bridge 131 years ago today. And public confidence in the Bridge’s structure and strength grew, especially after P.T. Barnum, in one of Barnum’s publicity stunts, paraded Jumbo, a large elephant, who crossed the Bridge in its first year. The Bridge bolstered commerce in what would become the busiest city in the world. It joined two massive population centers. And it became a source of enormous local and national pride that such a massive structure could ever be built.
Below are some fairly rare photos of the bridge during and after construction.