The Brooklyn Bridge: Construction, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history, construction, and significance of the Brooklyn and test your understanding about architecture and 19th-century American engineering.

The Empire State of Mind

The Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge

Anybody who has seen a picture of the New York skyline has probably seen a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a national landmark that's stood between Manhattan and Brooklyn since 1883. Today, it allows thousands of urbanites to travel between work and home, and is a major tourist attraction. When it first opened, it was called the East River Bridge, for the river it spans, or the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. The shortened name, the Brooklyn Bridge, first appeared in a newspaper column in 1867, and was formally adopted in 1915.

Architecture and Style

The Brooklyn Bridge is a combination of two styles: the suspension bridge and the cable-stayed bridge. Both of these styles rely on the use of cables and vertical towers, called pylons, to support the long horizontal structure that people walk on, called the deck. In a pure suspension bridge, the deck is hung from suspension cables, which make a U-shape between pylons, on vertical wires called suspenders. In a cable-stayed bridge, the cables connect directly to the bridge from the pylons. The Brooklyn Bridge uses both of these techniques, giving it strength over distance.

The Brooklyn Bridge in 1890
Brooklyn Bridge

The pylons of the Brooklyn Bridge, built of limestone, granite and cement, form neo-Gothic arches, that helps support the deck. The neo-Gothic style was common in the 19th-century, and was based on architectural styles of the Gothic period (1100-1500). One of the defining features is the arch with a pointed, not rounded, center. The Brooklyn Bridge was built in this style, but with brand new innovations of engineering. This was the first suspension bridge to be built with steel wires, and expanded the use of steel in architecture. At the time, steel was a relatively new building material that was just becoming easily accessible.

History and Construction

The Brooklyn Bridge was initially designed by John Augustus Roebling, a German immigrant who had experience with suspension bridges. While surveying areas for the bridge, his foot was crushed by a boat, and he died of infection in 1869. His 32-year old son, Washington Roebling, took over but was soon debilitated from decompression sickness, a condition of gasses bubbling inside the body. It was a common sickness that construction workers building the water-tight foundations of bridges often suffered. Roebling had to supervise the entire construction from his apartment window. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, helped relay messages to his engineers and became a knowledgeable engineer herself over the 11-year construction project.

Washington Roebling with the Brooklyn Bridge
Washington Roebling

The Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883. President Chester Arthur and Mayor of New York Franklin Edson crossed the bridge to cannon fire, music, fireworks, and cheers. 1,800 vehicles and 150,000 people crossed the bridge that day. About a week later, a rumor that the bridge was unstable sparked a stampede, resulting in the death of 12 people on the bridge. To restore confidence, P.T. Barnum, owner of the famous circus, marched 21 elephants across the Brookyln Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge in 1896
Brooklyn Bridge

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