Williamsburg Bridge: Construction, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Few things symbolize New York as well as the Williamsburg Bridge. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history of this structure and see what it has meant to the city.

The Williamsburg Bridge

Great art isn't always appreciated in its time. That's true of paintings, and it's also true of bridges. Today, the Williamsburg Bridge is one of the most iconic elements of New York's East River, connecting Manhattan's East Side to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. When it first opened in 1903, however, most people just thought it was…ugly. The exposed skeleton of the bridge, the lack of excessive ornamentation, the celebration of raw materials; this was all very modernistic stuff, connecting the bridge to some of the newest trends in art and architecture. You may, for example, notice some similarities between this bridge and the famous Eiffel Tower which shocked the world with its exposed iron frame. Now, more than just a symbol of New York this bridge has remained a symbol of industrial strength, and the promise of good ol' American ingenuity.

The Williamsburg Bridge connects Manhattan and Brooklyn over the East River
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Design and Construction

After the Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public back in the 1880s, officials in Manhattan quickly realized that more people planned to cross the East River on a daily basis than they'd anticipated. They needed a second bridge, and so they started planning one. The design was created by Leffert Lefferts Buck, an American engineer who specialized in the use of a still-new material: steel. Steel was lighter and stronger than iron, and since it emerged had quickly become a symbol of the modern age. Buck's proposal was to use a steel frame to make a suspension bridge, where the load-bearing deck is hung from massive cables, held up by towers and anchored at either end of the structure. Suspension bridges were also still relatively new, only having become truly possible with the industrial revolutions of the 19th century. So, the goal was to make a bridge that represented modernity, industrial strength, and growth. The spirit of optimism that has long defined New York to the world was starting to show.

Construction began on the bridge in 1896 but had to be halted briefly in 1898 because Brooklyn and New York were merging (yes, they were two separate cities before this). With all five boroughs united, construction resumed. 310-foot steel towers were erected to support over 4,000 tons of cables each 18 inches in diameter. Again, the similarity between this design and the Eiffel Tower may not be coincidental; Buck and French engineer Alexandre Gustav Eiffel had previously worked together designing bridges in South America.

Construction does not always go smoothly. In 1902 the bridge caught fire and almost stopped the project
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In December of 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge opened. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world at that time, an engineering marvel. However, it wasn't just the size of the bridge that got people talking. It was completed in only half the time of the Brooklyn Bridge. Remember, this is an era when modern construction materials and techniques were brand new, and yet to be proven. To many, the rapid construction of the Williamsburg Bridge was proof that steel frame architecture was viable. New Yorker Wally Owen had the honor of being the first person to cross the bridge and took the opportunity to show off his 56-horsepower automobile.

The opening of the bridge in 1903 certainly made headlines
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The Williamsburg Bridge and New York

The opening of the Williamsburg Bridge (paired with the Brooklyn Bridge and the official unification of the boroughs) signaled a new era in New York's history. People could move between the various neighborhoods more easily than ever before, and they did. This helped promote the rise of some of the ethnic enclaves that not only attracted immigration to the city at unprecedented rates but also became defining features of New York's landscape to this day. Perhaps the most famous mass movement was that of Jewish immigrants who crossed the bridge and carved a home for themselves into Manhattan's Lower East Side.

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