Crossing East River, Brooklyn-Manhattan, New York Designer/Engineer John A. Roebling Completed 1883 Span 1,595 feet (486 meters)

Materials Steel, granite Type Suspension

Emily Warren Roebling directed the era’s largest construction project, forging a new path for women.

At the stroke of midnight on May 24, 1883after President Chester Arthur, Governor Grover Cleveland, and their Manhattan entourage had marched across to meet the Brooklyn delegation; after the fortunate thirteen thousand who held Tiffany-engraved invitations to the opening ceremonies had gone home; after hours of official speeches, prayers, cannon shots, bells, and cheers; after fourteen tons of dazzling fireworks had exploded over the beribboned armada in the harbor; after a beneficent moon had risen over fourteen years of toil and intrigue anyone with a penny could cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

John A. Roebling (1806-1869), a virtuosic engineer (see here), had conceived the bridge that would prove his masterpiece in 1855. His technical writings show that he had worked out every aspect of the bridge, from its two colossal granite towers to its four suspended steel cables, well in advance of June 1869, when approval for the bridge was granted. On June 28, 1869, while he was determining the Brooklyn tower site, Roebling’s foot was crushed, ironically, by a ferry. Three weeks later, before ground had been broken on his legacy bridge, Roebling died of tetanus. The work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.



The task of completing the crossing fell to Roebling’s son, the fair-haired, observant, and hardworking engineer Washington. He was thirty-two years old. The epic story of how he executed his father’s design has been told many times, most memorably by David McCullough in his authoritative account, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. The creation of the bridge was an enormous undertaking, whether measured by its size and structural innovation, the expenditure of human effort, or the political intrigue that accompanied its construction.

Washington Roebling’s greatest challenge was founding the two towers over which the steel cables would be spun. For this he used giant pneumatic caissons that were sunk 45 feet (14 meters) to bedrock in Brooklyn and 78 feet (24 meters) to hard sand in Manhattan over three miserably difficult years. Directing the work in and out of the caissons, Roebling suffered an attack of “caisson disease” in 1872 that left him barely able to see, walk, or write. For nine years he would oversee the construction from afar through the voice and hands of Emily Warren Roebling, his brilliant, tenacious wife. Emily meticulously transcribed her husband’s directives, delivered them to the site, explained them when necessary, and stood by him as accusations, threats, and humiliations mounted in his absence. Washington, however, did what he had resolved to do. Emily was honored with the first ride over the bridge and made it with a rooster, a symbol of victory, in her lap.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened in 2010, is enlivened by ongoing art installations, such as Deborah Kass’s iconic OY/YO (2015), a multicultural play on words. Read from Manhattan, the sculpture shouts, “Yo,” but flips to “Oy” when seen from Brooklyn, joining east and west, just like the bridge.

The bridge’s heavy Gothic portals and ethereal web of cables have inspired generations of poets and artists. Its image has graced baseball programs, wallpaper, china, stamps, stock certificates, and more than a few biceps. For newly arrived immigrants the bridge, designed and built by immigrants, was their first inkling of the promise of America. Since its opening day, the Brooklyn Bridge has tugged on the human heart for as many reasons as there are hearts.

Crossing the promenade, one has the uncanny sensation of observing the bridge while simultaneously becoming part of its enveloping structure.

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