When I think of New York City landmarks, flashes of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the legendary Yankee Stadium, alas, now gone, leap to my mind. But there’s an underdog landmark I like best: the Brooklyn Bridge, stubborn and stunning in its granite towers and glistening, criss-crossing steel cables. An inspiring story lies behind its construction against formidable odds involving three members of a remarkable family.
Opened on May 24, 1883, after 14-years of construction that would cost the lives of 27 workers, including its designer, it was the wonder of its era as America’s first steel cable suspension bridge. Celebrating its 130th birthday as of next May, it continues as a principal artery spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn with 150,000 users daily.
It originated as the idea of a German immigrant, John Augustus Roebling, in 1863. He had built earlier bridges; for example, the bridge spanning the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, and another across the Niagara Gorge. When it came to the East River, many said it couldn’t be done.
For a time, it seemed the critics had it right. Shortly before construction began in 1869, Roebling’s toes on one foot were crushed in a freak accident when a ferry boat slammed into the dock on which Roebling was standing while taking compass readings across the East River. Following amputation of his toes, he succumbed to tetanus 3-weeks later.
His son, Washington, now took charge of the project. Tragedy, however, knocked on the Roebling family door again, when Washington came down with the bends, or decompression sickness from underwater labor, resulting in lifelong confinement to a wheelchair. Forced to watch the construction from a telescope, he conveyed his instructions to his wife, Emily.
Her feat is remarkable in its own right, since she had no previous knowledge of bridge dynamics. Over the next 11-years, mastering the intricacies of her husband’s calling including mathematics, catenary curve calculations and material substances, she would accurately convey his instructions to the workers.
Appropriately, in the ceremonies featuring President Chester A. Arthur, Emily was the first to ride across the bridge, a rooster in her lap as a symbol of victory.
A super icon of a super city, the bridge was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
One of the best times to view the bridge is at night, when the Gothic charms of its pointed arches are bathed in light.
The noted historian David McCoullough details the bridge’s construction in The Great Bridge (1978) and Ken Burns followed with his first documentary in 1981.
San Francisco has its romantic Golden Gate, just maybe one of the most eye-pleasing bridges in the world. But for me, my first love remains the Brooklyn Bridge, in no small measure because my romanticism clings to the story of a family’s perseverance in the face of tragedy and thus lends hope to all of us.
New Yorkers know this especially well, whether its October 1929, or 9/11, or hurricane Sandy’s more recent devastation.