The Iconic Brooklyn Bridge

Places: DUMBO; Brooklyn Bridge; City Hall Park

As a Brooklynite, I love reminding out-of-towners that New York City doesn’t begin and end in Manhattan. All five boroughs of this city are rich in history and culture – and they are all worth a visit! – but I have a special place in my heart for Brooklyn.

Until 1898, Brooklyn was an independent city, separate from Manhattan. (In many ways, we are still separate and distinct.) The thing that officially connected us remains one of the most iconic elements of the New York skyline – the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering feat. It’s a suspension bridge – which just became a “thing” (at least in America) in the early 19th century. Moreover, the Brooklyn Bridge was the first steel-wire suspension bridge…ever. The period of construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is almost a comedy of errors. In the more than a decade that the bridge took to build, it took the life of its original designer and permanently injured his replacement.

John Roebling started designing a grand East River bridge to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1857. Although Roebling didn’t invent the suspension bridge, he was the world’s foremost civil engineer of suspension bridges. When he embarked on the Brooklyn Bridge project, he had already built a suspension bridge over Niagara Falls and another across the Ohio River (this one – the Cincinnati Bridge – is still standing today!). Planning for the bridge was put on hold during the Civil War, but was resumed in 1867. Roebling was appointed as chief engineer of the bridge but, sadly, he lost his life in a freak accident shortly thereafter. In 1869, Roebling’s foot was pinned to a piling by a docking ferry while he was surveying the site of the bridge. He contracted tetanus and developed lockjaw as a result of his injuries and died in July 1869.

Luckily, John Roebling had an engineer son, Washington Roebling. Washington was able to take charge of the Brooklyn Bridge project after his father’s fatal injury. However, shortly after construction of the bridge began, Washington also experienced a paralyzing injury. He developed decompression sickness (usually called “the bends”) from the caissons – big, dangerous underwater boxes with compressed air in them that allowed men to build the bridge’s two towers. After the accident, Washington was essentially an invalid. He remained bedridden in his Brooklyn Heights apartment for the rest of his life.

The “conventional” story is that Washington stayed in bed – which had a view of the East River and the bridge construction – and supervised construction remotely, using his wife Emily Roebling as his eyes and ears on the ground. Emily was called the “first woman field engineer” and, under her husband’s guidance, had learned math and engineering herself. It seems far more likely that Emily Roebling – an engineer herself – was the real supervisor of the bridge construction after Washington’s accident.

The Great East River Suspension Bridge.Currier & Ives, The Great East River Suspension Bridge, 1881.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

May 24, 1883 was Opening Day for the Brooklyn Bridge and it marks the day when Manhattan and Brooklyn were truly connected for the first time. The New York Times described Opening Day as “the greatest gala day in the history of that moral suburb.” It truly was a party. President Chester A. Arthur was there, along with future president Grover Cleveland (then New York governor) and other important dignitaries. They all marched onto the bridge, followed by a military band and an attachment of troops. There was cannon-fire. There were fireworks. There were speeches. On the day the bridge opened to the public (May 25), 150,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (all paid a penny, the fee to cross by foot).

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is a classic New York experience (and there isn’t a penny fee – or any fee – to cross by foot anymore!). I recommend starting in Brooklyn so that you can enjoy the iconic view of Manhattan the whole way. The Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway can be accessed two ways, but if you get to it from the underpass on Washington Street you have an excuse to walk around DUMBO for a little bit first!

DUMBO (translation, “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Brooklyn. With its cobblestone streets, old brick factory buildings, and historic waterfront, it is one of the most picturesque places in all of New York. Before you start your bridge walk, enjoy a pizza on Front Street. There is a rivalry between the famous Grimaldi’s Pizza and the newer Juliana’s Pizza, which is actually located in the original Grimaldi’s location. I like Juliana’s pizza better, plus Grimaldi’s always has a long line, but you can’t go wrong with either. If you still have room after pizza, Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory on the Fulton Ferry Pier is both delicious and historic. Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is in a landmark fireboat house that is the oldest in the city (from 1922).

Once you make it across the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn, you will land near City Hall Park on the Manhattan side. There, you can stop at Blue Spoon Coffee Co. for a celebratory latte before heading home. Depending on the time of day, you might want to reverse your direction and start in Manhattan so that you end up in DUMBO (just make sure you look behind you to the views of the Manhattan skyline as you are walking!). A walk along the Brooklyn Bridge is a quintessential New York experience which brings you through two of New York’s iconic boroughs.


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