Brooklyn’s Incomparable Bridge
Tens of thousands excited people crowding the streets, cheering marchers, floats, bands, all in grand parade! In the East River there is a flotilla of harbor craft, some with horns blowing while water cannons spray in tribute! There are exhibitions. A sound-and-light show. Flags. Food. Fireworks!
What is happening? It’s May 24, 1983, and New York City is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. But why such excitement over a bridge?
“BABYLON had her hanging gardens, Egypt her Pyramid, Athens her Acropolis, Rome her Athenaeum; so Brooklyn has her Bridge.” These were the words a proud Brooklyn shopkeeper put in his window when the Brooklyn Bridge first opened to traffic in 1883. Public excitement ran high.
The opening ceremonies would long be remembered. On that bright, sunny 24th of May, Chester A. Arthur, president of the United States, led the grand parade across the elevated promenade of the bridge. That night, 14 tons of fireworks lit the sky.
“The greatest bridge in existence, . . . the greatest engineering work of the continent, and of the age.” This is what its designer, German immigrant John Roebling, predicted it would be. He was right.
Perhaps that is the main reason why the fanfare associated with the centennial celebration appealed to so many. After all, the Great Bridge had been an engineering milestone. Besides, it still works. In cars and on foot, 150,000 people pass over it every day. And though many hardly give it a thought as they cross, they were forced to on May 24th—the bridge was closed off for most of the day! But the 18,000-member parade was allowed to pass over it.
A Costly Project
Who could have known the price this bridge would exact in terms of time, money and human lives? John Roebling himself, while taking a preliminary survey by Fulton Ferry, would be the first casualty. His foot was crushed between pilings jostled by an incoming ferry and he died from tetanus three weeks later.
Then there was caisson disease.* What was it? No one knew then. But workers in the caissons, the underwater boxlike structures for digging the tower foundations, increasingly reported pains in their joints, as well as dizziness and vomiting. As the depth increased, there were a number of deaths.
John Roebling’s son Washington succeeded his father as chief engineer. But in only three years his health was ruined by caisson disease coupled with overwork. Eventually he became so weak that he couldn’t even visit the bridge site anymore. He directed most of the project from a house on nearby Columbia Heights.
Ah, what a feat it was to complete such a bridge! Men worked with horse and wagon, hammer and chisel, and steam power—not with the kind of labor-saving equipment we have today. It took 14 trouble-filled years to build the bridge, 9 years behind schedule. And the cost was over 15 million dollars, more than twice the originally estimated price. Twenty lives were lost in building it. But the final product was a monument that was years ahead of its time.
It was the biggest suspension bridge in the world, more than a mile in length. Its main span, supported by steel cables—something never before used—was an unprecedented 1,595 feet (485 m) long—half again as long as any span ever attempted up to that time. The two granite towers, each with impressive Gothic archways, were the most massive man-made structures in North America.
What a Bridge!
Today, this structure no longer appears to be so daring an act of engineering. There are now bigger bridges, with far wider spans. The bridge, in fact, looks somewhat old—though stately—against the background of glass and steel skyscrapers towering over it. But for all the technological and architectural advances that have been made since its opening, nothing in the 20th century has quite the same impact as old Brooklyn Bridge.
This most familiar landmark has been featured on stage and screen, has inspired songs and poetic rhapsody, has been “sold” countless times as a century-old joke and has even lured many a depressed soul to a suicidal death. For better or for worse, the Brooklyn Bridge has left an indelible mark on history. New York City celebrated it.
A Night to Remember
The celebration was only beginning, however, as night fell over the city. By then, hundreds of boats were filling the upper part of New York harbor below the bridge. Over two million New Yorkers, along with out-of-towners, were gathered on both sides of the East River. An amazingly peaceful crowd, they waited patiently as a recorded sound-and-light program dramatized the history of the bridge, to the delight of those within hearing range.
Then came the highlight! In 28 minutes $200,000 worth of fireworks were shot off. The sky was ablaze as 9,600 rockets burst over the harbor. The noise was enough to shake nearby buildings. Never has New York City seen such a spectacle. One young girl said, “I’ll tell my children about this, about how it made people in the city happy—very happy—for a little while.”
As the crowds dispersed and the gentle breeze cleared the air of smoke and powder, Brooklyn Bridge just stood there quietly, ready to carry traffic once again.
Caisson disease is also known as divers’ bends and is caused by the release of nitrogen bubbles in tissues upon a person’s coming up too rapidly to normal air pressure.
[Box/Picture on page 18]
A View From the Bridge
Coming over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, you cannot fail to see on the right two imposing buildings with the word “Watchtower” on them. Exiting at the first side street, you are in Brooklyn Heights, location of the headquarters buildings of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, incorporated in 1884, just a year after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed.
Only a few hundred yards from the Brooklyn Bridge—whose stones and cables testify to the wisdom of its builders—this building complex testifies to fulfillment of a prophecy of Christianity’s Founder, Jesus Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in cooperation with the Watch Tower Society, are now preaching this “good news of the kingdom” worldwide, as Jesus long ago said would be done.—Matthew 24:14.
[Pictures on page 16, 17]