Building the Brooklyn Bridge

The history of the Brooklyn Bridge is a remarkable tale of persistence

The history of the Brooklyn Bridge. Designed by John Roebling, construction lasted 14 years, cost $15 million to build, 20-30 lives lost during construction, grand opening: May 24, 1883.

ThoughtCo / Bailey Mariner

Of all the engineering advances in the 1800s, the Brooklyn Bridge stands out as perhaps the most famous and most remarkable. It took more than a decade to build, cost the life of its designer, and was constantly criticized by skeptics who predicted the entire structure was going to collapse into New York's East River.

When it opened on May 24, 1883, the world took notice and the entire U.S. celebrated. The great bridge, with its majestic stone towers and graceful steel cables, isn't just a beautiful New York City landmark. It's also a very dependable route for many thousands of daily commuters.

John Roebling and His Son Washington

John Roebling, an immigrant from Germany, did not invent the suspension bridge, but his work building bridges in America made him the most prominent bridge builder in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. His bridges over the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh (completed in 1860) and over the Ohio River at Cincinnati (completed 1867) were considered remarkable achievements.

Roebling began dreaming of spanning the East River between New York and Brooklyn (which were then two separate cities) as early as 1857 when he drew designs for enormous towers that would hold the bridge's cables. The Civil War put any such plans on hold, but in 1867 the New York State legislature chartered a company to build a bridge across the East River. Roebling was chosen as its chief engineer.

Photograph of men on catwalk during Brooklyn Bridge construction.
The Brooklyn Bridge during its construction. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

Just as work was beginning on the bridge in the summer of 1869, tragedy struck. John Roebling severely injured his foot in a freak accident as he was surveying the spot where the Brooklyn tower would be built. He died of lockjaw not long after, and his son Washington Roebling, who had distinguished himself as a Union officer in the Civil War, became chief engineer of the bridge project.

Challenges Met by the Brooklyn Bridge

Talk of somehow bridging the East River began as early as 1800, when large bridges were essentially dreams. The advantages of having a convenient link between the two growing cities of New York and Brooklyn were obvious. But the idea was thought to be impossible because of the width of the waterway, which, despite its name, wasn’t really a river. The East River is actually a saltwater estuary, prone to turbulence and tidal conditions.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the East River was one of the busiest waterways on earth, with hundreds of crafts of all sizes sailing on it at any time. Any bridge spanning the water would have to allow for ships to pass beneath it, meaning a very high suspension bridge was the only practical solution. And the bridge would have to be the largest bridge ever built, nearly twice the length of the famed Menai Suspension Bridge, which had heralded the age of great suspension bridges when it opened in 1826.

Pioneering Efforts of the Brooklyn Bridge

Perhaps the greatest innovation dictated by John Roebling was the use of steel in the construction of the bridge. Earlier suspension bridges had been built of iron, but steel would make the Brooklyn Bridge much stronger.

To dig the foundations for the bridge’s enormous stone towers, caissons—enormous wooden boxes with no bottoms—were sunk in the river. Compressed air was pumped into them, and men inside would dig away at the sand and rock on the river bottom. The stone towers were built atop the caissons, which sank deeper into the river bottom. Caisson work was extremely difficult, and the men doing it, called “sandhogs,” took great risks.

Washington Roebling, who went into the caisson to oversee work, was involved in an accident and never fully recovered. An invalid after the accident, Roebling stayed in his house in Brooklyn Heights. His wife Emily, who trained herself as an engineer, would take his instructions to the bridge site every day. Rumors thus abounded that a woman was secretly the chief engineer of the bridge.

Years of Construction and Rising Costs

After the caissons had been sunk to the river bottom, they were filled with concrete, and the construction of the stone towers continued above. When the towers reached their ultimate height, 278 feet above high water, work began on the four enormous cables that would support the roadway.

Spinning the cables between the towers began in the summer of 1877, and was finished a year and four months later. But it would take nearly another five years to suspend the roadway from the cables and have the bridge ready for traffic.

The building of the bridge was always controversial, and not just because skeptics thought Roebling’s design was unsafe. There were stories of political payoffs and corruption, rumors of carpet bags stuffed with cash being given to characters like Boss Tweed, the leader of the political machine known as Tammany Hall.

In one famous case, a manufacturer of wire rope sold inferior material to the bridge company. The shady contractor, J. Lloyd Haigh, escaped prosecution. But the bad wire he sold is still in the bridge, as it couldn’t be removed once it was worked into the cables. Washington Roebling compensated for its presence, ensuring the inferior material wouldn’t affect the strength of the bridge.

By the time it was finished in 1883, the bridge had cost about $15 million, more than twice what John Roebling had originally estimated. While no official figures were kept on how many men died building the bridge, it has been reasonably estimated that about 20 to 30 men perished in various accidents.

The Grand Opening

The grand opening for the bridge was held on May 24, 1883. Some Irish residents of New York took offense as the day happened to be the birthday of Queen Victoria, but most of the city turned out to celebrate.

President Chester A. Arthur came to New York City for the event, and led a group of dignitaries who walked across the bridge. Military bands played, and cannons in the Brooklyn Navy Yard sounded salutes. A number of speakers lauded the bridge, calling it a "Wonder of Science" and lauding its anticipated contribution to commerce. The bridge became an instant symbol of the age.

Its early years are the stuff of both tragedy and legend, and today, nearly 150 years since its completion, the bridge functions every day as a vital route for New York commuters. And while the roadway structures have been changed to accommodate automobiles, the pedestrian walkway is still a popular attraction for strollers, sightseers, and tourists.

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McNamara, Robert. "Building the Brooklyn Bridge." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Building the Brooklyn Bridge. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Building the Brooklyn Bridge." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).