The Brooklyn Bridge: What You May Not Know About This Famous Bridge
November 30, 2017

Started in 1869 and completed fourteen years later in 1883, it connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, spanning the East River. It has a main span of 1,595.5 feet (486.3 m) and was the first steel-wire suspension bridge constructed. It was originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge and the East River Bridge, but it was later dubbed the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fast Facts

  • Deepest pneumatic caissons @ 78 feet.
  • Tallest towers @ 349 feet.
  • For 20 years it had the longest span @ 1596 feet.
  • The total cost of building the bridge was US$15.5 million (in 1883, which is approximately US$385,554,000 today.
  • Successful completion of the bridge is generally attributed to Emily Roebling, the first woman field engineer.

Fatalities, Illnesses, and Strange Accidents

In 1869, while on a pier in Brooklyn conducting a survey for the bridge, Chief Architect John Roebling had his foot crushed by a ferry that came in too close. He didn't scream but instead went on barking out orders to his workers. After they got his foot unstuck, he promptly went to the doctor, who told Roebling they would need to amputate. But when the impatient Roebling was told the extensive after-care instructions, he changed his mind. "No, no, no. Just soaking it in water will be ok," he said. John Roebling died from tetanus just weeks after the accident. After Roebling's death-by-ferry-accident, his son, Washington Roebling, was left to complete his father's plans.

Other workers fell off the 276-foot-high towers, were hit by falling debris or succumbed to caisson disease, better known as “the bends.“ No official figure exists for the number of men killed, but estimates range from 20 to over 30. Dozens more suffered debilitating injuries, including Roebling’s son Washington, who became bedridden with the bends after taking over as chief engineer from his father.

A week after the opening, on Memorial Day, an estimated 20,000 people were on the bridge when a panic started, allegedly over a rumor that it was about to collapse. Twelve people were crushed to death on a narrow stairway, and others emerged bloodied and in some cases without clothes. One eyewitness described men and women “with their limbs contorted and their faces purpling in their agonized efforts to breathe.” No changes came about in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, except that more police were stationed on the pedestrian promenade.

Barnum & Bailey’s Marching Elephants

To prevent the Memorial Day chaos and to convince naysayers of the bridge’s strength, Barnum and Bailey marched 21 elephants across the bridge in 1884. On May 17, 1884, the elephants (along with many other circus animals) marched, as this 2004 New Yorker cover cleverly illustrates. It was a demonstration to the public that the bridge was safe and a brilliant promotional stunt for Barnum’s Museum and touring show.

Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge: Wine Cellars, Taprooms, and Exclusive Sipping Parties

It was July 11, 1934, and as The Pittsburgh Gazette eagerly explained, "the dry era" was finally over.

The wine cellars had originally been constructed as a sort of compromise. As chief bridge engineer, Washington Roebling (and his father John A. Roebling before him), developed plans for a roadway connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, the question loomed over what to do with two establishments that were in the path of construction. On the Brooklyn shore of the East River, Rackey's Wine Company was doing steady business, and on the Manhattan side, Luyties & Co., sold its liquor to thirsty New Yorkers.

Roebling saw an opportunity to offset some of the bridge's massive $15 million construction costs. It was an ingeniously perfect fit. The design of the bridge would allow for two wine cellars, one on each shore, along with several other vaulted chambers, to be incorporated into construction. The chambers would be rented out to local businesses, which used them mostly for storage, to help pay off the city's debt.

"Visitors crowded the taproom this evening, musicians played Viennese waltzes, champagne corks popped and nobody remembered that above the trolleys and the elevators, the automobiles and the pedestrians still hurried back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge," the piece recalled. The most exclusive wine sipping parties in New York City took place beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge Needed a Little Bribery to Get Started

William M. “Boss” Tweed, the infamously corrupt head of New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine, latched on to the Brooklyn Bridge project from the very beginning.

According to sworn testimony he gave later, he facilitated up to $65,000 in bribes to New York’s aldermen in order to win their backing for a $1.5 million bond issue. He then became a major holder of bridge stock and joined a committee charged with managing the project’s finances. Tweed allegedly hoped to skim money from the city’s bridge contracts, much as he had done with other large public works. But he was arrested in 1871 before he could fully realize his plan. It has since been estimated that Tweed and his cronies stole at least $45 million, and perhaps as much as $200 million, from the public coffers during their time in power.

A Rooster Made the First Trip Across the Bridge!

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

Additional Fun Facts

  • It’s actually the first hybrid suspension-cable stayed bridge. The diagonal stays were added when they found out that the steel used to make the main cables came from steel that had been rejected from other job sites and illegally re-packaged. In response, Roebling added diagonal cable stays. It preceded cable-stayed bridge technology by decades.
  • Completion of the bridge enabled the originally separate cities of Brooklyn and New York to unite. Brooklyn is now a borough of New York. Prior to the bridge, they were two separate cities (I believe at the time of the bridge’s construction they were the 1st and 4th most populous cities in the US).
  • Washington Roebling’s wife, Emily, oversaw the day-to-day construction activities since her husband was injured and could only monitor the daily progress from afar with a telescope. She effectively became the first female civil engineer overseeing one of the largest public works projects at that time. I believe there is a plaque for her on the bridge.


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