When They Built The Big Bridge

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Altogether it was a truly stupendous show. During the nearly seven years which remained before the bridge’s completion, the only thing that could touch it was the opening of the catwalk.

This four-foot-wide wooden footbridge for the use of workmen stringing wires and handling suspenders swooped in steep and graceful arcs like those which the finished bridge’s cables were to follow. That it was safe is proved by the fact that in all the course of the spiderwork’s spinning no workman ever fell from it. But if the stroll across it was safe it was also more than a little terrifying to the uninitiated, for except for handhold cables it was wide open at the sides, it swayed and swung, and the wind whistled through its planks. The workmen took all this in their stride and often did not even bother to grasp the handropes, but visitors who were granted permits to walk across all too often gave way to spells of paralyzing hysteria. That ended the experiment, and the public was forced to forgo the ecstasy of walking between the two cities until such time as the bridge proper should be completed.

Now that workmen were daily visible scampering over the catwalk, and the traveling wheel which spun the cables was making its ceaseless journeys back and forth, the general attitude toward the span had changed from one of derisive apathy to one of lively interest. But the work could not be hurried, and after the cities’ first linking by footway the deliberate processes of construction dragged on for six more years.

The cable-spinning alone required a year and a half, partly because of the chicaneries of the manufacturer who had underbid the Roebling family’s own plant for the steel wire contract. Next came the attaching of suspenders—steel ropes hanging from the cables to hold the floor beams—which in due course were put in place and covered with flooring. Every step was essential, but every step took time: the adding of girders and stays, trusses and braces; the painting; the building of lengthy approaches; the installation of tracks and terminals for cable cars; and the provision of a lighting system (yes, electric lights, no less!). During these six tedious years, while the revenues of the East River’s twenty ferry lines were rising to a new high, there were not only several disheartening work stop-pages caused by lack of funds or lack of steel, but there were also fresh attempts to oust the invalid Washington Roebling from his post, and, worst of all, there was a major accident.

This disaster, last of the series which beset the bridge’s builders, occurred in 1878 when one of the ponderous cable strands, breaking loose as it was being fastened into place at the New York anchorage, careened like a whip through the air, knocking two workmen to their death, injuring others, and grazing housetops, streets, and crowded ferryboats before plunging at last into the water.

The memory of this tragedy was still harbored in many minds five years later when at last the time came for that event of events, the bridge’s opening, scheduled for May 24, 1883. Amid all the panegyrics which greeted that greatest day in Brooklyn’s history there were to be heard here and there the jeremiads of those who warned that the completed span, solid and impressive though it looked, was after all merely hanging from strands of wire which might at any moment break loose and plunge the bridge, with all its occupants, to destruction.

Indeed these misgivings were so deep-rooted that six days after the bridge’s opening, despite the fact that 100,000 people had safely walked across it during the first 24 hours, a great panic occurred when someone suddenly screamed. People rushed madly for the two exits, spreading the cry that the bridge was falling, killing twelve and injuring forty in their frenzy to escape.

On the great day, however, optimists were much more plentiful than prophets of doom. Who could think of potential catastrophe when a general holiday was declared, when flags flew everywhere, and when the President of the United States himself blessed the occasion by his presence?

It was a day of such sustained rejoicing as few communities have ever experienced. Brooklyn, having waited almost sixteen years for its celebration, was now making up for lost time. President Arthur, Governor Cleveland, parades, souvenirs, band concerts, warships’ salutes, fervid oratory, resplendent decorations, excursion boats, hordes of visitors, even the tons of fireworks which transformed the night into something out of a fairy tale—all of these were secondary to the main excitement, which was the bridge itself. Solid, majestic, beautiful, it opened to Brooklynites an alluring new vista of unity with the great world beyond the river.

Even the haughtiest of New Yorkers were delighted to join with their Brooklyn neighbors in hailing their connecting link as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Thousands strong, they lined up at the toll booths on both sides of the East River, waiting their chance to pay the pennies and dimes to walk or drive across that once-divisive strip of water.