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John Augustus Roebling chief engineer of the bridge

History and Story of the Brooklyn Bridge

Opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the first long-span suspension bridge to carry motor traffic, and it quickly became the model for the great suspension bridges of the following century.

Spanning New York’s East River, it provided the first traffic artery between Manhattan Island and Brooklyn. Before that, the only transportation was by ferries, which were slow and could be dangerous in winter.


Brooklyn bridge during construction

The construction of a bridge had been discussed since the early 19th century, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 deflected all consideration of the project.

When the war ended in 1865, the bridge became an important issue once more, and in 1867 the New York State legislature passed an act incorporating the New York Bridge Company for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a bridge between Manhattan Island and Brooklyn.

John Augustus Roebling chief engineer of the bridge

                                     John Augustus Roebling

John Augustus Roebling was chosen to design the bridge. Born in Germany in 1806, he held radical views as a student and was listed by the German police as a dangerous liberal. He emigrated to America in 1830 to escape political discrimination.

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Roebling proposed a bridge with a span of 1,500 feet (465 m), with two masonry towers in the East River serving as the main piers. The bridge actually built is longer – 1,597 feet (486 m).

The longest suspension bridge up to that time, it was the first bridge to make use of galvanized steel wire; earlier suspension bridges had used either wrought iron cables or suspension chains.

View of bridge showing cables

                             View of bridge showing its cables

The cables were spun on site from a previously constructed footbridge. Massive anchorages for the cables had to be built, as there were no natural rock formations to support them. The bridge carried two elevated railroad tracks, two trolley car tracks, single-lane roadways flanking the trolley tracks, and a central walkway.

Stiffening trusses were added to insure against sway-a characteristic of suspension structures.

You can also watch this interesting short video on the history of Brooklyn bridge.


Disaster struck early in the history of the bridge. In 1869, even before construction commenced, Roebling was standing on a Brooklyn wharf to carry out a survey for the main piers when a boat collided with the bulkhead of the wharf.

His foot was crushed and he died of tetanus three weeks later. His successor was his son, Washington Roebling, who continued to work on the bridge for the following 14 years.

Washington Roebling’s health was also doomed to suffer from the bridge. After Working for long hours at high atmospheric pressure, he collapsed With decompression sickness in May 1872.

Roebling Washington

                                           Roebling Washington

He was partially and was able to supervise construction only through binoculars from his balcony. But his wife, Emily, threw herself into the study of engineering and was soon able to inspect the site each day and report progress to her husband.

emily roebling

                     Beautiful, smart, independent Emily Roebling

In 1882 the Mayor of Brooklyn resolved to replace Washington Roebling on the grounds of physical incapacity. Emily Roebling requested permission to address the American Society of Civil Engineers, the first time that a woman had done so and as a result was remained the Chief Engineer.

After the opening ceremony in 1883, many citizens and officials marched to his home to honor him.

The bridge toll for Brookly Bridge was higher then than it is now

When the Brooklyn Bridge first opened, it cost a penny to cross by foot, 5 cents for a horse and rider and 10 cents for a horse and wagon. Farm animals were allowed at a price of 5 cents per cow and 2 cents per sheep or hog.

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Under pressure from civic groups and commuters, the pedestrian toll was repealed in 1891. The roadway tolls were then rescinded in 1911 with the support of New York Mayor William J. Gaynor, who declared, “I see no more reason for toll gates on the bridges than for toll gates on Fifth Avenue or Broadway.”

The Brooklyn Bridge and three other bridges that likewise cross the East River have stayed free ever since for both walkers and drivers, even as New York’s other major bridges and tunnels have gotten steadily more expensive.