The Brooklyn Bridge

A history of the bridge and its builders


Bird’s Eye View of NYC, 1885 (note the Brooklyn Bridge crossing the East River on the right side of the image)


Important Dates

  • 1874: Brooklyn Bridge is made public (interest paid to subscribers)
  • 1875: Brooklyn tower completed
  • 1876: New York tower completed
  • 1877: Temporary footbridge between towers is built
  • 1883: The Brooklyn Bridge opened May 24

Basic Bridge Facts

  • Type of Bridge: Suspension

  • Distance of roadbed above water - 135 feet

  • Height of Towers above high water- 276½ feet

  • Height of tallest building in New York in 1883 - 281 feet
           (The Spire of Trinity Church)

  • Height of Towers above roadway - 159 feet

  • Height of Tower Arches above roadway - 117 feet

Detailed Bridge Facts

  • Length of East River span: 1595.5 feet
  • Total length of bridge: 5989 feet
  • Width of bridge floor: 85 feet
  • Suspension cables: four, each 15.75 inches in diameter and 3578.5 feet long, containing 5434 wires each, for a total length of 3515 miles of wire per cable
  • Foundation depth below high water, Brooklyn: 44 feet 6 inches
    Foundation depth below high water, Manhattan: 78 feet 6 inches
  • Tower height above high water: 276 feet 6 inches
  • Roadway height above high water: 119 feet (at towers)
  • Total weight, not including masonry: 14,680 tons
  • Size of each anchorage at base - 129 x 119 feet
  • Size of each anchorage at top - 117 x 104 feet
  • Height of each anchorage in front - 89 feet
  • Height of each anchorage in rear - 85 feet
  • Weight of each anchorage - 60,000 tons

Opening Day Facts

On 24 May 1883, with schools and businesses closed, the Brooklyn Bridge, also referred to as the "Great East River Bridge" was opened

  • Initial Bridge Toll - 1 cent on Opening Day (3 cents thereafter)

  • People crossing the bridge on opening day - 150,300

  • Bridge opened to vehicles - May 24, 1883, 5:00 p.m.

  • Total number of vehicles crossed on the first day - 1,800

  • Vehicle charge on Opening Day - 5 cents

  • Box office opens on Brooklyn side to sell toll tickets - 11:20 PM (May 23rd)

  • New York ticket office opens - 11:30 PM (May 23rd)

  • 9:00 AM Barricades taken down and replaced by line of policemen

  • 2:00 PM Official Opening to the public

  • 8-9:00 PM Fireworks

Modern Facts

  • Brooklyn Bridge Traffic: - 144,000 Vehicle Crossings(average weekday in 1998)
  • By comparison:             Queensboro Bridge - 192,000 vehicles
    Williamsburg Bridge
    - 110,000
    Manhattan Bridge
    - 78,000
  • Average Daily Bike traffic - 1115 (1998)    

      High since 1979 - 1717 (1995)

      Low since 1979, 623 (1980)

  • Average Daily Pedestrian traffic - 2001 (1998)

       High since 1979 - 3562 (1995)

       Low, 1190 (1980)


Source of Information 



 The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was envisioned, planned and carefully overseen by John Augustus Roebling.  The construction on the bridge began in 1869, the year of Roebling's death due to tetanus he contracted while surveying the bridge. 

Photograph:Washington Augustus Roebling, 1870 Washington Augustus Roebling, also an engineer took over the construction project after his father's death, but was soon struck with the bends due to sustained amounts of time spent underwater building the bridge's foundation.  Spending such a vast amount of time in airtight vessels underwater, called caissons, eventually left him crippled. 

Washington Roebling's drawing of a caisson, 1869


Washington's wife Emily Roebling quickly learned engineering which enabled her to oversee the bridge's progress and update her husband on the construction's progress.  Many historians believe that Emily was the brilliant mind behind the project, and despite some oppostition to her powerful role, Emily convinced the American Society of Civil Engineers that she and her husband should be allowed to complete the project.  The bridge was finally completed in 1883.


The Politics of Building


            Prior to building the bridge, people traveled from Brooklyn to Manhattan via the South Ferry which opened in 1835.  This ferry service was followed in 1849 by the addition of the Wall Street Ferry, the Roosevelt Ferry, and the 23rd Street Ferry.  However, the ferry services did not fully service the rapidly growing needs of the Brooklyn population, which rose from 266,000 in 1860 to 396, 000 by 1870:  nearly a 50% increase in a decade.  Brooklyn was the fastest growing city in the country which prompted the New York Legislature, in 1867, to debate the merits of building a bridge to cross the East River and permanently connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Title Page from the Opening Ceremonies of the

Brooklyn Bridge, May 1883

      In 1866 the New York State Legislature passed a bill for the bridge construction and hired John Augustus Roebling as “Chief Engineer” at an annual salary of $8,000.  Roebling designed a bridge that would meld together art and function.  Ulysses S. Grant, U.S. President, also signed a bill in 1869 which approved federal funding for the Brooklyn Bridge plan.  This allowed construction on the bridge to commence on the 2nd of January 1870 with site clearing and preparation.   

            There were a great many people who worked to construct the Brooklyn Bridge, and it is important to pay tribute to those individuals because without their contribution the project could never have been completed.  The building of the Brooklyn Bridge was not without a number of catastrophies.  Most famously is the bad fortune that befell the Roebling men, namely with John Augustus’ death and the debilitating illness contracted by his son Washington.  However, there were almost 30 other deaths associated with the bridge construction.    

     The New York Bridge Company was an organization contracted to build the Brooklyn Bridge.  In 1870 digging began for the first tower using the Brooklyn Caisson which contained two water shafts, two man shafts, two supply shafts, and pipes for gas, air and water.  The first caisson was launched from the Greepoint shipyard in March, 1870. 


Structural Components of the Bridge


Underwater Building

     Once underwater the engineers utilized a number of means of underground excavation.  The crews used shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, steel bar stone-breakers, and ten-ton hydraulic jacks.  These instruments were often used on an experimental basis conducted by Washington Roebling.  The work progressed slowly at an rate of six inches per week.  By the fall of 1870 the crews had achieved a stone and mud height of 500 feet for the first tower.  This tower was completed after a year of work in March 1871. 


Wires and Cables

     The building of the Brooklyn Bridge was also extremely significant because many new materials and manufacturing techniques were invented for the project.  John Augustus Roebling created the first wire rope manufacturing company in America in the 1840s.  His knowledge and use of the wire ropes turned out to be extremely helpful as Roebling began to plan the Brooklyn Bridge construction.  The wire rope allows the metal to maximize its strength by sharing a heavy load among the individual cast steel wires.  Roebling created these steel cast wires specifically for the Brooklyn Bridge and spun them at the bridge site to ensure they were the correct length.  

            These cables became the key structural component of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Steel was still considered a “new” product and had not faced the test of time, and many thought iron was a wiser choice.  Washington Roebling faced a scandal when a wire contractor substituted weaker and cheaper Bessemer steel for the cast steel.  However, Roebling designed the wires to be six times stronger than necessary, so he expected the “faulty” wires were still five times stronger than needed.  Roebling ultimately decided these wires did not need to be replaced.