Revolutionary Lifestyles

Corporate Deals

Constructing Class

Chief Engineers

An Icon Is Born

Appropriating Control

The People's Bridge

Bridge as Image



Bridge Timeline

Roebling Timeline

Bridge Statistics

Printable Text


On a wintry 1853 day, John Roebling found himself stranded on the East River between New York and Brooklyn when ice chunks in the East River prevented the ferry from moving. According to his son Washington, the incident inspired the progressive engineer and nascent philosopher to build a bridge that would tame the tumultuous channel and connect the two cities. Tales like this regarding the Brooklyn Bridge abound even at the turn of the twenty-first century. In fact, legends may outweigh facts for, since its opening, the roadway has enjoyed monumental status. On May 26, 1883, two days after the bridge inauguration, Harper's Weekly announced, "The work which is most likely to become our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge." The symbolic—if "bare"—function and form of the bridge, however, explain its success and phenomenal staying power. Above all, they integrate the contradictory values of a rapidly changing America.

In The Incorporation of America, Alan Trachtenberg describes the evolution of the corporation in the late-nineteenth century and uses the business model to explain the "emergence of a changed, more tightly structured society" (3-4). Trachtenberg's trope, however, overlooks an increasingly divisive culture. At the same time that modernism improved communication and transportation—via the railroad, for example—it widened the gap between the working and middle classes, simultaneously unifying and stratifying. The Brooklyn Bridge lies at the point where these processes intersect. Significantly, the success of a suspension bridge relies on the inherent tension of its structure, and in the case of the "Great Bridge," everyday conflict and myriad obstacles prolonged and burdened the work, adding to its emblematic power. Just as with the physics of a suspension bridge, tensions bind America; its society stands on—and gains strength from— the incorporation of conflicting interests and ideologies.

back Next