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

The People's Bridge

While the Gilded Age devastated the notion of Jeffersonian agrarianism, it also prompted distinct alterations in urban life. One critical aspect of the new city was the idea of seeing and being seen by other people, and the bridge promenade especially offered ample opportunity for this pastime. However, in the modern city public spaces, such as the bridge, also provided a backdrop for the drama of daily life and a new perspective for the individual.

E.F. Farrington's ride

Fourteen long years of anticipation, observations of daily progress, and spectacles, including mechanic E.F. Farrington's 1876 trip across the river on a boatswain's chair attached to a rope, would have secured a considerable crowd for the Brooklyn Bridge's opening day (McCullough 337-340). However, the New York Bridge Company officially deemed May 24, 1883, "The People's Day": the federal courts shut down, businesses closed at noon, and few children made it to school. Shortly before one o'clock Governor Grover Cleveland and New York-born President Chester A. Arthur left Fifth Avenue Hotel in a carriage—the seventh regiment, a band, and police escorts in tow. Near the New York tower, Kingsley met the delegation and escorted them across the span, via the elevated promenade, to the Brooklyn contingent, headed by Mayor Low, waiting to greet them at the opposite tower. The afternoon included a plethora of speeches—from Kingsley, Low, and others—as well as renditions of the "Star-Spangled Banner," "Yankee Doodle," and "Hail to the Chief." One speaker even compared John Roebling to Leonardo da Vinci and showered similar, if not greater, accolades on Washington.

Fireworks light up the bridge on opening night

Once darkness enveloped the bridge, spectators watched as the electric lights lining the promenade sprang to life and cheered the firework display (McCullough 484-495). Washington, of course, watched most of the festivities from his window, but even he partook of the celebration for Emily ensured that her husband was not overlooked. While Mayor Low planned a reception for the president, Emily planned her own, more exclusive, reception at the Roebling home, where President Arthur made sure to stop and congratulate the tireless chief engineer.

Steve Brodie

From the beginning, the bridge was established as more than a roadway or pedestrian walkway. Here people came together to celebrate, to congregate, to commute, to ogle, to admire man's strength and abilities. Here, occasionally, man tested this strength. A week after opening day, for example, with an estimated 20,000 people swarming the bridge, twelve people were trampled to death. The swell overcrowded a narrow staircase leading up to the promenade at the New York approach. People could move neither up nor down and panic ensued (McCullough 500). Then, of course, came the jumpers, starting with Robert Odlum on May 19, 1885; the bridge proved too great an opponent for him. The most famous jumper, though doubts remain as to whether he actually made the leap, is Steve Brodie. Still he claims to have survived the jump in 1886, and his story became a successful play called On the Bowery.

A View From the Promenade

Most, however, sought to glean from, rather than challenge, the bridge's greatness. In the 1880s, as McCullough notes, "…to be able to walk out on that bridge was a thrill that we have to use our imagination to appreciate…people were suddenly able to walk up out over a river, higher than they'd ever been in their lives…to look out over the harbor, to look out over both cities" (Burns). The experience infused one with the sense of power, of man's superiority over nature. For some, such as Lewis Mumford, it ignited a sense of individualism. Recalling what he deemed a "transcendental experience" in the 1930s, Mumford says:

One March afternoon, I started over on the Brooklyn side. The wind was blowing; there were heavy clouds in the sky moving around, but the sky was light enough to give a complete silhouette of the skyscrapers on the New York side. I began walking over it, and because of it, I had a sense of the great stir of life, the vitality, the power that lay beneath everything. There were the ships and the tugs going up the East River. There were little curls of steam coming out of the skyscrapers. There was the sound of traffic on the bridge itself, and I was walking, young and feeling happily alone, and I had a sense almost of my whole career, of the world I was going to live in being laid out before me. I had a sense of the power and the glory of the present world (Burns).

The people began life anew, incorporating the bridge into their daily habits and routines, living rather than verbalizing the feelings of Goldberger who remarks, "Now that it's there, we can't imagine a world without it" (Burns).

back Next