U.S. Travel Icons Then and Now: The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge stands as a riveting example of how a landmark can be both an instrumental part of a city and an astounding tourist attraction at the same time. Drawing millions of tourists every year, the bridge remains an integral crossing point between Manhattan and the rest of NYC, serving a constant, invaluable function.

Maybe it is this dual purpose that continues to make the Bridge so attractive and well-known. Maybe it is the fact that we constantly learn new and incredible facts about the Bridge, even more than a 120 years after it was created. After all, it was not until 2006 that workers discover a Cold War bunker stocked with equipment and supplies, and only 2012 when the “Brooklyn Bridge Monster” was found. Who knows what other secrets the Bridge still hides beneath its consistent usability?

Engineering a Marvel

The Brooklyn bridge began with a simple dream: Create a bridge spanning the East River so the expensive, slow, and frequently treacherous ferry crossing to Manhattan could be avoided. The people were tired of waiting for ferry rides, getting stranded in ice in the winter, and wasting time loading and unloading goods at the docks. Fortunately, the government and investors agreed, and in 1869 the Brooklyn Bridge project began, spearheaded by the German immigrant and bridge builder John Roebling. The design was ambitious enough to make the Brooklyn Bridge one of the most impressive marvels of 19th century engineering.

The Bridge took a total of 16 years to build…all in the face of the East River, a tidal strait with dangerously changing conditions and constant ship traffic. It stretched about 5989 feet in total, and the length between its two massive towers was 1595.5 feet. Architects chose a grand, pseudo-gothic style for the great towers, hoping to both provide the necessary support for the vast bridge and create a spectacle that would keep tourists visiting for years. The towers provided anchoring for its many suspension cables needed to support the bridge length. By the end of the project, the Bridge cost around $18 million and was made almost entirely of steel and granite.

Finally, on May 24, 1883 the Bridge was opened to the public and displayed as the longest suspension bridge in the world (at that time). About 150,000 crossed the Bridge on that day alone – and set a key precedent for just how popular the Brooklyn Bridge would grow.

Transforming NYC

While the sight of the Bridge astounded, it also served a highly utilitarian purpose: It made crossing to one of the busiest city centers in the world easy. Once engineers knew it could be done, they planned to do it again – and again – and again, with increasingly updated materials. The Manhattan Bridge quickly followed, then the Williamsburg Bridge, and the George Washington Bridge, and other more minor bridges spanning the waters between the mainland and the island.

The results helped unite Brooklyn and NYC as one city, then propelled NYC to prominence as the center of world finance. By the 2000s, the Bridge had become a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Today, about 137,563 vehicles cross the bridge every day and about a million people cross over on foot each year.

Over the years the Brooklyn Bridge became rooted in the American imagination, not only for its easily recognizable, classic suspension bridge features, but for the stunts and Hollywood shots that incorporated it. Movies consistently captured the Bridge as a focal point of New York action. P.T. Barnum famously led a cadre of elephants across it in 1884. Mario Manzini was arrested trying to jump off in handcuffs and prove himself Houdini’s superior in 1974. News footage of people fleeing the terror of 9/11 by crossing the Bridge stunned a nation.

Visiting the Bridge: Things to Keep in Mind

It is possible to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, and the pedestrian walkway is a frequent stop for NYC tourists looking for the full experience. While it may be a surprisingly long walk if you have young children in tow, it is an incredibly awarding experience if you do not mind walking for about an hour. The pedestrian walkway is a wooden path construction above the traffic. It offers perfect views of the NYC skyline and the East River. When choosing a side to start on, try walking toward Manhattan for the best views. The wooden walkway is made primarily of 11,000 tropical wood planks (not easy on high heels) and now has a dedicated patch of forest that supplies all replacement boards!

More Brooklyn Bridge Resources

Learn more about the Brooklyn Bridge, its history, and its future by visiting these sites:

NYC Roads: Brooklyn Bridge

History: Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Park

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