20 Things About the Brooklyn Bridge You Probably Don’t Know

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous New York City icons, but there is probably a lot about it that you simply don’t know. When you visit the Brooklyn Bridge to admire its beauty and its view, you’re bound to appreciate it even more after learning some of its history. Here are 20 things about the bridge that are both fascinating, educational, and just plain cool!

1. It First Linked Two Cities

When the Brooklyn Bridge first opened on May 24, 1883, it connected the city of Brooklyn to New York City. Spanning the East River, it could easily accommodate both pedestrian and road traffic. Within its first 24 hours of operation, over 250,000 people crossed this mammoth span. Brooklyn was not yet one of the five boroughs of NYC at that point, however, it became one on January 1, 1898.

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2. It Shares Some Building Materials with Other American Landmarks

The bridge’s cable suspension bridge design is flanked by massive towers composed of limestone, granite, and Rosendale cement. The limestone was quarried in Essex County, New York, and the granite blocks were quarried and shaped in Maine. After their construction, the massive granite blocks were brought to New York by a schooner. Rosendale cement is a specific type of hydraulic cement produced in Rosendale, New York made from limestone. Since it set faster than other products of its time, it was desirable for large-scale construction projects on a tight timeline. Other buildings and landmarks that also use Rosendale cement are the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Federal Hall National Memorial, and the west wing of the US Capitol building.

3. Its Name Has Changed a Few Times

Although it seems obvious to have called it the Brooklyn Bridge right from the start, the famous suspension bridge was first known as the Great East River Bridge. If you’re new to NYC geography, it’s the East River that runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and under the Brooklyn Bridge. When the bridge was dedicated, it was called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. Its name was finally changed to the Brooklyn Bridge in 1915. Since locals had already shortened the clunky name to the Brooklyn Bridge, the city government agreed that the name should be formally changed as well to promote civic pride.

4. Bribery Got the Project Moving

Engineer John Augustus Roebling, who was already famous for building suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Niagara Falls, was the first to envision a suspension bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. His intentions were noble– make the daily commute easier and quicker for working-class New Yorkers. However, the methods he used to get the project off the ground were not as honorable. Once Roebling was hired to oversee and design the project, the next issue became funding this massive project. He quietly employed the help of political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed, who secretly channeled over $60,000 in bribes to city officials to secure funding.

5. Its Visionary Died Before Its Completion

Roebling was a German immigrant who came to America to find success as an engineer, since this profession did not provide economic mobility in Germany. After several starts and stops to his engineering career due to the Civil War, Roebling knew he had found his pinnacle project with the Brooklyn Bridge. Just a few months after construction began in 1869, a docking ferry crushed his foot when he was surveying land on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The injured toes were amputated, and he refused further medical treatment, dying of tetanus a few weeks later. His son and daughter-in-law, Washington Augustus and Emily Warren Roebling, finished the bridge.

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6. Many Workers Became Ill, Including Roebling’s Son

Building a structure of such massive proportions required extremely sturdy and reliable supports. After all, it’s not every day that you can dig underneath a river to begin building a bridge! In order to create the bridge’s massive foundations, workers had to labor in caissons, a large, airtight compartment that allowed digging to occur underwater. In order for the workers to breathe, compressed air was required in the caissons, which meant that the workers had to slowly ascend from the compartments or they would suffer what’s known today as “the bends.” Many laborers suffered from this ailment, including Washington Augustus Roebling, who was bedridden for the remainder of the bridge’s construction.

7.  Its First User, and Secret Chief Engineer, Was a Woman

Washington Augustus Roebling’s sickness prompted his wife Emily to learn bridge construction, taking over the day-to-day duties of building the Brooklyn Bridge. Shuttling back and forth between her husband’s bedside and the construction site, she is one of the primary reasons that the bridge’s construction was completed successfully. Emily was also the first person to ride across the finished bridge! She was followed by approximately 1,800 horse-drawn vehicles and one-quarter of a million pedestrians, who used the overhead promenade, over the course of the next 24 hours. Her husband watched her via telescope from his bed, cheering on not only his wife but also the completion of both he and his father’s life work.

Best hotels Brooklyn Bridge

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8. The First Animal to Cross Was a… Rooster!

When Emily Roebling crossed the bridge, she was holding a rooster in her lap. A symbol of good luck, the rooster technically tied with Mrs. Roebling for the first to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

9. Shortly After it Opened, a Deadly Stampede Occurred

After opening to the public on May 24, 1893, thousands of people flocked to this marvel of modern engineering to cross the East River on a spectacular steel structure. Within these massive crowds, a rumor spread that the bridge was unstable and collapsing. This sparked a panic that caused thousands of pedestrians to rush towards the mouth of the bridge, fearing the bridge’s impending collapse. The result was the death of 12 pedestrians who were trampled to death, with over 3 dozen more being injured.

10. It Wasn’t Always Free to Use

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of only four NYC bridges that don’t have a toll. (The other three are the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Queensboro bridges.) However, when it first opened, it cost one penny to walk across the bridge and five cents to ride across on horseback. Horse-drawn wagons paid 10 cents, while farmers moving their cows, pigs, and sheep across had to pay five, two, and two cents per animal, respectively.

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11. P.T. Barnum Got Involved

Speaking of animals–would you believe, elephants? It’s true: six days after the bridge’s opening, a rumor that it was about to collapse resulted in a stampede and several people were killed. Never one to shy away from publicity, Barnum put the instability rumors to rest nearly a year later, when he had 21 elephants parade across the Brooklyn Bridge.

12. Was the Longest Suspension Bridge

Those elephants had a long walk–at one time, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring 1,600 feet from tower to tower (the main span) and a little more than 6,000 feet in total length. These days, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge in Japan holds the honor, with the main span measuring 6,532 feet and a total length of nearly 13,000 feet.

13. It’s a Designated Landmark

The Brooklyn Bridge holds National Historic Landmark designation with the National Park Service (since 1964) and New York City Landmark status with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (since 1967).

14. It Was a Glorified Wine Cellar

Actually, make that two glorified wine cellars! Sip on this: Both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge contain a wine cellar “beneath the ramps that lead to the anchorages.” Roebling incorporated them into the design to help offset the bridge’s $15 million price tag and accommodate two liquor businesses that lay in the path of construction. The vaults were perfect for storing wine, as they were cool and dark. Although Prohibition led to the wine being replaced by newspapers for a brief time, all wine storage officially ceased after World War II, at which time the city took over the vaults.

15. It Also Housed a Fallout Shelter

Once the city took over the vaults post World War II, a new crisis was facing the country– the Cold War. While not an actual declaration of arms, the United States feared nuclear attacks by communist USSR, and urged American to prepare themselves in case of mutually-assured destruction. This included the building of fallout shelters, which the government urged should include 6 months of canned food, water, emergency medical supplies, and communication devices such as radios. During the Cold War, one of the compartments of the Brooklyn Bridge was turned into a secret fallout shelter containing these vitals supplies in case of a nuclear attack. Forgotten about after the demise of the USSR, this fallout shelter was discovered in 2006 virtually untouched.
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16. It Has Seen Its Share of Stunts

Barnum’s elephant stunt was far from the last to occur on or from the Brooklyn Bridge. Robert Oldum, a swim instructor, was the first person to jump from the bridge, though unfortunately didn’t survive. Steve Brodie jumped and lived, and then channeled his fame into an acting career. Fifty years later, Jack Latkowski, known as the “new Steve Brodie,” was reported to have dived off the bridge several times, and his jackknife was even caught on film. In 2014, two German artists climbed the bridge’s towers and unfurled two white flags in place of the usual American flags that fly there.

17. It’s a Movie Star

Even before you visit the Brooklyn Bridge, you recognize it. That’s because the chances are good that you’ve seen the famous bridge in countless movies, both old and new. This includes “Moonstruck,” “Fantastic Four,” “Spider-Man” (the 2002 version), “I Am Legend,” “Cloverfield,” “Independence Day” and so many more.

18. The Original Color is Unclear

In 2010 the Brooklyn Bridge received a makeover, which included a fresh coat of paint. However, after over 127 years of wind, rain, snow, and pollution, it was unclear what the original color of the bridge actually was! In the end, the hue “Brooklyn Bridge tan” was decided upon as close to the Roebling’s original blueprints as possible.

19. George Washington Once Lived Here

If you’re thinking that the timeline of America’s first president and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge do not overlap, you’re correct. The bridge has a plaque commemorating the land below as Washington’s former mansion on the Manhattan end of the bridge. This was the former location of our nation’s very first presidential home during Washington’s initial 10 months in office.

20. Some Modern Vehicles Are Too Heavy to Cross

At the beginning of the bridge, signs clearly state that no commercial traffic is allowed and that the weight limit is 3 tons (6,000 pounds.) This is understandable, considering the bridge’s age. However, there are many modern large trucks and SUV’s that easily cruise over that 6,000-pound mark, even though they should technically take other routes. John Roebling could probably not image a 10 person SUV crossing his suspension bridge back in the late 1800’s!

Biking Brooklyn

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When you’re visiting New York City, these facts about the Brooklyn Bridge are interesting to know, for sure. But you should also know that a walk or jog across the bridge is a must, as it’s one of the most beautiful and romantic places in the entire Big Apple.

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