On this day in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public. Connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge was the largest suspension bridge at that time. Spanning the length of its two massive towers, the neo-gothic architectural marvel was dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. The impressive structure had a tragic history, however, one that spanned over 14 years and claimed 27 lives.
The bridge’s designer, German industrial engineer John Roebling, after migrating from Berlin to Pennsylvania, tried to become a farmer but his energies were soon diverted to engineering. At the time, suspension bridges were notorious for failing under strenuous weights and winds. With Roebling’s new web truss technology to make a more secure connection, however, his suspension bridges upheld in unfavorable conditions.
After successfully building the Niagara Gorge bridge and the Ohio River bridge in Cincinnati, Roebling’s designs to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan were readily accepted and construction on the 1,595 foot-long marvel began in 1869.
Unfortunately, John Roebling never lived to see his bridge completed. While on site, he pierced his toes, which caused a tetanus infection to set in and which took his life three weeks later. Today, he would have been given a tetanus shot and recovered quickly, but modern medicine had not developed enough to prevent infectious accidents such as tetanus as yet.
Roebling was among the many to fall prey to accidents while constructing the great bridge. John’s adult son Washington Roebling became chief engineer of the project follow his father’s death. Washington nearly died himself while overseeing the installation of the underwater foundations, forty-four feet under water. At the time, compression sickness (commonly known as “the Bends”) was not well understood, a serious condition of rapid immersion into deep water depths without allocating the proper time for the body to adjust.
With many of the crew dying from accidents and Washington paralyzed, many wondered if the bridge would ever be fully construction. After 14 years, on this day in 1883, the bridge was at last complete. As a symbol of victory, Washington Roebling’s wife Emily walked across the bridge holding a rooster. Although many had failed in the attempt to connect the two islands, her husband had at last successfully persevered.