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The Bones of the Bridge


Last week, I shared a walk across Brooklyn Bridge with a focus on the views from the Bridge; this week I'm taking a look at the bridge itself, its sinews and bones, and a few historic images from its construction and its older years.

Die_Gartenlaube_(1881)_b_797To those of us in New York who see it daily and pass over it on our way to here and there, it can sometimes seem, well, just there. But its building was big news, the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built, and a key piece in uniting America's first- and fourth-largest cities into one just a few years after it opened.

Opening Day celebration, 1883, and 1983 Centennial

Part of the reason it was so important is that it gave the two cities their first all-weather connection, carrying horse-drawn vehicles as well as railroad trains and trolleys over the East River; previously, the river ferries could be out of service for days at a time when the river froze over.

800px-169_6_le_superdreadnought_ArizonaIt's also the stuff of New York legend: fraudsters 'selling' the bridge to naive rubes, Steve Brodie jumping off on a bet and living to collect it, and much more. It's easily one of the most recognizable sights in the world, and the stuff of dramatic pictures as well.

At left, the U.S.S. Arizona, later to be sunk at Pearl Harbor, passes under the bridge in November, 1918.

Below, in 1919, the first recorded flight of an airplane under the bridge. Then as now, it was an illegal stunt but there were no arrests.


The Brooklyn Bridge was under construction from 1869 to 1883, plagued by financial shortfalls, political maneuvering, and just plain slow and difficult work. Throughout the construction, it drew crowds to watch, especially at dramatic moments, such as when roadway was installed and cable spun between the towers. 


The bridge is also a monument of sorts to the Roebling family. Designed and supervised first by John A. Roebling, a German-born engineer, the work was taken over at his death by his son, Washington Roebling, and then, in the least-told part of the story, by Washington's wife Emily, a self-taught engineer who was the on-site manager after her husband was injured in a construction accident. Her role was belatedly recognized in 1931 when the Brooklyn Engineers Club installed a plaque on the bridge. The ones below iare for father and son, and a later reconstruction effort.


Of course, the bridge's opening didn't end construction work. Over the years, the bridge has been reworked with more car lanes replacing the trains and trams, and there's constant maintenance taking place on the bridge. In 1915, above, bridge-painting was clearly done with far less safety equipment than is required today.

P1010118P1010146But turning to the Bridge as we see it today. Everyone recognizes the famous brown stone and brick towers and the web of cables, but I was struck on my most recent walk with how much detail there is in the bridge, supporting those elements and creating interesting patterns and textures in themselves.


For example, these mesh cages at points where the cables and roadway are close together. Not part of the original plan, they were installed a few years ago to make it harder for adventurers to hop up on the cable and try to climb it to the top. Those fan-like structures are part of the scheme; they contain doors to let the authorized get by. Take that, Steve Brodie!


It's easy to get fascinated with the big picture, but the bridge is also full of small details that create contrasts of light and shadow, of substance and emptiness, of strength with grace. I could go on, but instead here are some pictures, each worth some words, if not quite a thousand.


The river itself adds a touch to some of the views; the bridge is different without the surrounding buildings.


Of course, all those parts of the bridge leave it open to a different kind of expression, an epidemic seemingly worldwide. I was surprised to see so many fewer 'love-locks' here—especially since a couple of years ago there were thousands. A tip of the hat to the City for that. Even if its efforts are sometimes open to ironic mockery.


Next door, the significantly-later and much less elegant Manhattan Bridge, which still carries trains, and has a walkway of its own waiting for future exploration.


But back to the Brooklyn, and a look up from below.


As the walkway finds its way around each of the towers, the widened sections invite a stop for information on the bridge, its history and the history of both the harbor and the two cities, now one, that face it.


And if you feel the need to remind yourself of the bridge and its views, why there just happen to be vendors on hand with an endless assortment of views, ranging from really compelling to 'Oh, please, no!" (black-and-yellow velvet night scene).


Two last views here; the lower one frames the tower of the Manhattan Municipal Building. And, in the slideshow at the bottom, I've left a few more images than really fit the blog.


Archive photos are public domain images from Wikimedia Commons.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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My indelible memory of the Brooklyn Bridge is watching Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, being trapped by the police, climbing up the bridge and diving head first into the river to escape.  I watched Tarzan religiously as a kid.  Today they would have to tell impressionable kids not to try this at home.  However, it led me to got our local public pool and learn how to dive off the high diving board which I think has been removed because of insurance costs.

George G

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