Ken Burns brings us the tale of the erection of the Brooklyn Bridge which spans the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It took 14 years to build the bridge, an effort that took place from 1869 to 1883. This fascinating story is told by historians Lewis Mumford and David McCullough, and novelist Kurt Vonnegut, as the trio discuss the tedious process of bringing the project to completion.  The plan was to build the biggest bridge in the world.


John RoeblingCredit: Google

                                                                      John A. Roebling            

 Engineer John A. Roebling, a German immigrant, and his son Washington were given the responsibility of overseeing the undertaking.  John had instituted the first wire rope factory in America after it was discovered that hemp rope was not sufficient to prevent a bridge from collapsing.  He decided to use steel in constructing the bridge, a novel idea for the time.  It was the greatest engineering feat to be attempted in the 19th century.  The Roeblings were given $1.5 million dollars to start the project.

John Roebling had an accident at the scene when a boat crushed his foot. He tried a water cure, known as hydropathy at the time, but it did not alleviate the problem and he died 17 days later. His son Washington, then 32 years old, was placed in charge of the operation. It began with the building of caissons on either side of the East River. A caisson is an inverted wooden box on which the towers are constructed. An air chamber is formed under the box; compressed air is then forced into the chamber until water is displaced. Working within the caisson was a dangerous experience for the men, including Roebling.  Numerous workers were killed or permanently injured while working during the construction.  It was found that the high atmospheric pressure caused what they called decompression sickness where nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream. This disease, when experienced by divers, is called "the bends." Washington Roebling spent two years in this environment and became so ill that he could no longer work at the bridge. His wife Emily became his assistant and relayed all of his messages to the assistant engineers who had a high regard for Washington.

The towers rested on the caissons which, on the Brooklyn side, were 44 feet below water level. On the New York side, the measurement was 106 feet below water level. The New York tower stands on sand, not bedrock, which was the most difficult decision which Roebling had to make, and it was successful. In 1876, four main suspension cables were put in place, high above the river. Each cable contained over 6000 wires, stretching over 3500 miles back and forth between the two towers. After ten years, only the roadway remained to be put in place.

   Brooklyn BridgeCredit: Google                  

                                                                        The Brooklyn Bridge

In May 1883, the bridge was ready to receive its first passenger, Washington’s wife, Emily. She carried a rooster, which is the symbol for success, across the bridge. There was great celebration in the two cities with 14 tons of fireworks exploding for more than an hour. Everybody was given the day off.  Chester A. Arthur was President at the time, and he was included in the festivities.  When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, an elderly lady from Brooklyn was asked what she thought of that feat.  She answered that it was nothing compared to the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge. She had been there.

Some call it the eighth wonder of the world. It is 1500 feet long, the work of an engineer who was also a great artist. Even today, residents of Brooklyn and Manhattan love to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, some traveling to their jobs in Manhattan.  A movie entitled “It Happened in  Brooklyn” was released in 1947 starring Frank Sinatra and featured the bridge prominently.  

      JumboCredit: Google                                    

                                                    Statue of  Jumbo the Elephant at Tufts U.

When the bridge was being constructed, we did not have the technical expertise that we have today.  Many people were skeptical about the bridge’s stability, which led P. T. Barnum of the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus to have his famed elephant Jumbo lead a parade of 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge.  This feat dispelled all doubt about the bridge’s strength.  In 1964, the bridge received the designation as a National Historic Landmark.


Ken Burns America Collection - Brooklyn Bridge
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One part of the America Series by Ken Burns.
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge
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David McCullough's research prompted Ken Burns to do his documentary on the Brooklyn Bridge.