How Safe was the Brooklyn Bridge when Opened in 1883?

There are interesting events related to the opening of the famed Brooklyn Bridge in NYC. The bridge connects downtown Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn and over the years is very famous. Your ancestors may have crossed the Brooklyn Bridge many times.

The bridge was originally designed in 1869 by John A. Roebling but was completed by his son, Washington, after John’s untimely death in late 1869 when his toes were injured and tetanus developed. The company was the New York Bridge Company handling the construction. Sadly, Washington was also forced to bow out due to his bout with decompression sickness (the bends) in 1872. His wife, Emily, was the next in line to carry on once Washington fell ill. She got directions and instructions from Washington while he stayed home.

The bridge a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge spanning the East River is over 6,000 feet long. It was made to handle vehicular (carts, wagons, etc) and pedestrian traffic. Prior to the opening of the bridge, people took a ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back, which took a long time. It did take 13 – 14 years to complete construction and during that time there was 21 accidental death of workers on the bridge.

Once the bridge was built, the grand opening was May 24, 1883. Emily Roebling was given the first ride across the new bridge. Then some 250,000 people within 24 hours following going across the bridge. a horrific incident took place on Memorial Day, May 30, 1883. The bridge was experiencing some major overcrowding that day and a stampede occurred. A woman tripped and fell on the steps up to the bridge. Then another woman screamed and crowds pushed forward. People were soon piled on top of each other on the narrow stairway. A total of 12 people died and 35 were injured.

As the incident started to take on a life of its own, the story spread around the city and led to some major concerns about the bridge’s safety level. This is where the great P.T. Barnum stepped in to help out.

Barnum wanted to truly test the bridge’s durability. He wanted to show the public that there was nothing to worry about, so he had 21 elephants plus 10 camels and 7 dromedaries with the most famous 7-ton elephant ‘Jumbo’, bringing up the rear on May 17, 1884, cross the bridge as a means of assuaging their fears. When the bridge did not collapse, people started to worry a bit less. If the bridge could hold up to the structural demands created by 21 elephants and other animals, the average person should not have anything to worry about.

Now you know more about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Photo: The Parade of Elephants Across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884.

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