Earlier this spring I read The Great Bridge, David McCullough’s magnum opus about the creation of the span connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan. One reason for doing so was because, after spending so much time reading about the death and destruction of the Civil War, I wanted to turn my attention to something being built not destroyed. The bridge is down the street from where I work and I often have my lunch there. It is also where I took my wife after our wedding reception. Yesterday was the one hundred and twenty eighth anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.
I sometimes think many New Yorkers assume the bridge has always “been there,” a natural part of the landscape. Actually it was the brainchild of German-born John Augustus Roebling, who was wounded on the construction site and died prematurely years before the bridge’s completion.
It was up to his son, Colonel Washington Augustus Roebling, to complete the task. He did so, but at great personal expense. Roebling contracted caisson disease, or the bends, from his frequent trips below the water to the excavation site and suffered in horrific pain the rest of his long life. He lived until 1926.
Roebling was an officer in the Army of the Potomac and participated in many of the war’s most important events. He fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness among other places. He also personally witnessed the engagement between the Monitor and the Merrimac in 1862. Roebling married Emily Warren, the sister of General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, in January 1865.
Looking at the bridge today…
…it takes a leap of faith to imagine it as it was just after its completion.
The road in the top photograph is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Below that in the same photograph is a new park being built along the Brooklyn side of the East River. The waterfront has not been part of the daily fabric of New York life for decades, since the collapse of the shipping industry in the mid-twentieth century. The city has been working hard to change that in recent years with a number of adaptive reuse projects.
The bridge has always been a favorite of painters and poets.