John Roebling the engineer and architect of the Brooklyn Bridge had already been a prominent designer of suspension bridges before his great bridge connecting the cities of New York and Brooklyn. He was also a manufacturer of twisted wire rope used for suspension bridges. His factory was based in Trenton, New Jersey. He designed the Niagra River Gorge Bridge in 1885, the Sixth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859, and the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge now known as the John A. Roebling Bridge Suspension Bridge in 1867, just two years before the Brooklyn Bridge started construction. That last bridge had been the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1057 feet for the main span before the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 with its main span at 1595.5 feet.
In 2006, as the city was performing an inspection of the Brooklyn Bridge to uncover structural abnormalities, they made an unusual find. In a dark and dank arched structure on the shoreline of the East River, underneath the bridge and near the Manhattan anchorage they found “medical supplies, paper blankets, drugs,” a stockpile of cold-war-era 17.5-gallon water drums that could be reused “as a commode,” 352,000 Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Crackers (calorie-packed crackers that were probably still edible), along with doses of Dextran, a drug used to treat or prevent shock. This was reported by the NY Times. The items were stored during the cold war, evident from the supply boxes stamped with dates from 1957 and 1962, dates that correspond to the Soviet launching of the satellite Sputnik and the Cuban Missile Crisis, respectively. The room was still intact and had been for years without the city’s knowledge.
photo CBS News
The Brooklyn Bridge, which we walk over on the “Best of Brooklyn-The Brooklyn Revolution” tour , was a massive achievement in the annals of engineering. It cost over 15 million dollars and took from 1869 to 1883 to build it, but much of the populace did not trust suspension bridges. It was publicly known that a large percentage of them collapsed. Just six days after the bridge opened on May 24, 1883, with thousands of people on the bridge, a woman tripped a staircase on the bridge, another woman let out a scream, and the crowd pushed forward and down the stairs, creating a panic and stampede. As it was reported in the newspaper: “Those following were in turn pushed over and in a moment the narrow stairway was choked with human beings, piled one on top of the other, who were being crushed to death. In a few minutes, 12 persons were killed, 7 injured so seriously that their lives are despaired of, and 28 others more or less severely wounded.”
When the police cleared the Brooklyn Bridge, the bridge was covered with articles of clothing and other belongings including 42 umbrellas and parasols, 6 canes, 34 bonnets, a skirt and 6 pairs of shoes.
Never one to turn down a public relations opportunity, the impresario P.T. Barnum, used this tragedy to show the bridge’s herculean strength on May 17, 1884 by having 21 elephants, plus 10 camels and 7 dromedaries march across the bridge, with his most famous elephant Jumbo, bringing up the rear.
Not long after the Civil War, the brothers John and Charles Arbuckle, revolutionized and started a new industry in today’s DUMBO, Brooklyn, by offering roasted coffee to consumers in single pound packages. Before that, coffee beans were purchased green and roasted at home over a fire or in a wood stove; getting a consistent and palatable end product was challenging. The Arbuckle Brothers had such a popular product that they shipped their coffee throughout the country. Marketing their product under the Ariosa and Yuban brands, they were still going through the 20th Century…and the Yuban brand is still around even today. On the Brooklyn Revolution tour, we visit the amazingly renovated Empire Stores, the site and facility used by the Arbuckle Brothers to process their coffee until they sold it in the 1940s.
Robert Fulton is undoubtedly, one of the most important people in the history of New York City. He is credited with commercializing the steamboat. His first boat, the Clermont, took travelers on a 150 mile trip up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. The steamboat had a tremendous influence on trade and transportation improving both reliability and speed. In 1814, the wealthy Brooklyn landowner Hezikiah Pierrepont (as in Pierrepont Place), teamed up with Fulton, and took at 25-year lease on the ferry route between New York City and Brooklyn. The first steam-powered Nassau boat, made regularly scheduled trips between New York and Brooklyn and vice-versa, and effectively reduced the time in the winter and in storms from up to about 1.5 hours to only 12 minutes. We visit the Fulton Ferry landing on the Brooklyn walking tour and on the Hamilton & Washington tour we see the monument to Robert Fulton (near where he is buried) in the Trinity Church cemetery. Although the Brooklyn Bridge, completed, in 1883, reduced the steamboats viability, the Fulton Ferry operated until 1924. New York City currently offers a similar route from the Fulton Ferry landing to Wall Street in Manhattan. The photo is of Robert Fulton’s life mask done by Jean Antoine-Houdon, who also did George Washington’s life mask.
On the Brooklyn Revolution walking tour, highlighting some of the best that Brooklyn has to offer, one of the most popular sites is the former home of Truman Capote, where he worked on two of his greatest works: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” The house is on 70 Willow Street. From 1955-1965, Capote rented space on the basement level from Oliver Smith, the famed Tony Award-winning Broadway scenic designer. George Plimpton, who was a visitor, wrote that “when friends came to call, [Capote] often took them on a tour of the entire house (when Smith was not at home) and said it was his house, all his, and that he had restored and decorated every room.” In February 1959, Capote penned “Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir” for “Holiday” travel magazine in which he begins:
“I live in Brooklyn. By choice. Those ignorant of its allures are entitled to wonder why.”
The entire article and photos taken at the time by David Attie of Capote, the house and the neighborhood are available in the book: “Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir, with the Lost Photographs of David Attie.”
On the Brooklyn walking tour, you will see the great Plymouth Church originally lead by the “most famous man in the world” Henry Ward Beecher. In 1860, Beecher, and ardent abolitionist (whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) invited the relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln to speak at the church. Lincoln accepted the $200 invitation and attended services there, but because of the large demand, gave his “Right Makes Might” speech in the Cooper Union in (what is now) the East Village instead. The pew in which Lincoln sat in the Plymouth Church is marked with a plaque which is in the photo here.
Truly, much of the credit for the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge under the stewardship of Washington Roebling, goes to his wife Emily Roebling. After his illness caused by “caisson disease” or what we now know as the bends or decompression sickness and his inability to visit the bridge, Emily learned all that she needed about bridge construction and engineering to serve as Washington’s liaison with the assistant engineers on-site. She explained Washington’s often complex directives and answered questions that they had. In 1882, the year before the bridge was completed, Emily successfully defended her husband to the board of directors and politicians who wanted to strip him of his title as Chief Engineer.
There is a plaque on the Brooklyn tower of the Brooklyn Bridge dedicated to the memory of Emily Roebling “whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband…complete the construction of this bridge…Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman”
Washington Roebling wrote: I thought I would succumb, but I had a strong tower to lean upon, my wife, a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.