Although the Brooklyn Bridge is technically a suspension bridge, it uses a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge design. The towers are built of limestone, granite, and Rosendale cement. The limestone was quarried at the Clark Quarry in Essex County, New York. The granite blocks were quarried and shaped on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, under a contract with the Bodwell Granite Company, and delivered from Maine to New York by schooner.
The bridge was built with numerous passageways and compartments in its anchorages. New York City rented out the large vaults under the bridge's Manhattan anchorage in order to fund the bridge. Opened in 1876, the vaults were used to store wine, as they were always at 60 °F (16 °C). This was called the "Blue Grotto" because of a shrine to the Virgin Mary next to an opening at the entrance. When New York visited one of the cellars about 102 years later, in 1978, it discovered, on the wall, a "fading inscription" reading: "Who loveth not wine, women and song, he remaineth a fool his whole life long."
Construction of the bridge began in 1869. The bridge was initially designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges, such as Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, the Waco Suspension Bridge and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky. While conducting surveys for the bridge project, Roebling sustained a crush injury to his foot when a ferry pinned it against a piling. After amputation of his crushed toes he developed a tetanus infection which left him incapacitated and soon resulted in his death in 1869, not long after he had placed his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling in charge of the project.
The bridge's two towers were built by floating two caissons, giant upside-down boxes made of southern yellow pine, in the span of the East River, and then beginning to build the stone towers on top of them until they sank to the bottom of the river. Compressed air was pumped into the caissons, and workers entered the space to dig the sediment, until the caissons sank to the bedrock. The whole weight of the bridge still sits upon a 15-foot thickness of southern yellow pine wood under the sediment.
Many workers became sick with the bends in this work. This condition was unknown at the time, and was first called "caisson disease" by the project physician Andrew Smith. Washington Roebling also suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of decompression sickness shortly after ground was broken for the Brooklyn tower foundation on January 3, 1870. Roebling's debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand.
As Chief Engineer, Roebling supervised the entire project from his apartment with a view of the work, designing and redesigning caissons and other equipment. He was aided by his wife Emily Warren Roebling who provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on site. Under her husband's guidance, Emily studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting Washington Roebling, helping to supervise the bridge's construction. When iron probes underneath the caisson for the Manhattan tower found the bedrock to be even deeper than expected, Roebling halted construction due to the increased risk of decompression sickness. He later deemed the aggregate overlying the bedrock 30 feet (9 m) below it to be firm enough to support the tower base, and construction continued.
The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is detailed in the 1972 book The Great Bridge by David McCullough and Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the first PBS documentary film by Ken Burns. Burns drew heavily on McCullough's book for the film and used him as narrator. It is also described in Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, a BBC docudrama series with accompanying book.
The bridge—originally referred to as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge and as the East River Bridge— was opened for use on May 24, 1883. The opening ceremony was attended by several thousand people and many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion. President Chester A. Arthur and Mayor Franklin Edson crossed the bridge to celebratory cannon fire and were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low when they reached the Brooklyn-side tower. Arthur shook hands with Washington Roebling at the latter's home, after the ceremony. Roebling was unable to attend the ceremony (and in fact rarely visited the site again), but held a celebratory banquet at his house on the day of the bridge opening. Further festivity included the performance of a band, gunfire from ships, and a fireworks display.
On that first day, a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross the bridge. The bridge's main span over the East River is 1,595 feet 6 inches (486.3 m). The bridge cost US$15.5 million in 1883 dollars (about US$385,554,000 in today's dollars) to build and an estimated 27 people died during its construction.
On May 30, 1883, six days after the opening, a rumor that the bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede, which was responsible for at least twelve people being crushed and killed. On May 17, 1884, P. T. Barnum helped to squelch doubts about the bridge's stability—while publicizing his famous circus—when one of his most famous attractions, Jumbo, led a parade of 21 elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge.
At the time it opened, and for several years, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50% longer than any previously built—and it has become a treasured landmark. Since the 1980s, it has been floodlit at night to highlight its architectural features. The architectural style is neo-Gothic, with characteristic pointed arches above the passageways through the stone towers. The paint scheme of the bridge is "Brooklyn Bridge Tan" and "Silver", although it has been argued that the original paint was "Rawlins Red".
At the time the bridge was built, the aerodynamics of bridge building had not been worked out. Bridges were not tested in wind tunnels until the 1950s, well after the collapse of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge (Galloping Gertie) in 1940. It is therefore fortunate that the open truss structure supporting the deck is by its nature less subject to aerodynamic problems. Roebling designed a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as he thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished into history and been replaced. This is also in spite of the substitution of inferior quality wire in the cabling supplied by the contractor J. Lloyd Haigh—by the time it was discovered, it was too late to replace the cabling that had already been constructed. Roebling determined that the poorer wire would leave the bridge four rather than six times as strong as necessary, so it was eventually allowed to stand, with the addition of 250 cables. Diagonal cables were installed from the towers to the deck, intended to stiffen the bridge. They turned out to be unnecessary, but were kept for their distinctive beauty.
After the collapse in 2007 of the I-35W highway bridge in the city of Minneapolis, increased public attention has been brought to bear on the condition of bridges across the US, and it has been reported that the Brooklyn Bridge approach ramps received a rating of "poor" at its last inspection. According to a NYC Department of Transportation spokesman, it wasn't necessarily dangerous in the state it was then in, but a poor rating implied a renovation. A US$508 million project (equivalent to US$558 million in 2016) to renovate the approaches began in 2010, with the full bridge renovation beginning in spring 2011, and was originally scheduled to run until 2014, but project completion was later delayed to April 2015.
As part of this project, two approach ramps were widened from one lane to two by re-striping a new prefabricated ramp; clearance over the eastbound Interstate 278 at York Street, on the double-deck Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was increased; and seismic retrofitting, replacement of rusted railings and safety barriers, and road surface replacements were performed. Due to the nature of the work, detours were necessitated for four years.
In August 2016, after the renovation of the bridge had already been completed, the New York City Department of Transportation announced that it would conduct a seven-month, US$370,000 study to verify if the bridge could support a heavier upper deck that consisted of an expanded bicycle and pedestrian path. As of 2016, about 10,000 pedestrians and 3,500 bikers use the pathway on an average weekday.
In 1915, the city government officially named the structure the Brooklyn Bridge, a name first mentioned in print in a January 1867 letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
In 1919, Giorgio Pessi piloted what was then one of the world's largest airplanes, the Caproni Ca.5, under the bridge.
In 1964, the bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark, having become an icon of New York City since its opening, and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1972.
The centennial celebrations on May 24, 1983, saw a cavalcade of cars crossing the bridge, led by President Ronald Reagan. A flotilla of ships visited the harbor, parades were held, and in the evening the sky over the bridge was illuminated by Grucci Fireworks. The Brooklyn Museum exhibited a selection of the original drawings made for the bridge's construction, some by Washington Roebling himself. Media coverage of the centennial was declared "the public relations triumph of 1983" by Inc.
In June 1993, following 13 reconnoiters inside the metal structure, and with the help of a mountain guide, Thierry Devaux performed (illegally) eight acrobatic bungee jumps above the East River close to the Brooklyn-side pier, in the early morning. He used an electric winch between each acrobatic figure.
On March 1, 1994, Lebanese-born Rashid Baz opened fire on a van carrying members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish Movement, striking 16-year-old student Ari Halberstam and three others traveling on the bridge. Halberstam died five days later from his wounds. Baz was apparently acting out of revenge for the Hebron massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslims by Baruch Goldstein that had taken place a few days earlier on February 25, 1994. Baz was convicted of murder and sentenced to a 141-year prison term. After initially classifying the murder as one committed out of road rage, the Justice Department reclassified the case in 2000 as a terrorist attack. The entrance ramp to the bridge on the Manhattan side was named the Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp in memory of the victim.
In 2003, truck driver Iyman Faris was sentenced to about 20 years in prison for providing material support to Al-Qaeda, after an earlier plot to destroy the bridge by cutting through its support wires with blowtorches was thwarted through information the National Security Agency uncovered through wiretapped phone conversations and interrogation of Al-Qaeda militants.
In 2006, a Cold War-era fallout shelter was found during a structural inspection beneath the Manhattan approach. The abandoned space in one of the masonry arches still contained the emergency survival supplies for a potential nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Beginning on May 22, 2008, festivities were held over a five-day period to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. The events kicked off with a live performance of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in Empire–Fulton Ferry State Park, followed by special lighting of the bridge's towers and a fireworks display. Other events held during the 125th anniversary celebrations, which coincided with the Memorial Day weekend, included a film series, historical walking tours, information tents, a series of lectures and readings, a bicycle tour of Brooklyn, a miniature golf course featuring Brooklyn icons, and other musical and dance performances. Just before the anniversary celebrations, the Telectroscope, which created a video link between New York and London, was installed on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The installation lasted for a few weeks and permitted viewers in New York to see people looking into a matching telectroscope in front of London's Tower Bridge. A newly renovated pedestrian connection to the DUMBO neighborhood was also unveiled before the anniversary celebrations.
On October 1, 2011, more than 700 protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement were arrested while attempting to march across the bridge on the roadway.
Early in the morning on July 22, 2014, the two American flags attached to poles atop each tower were found to have been replaced by American flags that had been bleached white. It is believed that several individuals covered the lights that illuminate the flags, then climbed the cables to the top of the two bridge towers. No motivation had yet been confirmed for this incident, but it had been suggested that the white flags were meant to symbolize surrender. Evidence including surveillance footage and DNA taken from the bridge was reviewed, and by August 1, 2014, up to nine "persons of interest" had been found, with a possible motive being cannabis activism. However, on August 12, 2014, two Berlin artists claimed responsibility for hoisting the two white flags, causing the security panic and investigation by New York police. Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke said the flags were meant to celebrate "the beauty of public space" and the anniversary of the death of German-born John Roebling, who designed the famous bridge. The artists say they hand-sewed the two flags into all-white replicas of an American flag and had the original flags ready to return. "This was not an anti-American statement," Wermke said.
There have been several notable jumpers as well. The first person to jump from the bridge was Robert Emmet Odlum, brother of women's rights activist Charlotte Odlum Smith, on May 19, 1885. He struck the water at an angle and died shortly thereafter from internal injuries. Steve Brodie dropped from underneath the bridge in July 1886, although there is some doubt about this. Larry Donovan made a slightly higher jump from the railing a month later and went on to an international bridge jumping career. Cartoonist Otto Eppers jumped and survived in 1910, and was then tried and acquitted for attempted suicide. A lesser known early jumper was James Duffy of County Cavan, Ireland, who, on April 15, 1895, asked several men to watch him jump from the bridge. Duffy jumped and was not seen again.
The bridge originally carried horse-drawn and rail traffic, with a separate elevated walkway along the centerline for pedestrians and bicycles. Since 1950, the main roadway has carried six lanes of automobile traffic. Due to the roadway's height (11 ft (3.4 m) posted) and weight (6,000 lb (2,700 kg) posted) restrictions, commercial vehicles and buses are prohibited from using this bridge. The two inside traffic lanes once carried elevated trains of the BMT from Brooklyn points to a terminal at Park Row via Sands Street. Streetcars ran on what are now the two center lanes (shared with other traffic) until the elevated lines stopped using the bridge in 1944, when they moved to the protected center tracks. In 1950, the streetcars also stopped running, and the bridge was rebuilt to carry six lanes of automobile traffic.
The Brooklyn Bridge is accessible for motor cars from the Brooklyn entrances of Tillary/Adams Streets, Sands/Pearl Streets, and Exit 28B of the eastbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In Manhattan, motor cars can enter from either direction of the FDR Drive, Park Row, Chambers/Centre Streets, and Pearl/Frankfort Streets. Pedestrian and bicycle access to the bridge from the Brooklyn side is from either Tillary/Adams Streets (in between the vehicular entrance/exit) or a staircase on Prospect Street between Cadman Plaza East and West. In Manhattan, the pedestrian walkway is accessible from the end of Centre Street or through the unpaid south staircase of Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall / Chambers Street subway station complex.
The Brooklyn Bridge has a wide pedestrian walkway open to walkers and cyclists in the center of the bridge above the automobile lanes. In 1971, a center line was painted to separate cyclists from pedestrians, creating one of the City's first dedicated bike lanes. More than 4,000 pedestrians and 3,100 cyclists cross the Brooklyn Bridge each day. While the bridge has always permitted the passage of pedestrians across its span, its role in allowing thousands to cross takes on a special importance in times of difficulty when usual means of crossing the East River have become unavailable.
During transit strikes by the Transport Workers Union in 1980 and 2005, the bridge was used by people commuting to work, with Mayors Koch and Bloomberg crossing the bridge as a gesture to the affected public.
Following the 1965, 1977, and 2003 blackouts and most famously after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the bridge was used by people leaving Manhattan after subway service was suspended. During the 2003 event, many crossing the bridge reported a swaying motion. This swaying was caused by a much higher pedestrian load than usual, coupled with the tendency of pedestrians to synchronize their footfalls with a sway, amplifying the motion. Several engineers expressed concern about how this would affect the bridge, although others noted that the bridge did withstand the event and that the redundancies in its design—the inclusion of the three support systems – suspension system, diagonal stay system, and stiffening truss—make it "probably the best secured bridge against such movements going out of control". Previously, bridge designer John Roebling had stated that due to such redundancies, the bridge would sag, yet not fall, even if one of these structural systems were to fail altogether.
Vehicular access to the bridge is provided by a complex series of ramps on both the Manhattan and Brooklyn sides of the bridge.
Contemporaries marveled at what technology was capable of, and the bridge became a symbol of the optimism of the time. John Perry Barlow wrote in the late 20th century of the "literal and genuinely religious leap of faith" embodied in the Brooklyn Bridge — "the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology".
References to "selling the Brooklyn Bridge" abound in American culture, sometimes as examples of rural gullibility but more often in connection with an idea that strains credulity. For example, "If you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you." George C. Parker and William McCloundy are two early 20th-century con-men who had (allegedly) successfully perpetrated this scam on unwitting tourists. The 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Bowery Bugs" is also a joking reference to Bugs "selling" a story of the Brooklyn Bridge to a naive tourist.
A bronze plaque is attached to one of the bridge's anchorages, which was constructed on a piece of property occupied by a mansion, the Osgood House, at 1 Cherry Street in Manhattan. It served as the first Presidential Mansion, housing George Washington, his family, and household staff from April 23, 1789, to February 23, 1790, during the two-year period when New York City was the national capital. Its owner, Samuel Osgood, was a Massachusetts politician and lawyer, who married Maria Bowne Franklin, widow of Walter Franklin, the New York merchant who built it in 1770. Washington moved in a week before his 1789 inauguration as first President of the United States. In addition to living quarters, the Osgood House contained the President's private office and the public business office, making it the first seat of the executive branch of the federal government.
"Love locks" is a practice by which a couple inscribes a date and their initials onto a lock, attach it to the bridge, and throw the key into the water as a sign of their "everlasting love". Although the origin of the practice is unknown, it is more popular in Europe, where more than 20 countries have at least one city with a similar location. It has reportedly caused damage to certain bridges and is officially illegal in New York City. The love locks are occasionally removed from the Brooklyn Bridge.The bridge is often featured in wide shots of the New York City skyline in television and film. It has been shown in films such as Annie Hall, Gangs of New York, Kate & Leopold, It Happened in Brooklyn, Independence Day, I Am Legend, The Dark Knight Rises, Once Upon a Time in America, Oliver & Company (in which the bridge has a subway track), The Avengers, and Godzilla (in which the bridge is completely destroyed). It has also been prominently featured in various television series (especially those set in New York City), such as CSI: NY.
Cuban poet José Martí wrote an article titled "The Bridge of Brooklyn" for the magazine La América, published in June 1883, shortly after the bridge opened to the public. The article was published in his book "Escenas norteamericanas". In the article, Martí made comparisons between certain animals (like snakes) and the structure of the bridge.
American Modernist poet Hart Crane used the Brooklyn Bridge as a central metaphor and organizing structure for his second and most important book of poetry, The Bridge. This book takes the form of a long poem spanning eight parts, beginning with an ode ("Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge") and ending with a transfigured vision of the bridge as the unifying symbol of America ("Atlantis"). Crane briefly lived in an apartment overlooking the bridge that, he later learned, once housed Washington Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge's builder and son of its architect, John A. Roebling.
Black American writer Samuel R. Delany makes extensive use of the Brooklyn Bridge in ATLANTIS: THREE TALES (1995), a collection of short stories. The first of these stories, "Atlantis: Model 1924" places the main character Sam (based on Delany's own father) on the bridge, where he coincidentally meets Hart Crane.
American playwright Mark Violi has penned the drama Roebling: The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge. This stage play focuses on the dramatic events of the Roebling family as they endeavor to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Tagline for the play reads: "A drama about the men who built the Brooklyn Bridge–and the woman who finished it."