They threw a big party on the Brooklyn Bridge last week. For the Brooklyn Bridge, actually. The span, one of the premier landmarks in a city that is chock full of them, is 125 years old. That’s certainly worthy of the fireworks, Navy fly-over, musical tribute and bridge-shaped birthday cake that last week’s celebration included.
They threw a big party on the Brooklyn Bridge last week. For the Brooklyn Bridge, actually.
The span, one of the premier landmarks in a city that is chock full of them, is 125 years old. That’s certainly worthy of the fireworks, Navy fly-over, musical tribute and bridge-shaped birthday cake that last week’s celebration included.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, as commuters have been doing since May 24, 1883, (even before Brooklyn was one of New York's five boroughs) is one of the sublime pleasures of New York City living. It’s like traversing history.
The sturdy Gothic structure — some 6,000 feet long — is as renowned for its aesthetics as its durability. That it is still in use is a tribute to its designer, John Roebling, who built it six times as strong as necessary to carry the vehicles of the day, namely carriages.
Tragically, Roebling never saw the bridge, which took 13 years to build. His foot was crushed between a ferry slip and a boat while inspecting a work site in July 1869, and, after more than a week of suffering, he died of an infection. His son, Washington Roebling, completed the project.
It has held up phenomenally. Of the 100 longest suspension bridges now in use around the world, the Brooklyn Bridge, the 71st longest, is the only whose construction dates to the 19th century. (New York City has something of a monopoly on ancient bridges: The Williamsburgh broke the Brooklyn Bridge’s 20-year reign as the world's longest when it opened in 1903; the Manhattan Bridge has been in operation since 1909.)
David McCullough provides a fascinating account of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction in his 1972 history, “The Great Bridge.” Among the noteworthy nuggets:
- When the 276-foot-6-inch towers were completed, they stood taller than not only every structure in Manhattan but in the western hemisphere.
- The project’s master mechanic, E.F. Farrington, made the first crossing of the East River via the bridge by riding in a boatswain’s chair that was tied to a wire rope between the towers.
- The bridge’s official name is the New York and Brooklyn Bridge.
For all its history and utilitarianism, the bridge has been part of the public consciousness. It has, for example, been a backdrop in countless movies. In some, like “Moonstruck,” the bridge is glorified and lovingly pictured, as when it frames Kosmo’s moon. In others — particularly a recent crop of cataclysmic extravaganzas such as “I Am Legend” and “Godzilla” — the bridge is given less respect. In fact, it’s destroyed.
For the record, the famous scene in “Manhattan” featuring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton on a bench at dawn beneath a bridge pictures not the Brooklyn Bridge but its less-popular stand-in, the Queensboro Bridge.
Of course, the Queensboro can one-up its Brooklyn cousin in one category: There was never a hit song called “The Brooklyn Bridge Song,” whereas the Queensboro enjoyed that distinction, thanks to Simon & Garfunkel, under it's alternative name, the 59th St. Bridge. (Actually, there was a “Brooklyn Bridge Song,” sung by Frank Sinatra, no less, in the 1947 film “It Happened In Brooklyn,” but it wasn’t a hit.)
Then again, the Queensboro Bridge never had a band named after it. A singer named Johnny Maestro had a few hits, notably 1969’s “The Worst That Could Happen,” fronting a band called the Brooklyn Bridge.
There was also a TV series called “Brooklyn Bridge” in the early 1990s. And the iconic span was profiled by that most iconographic of American documentary makers, Ken Burns, in 1981.
Through it all, the Brooklyn Bridge has been one of New York’s enduring symbols. Along with the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and, until September 2001, the World Trade Center, it is one of the city’s architectural stamps. And on that awful September day, it served as a path home to thousands of traumatized New York City pedestrians.
It’s quite a history. The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t the nation’s oldest suspension bridge (the Wheeling Suspension Bridge predates it by 34 years), or the longest (but Brooklyn does boast that span: the Verrazano-Narrows connects Brooklyn and Staten Island), or even the most admired (San Francisco’s Golden Gate came in fifth in a 2007 survey of “America’s Greatest Architecture;” although the Brooklyn Bridge did crack the top 20).
But with 125 years behind it, the structure was viewed when it opened as a symbol of the optimism of the industrial age may well be the most beloved.
That’s how a bridge merits its own birthday party.
Messenger managing editor Kevin Frisch’s column appears each week in the Sunday Messenger. Contact him at (585) 394-0770/Ext. 257 or by e-mail at email@example.com.