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The Brooklyn Bridge, an American Icon, Turns 140 Years Old

Popularly referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world,” the bridge was, at the time of its construction, the largest suspension bridge in the world. Today, it connects New Yorkers with their past and each other.

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(David Kidd)
On this day 140 years ago, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public, following 14 long and difficult years of construction. Many had doubted that building a bridge of this size was advisable or even possible. When construction began in 1869, New York and Brooklyn were two separate entities, the country’s first and third most populous cities. The only way to move people and goods between them was by boat.

Popularly referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world,” the bridge was at the time the largest suspension bridge in the world, featuring a span of 1,595 feet and costing $15 million to construct. Thousands of residents and visitors turned out to watch and participate in the festivities on May 24, 1883, when it opened to the public. Colorful flags and bunting hung from the windows, doors and rooftops of seemingly every house, building and moored boat on both sides of the East River.

With the Seventh Regiment leading the way, President Chester Arthur began his ceremonial walk over the new bridge at about two o’clock. The procession paused at the first great granite tower on New York’s side, where he heard “Hail to the Chief” played four times. Upon arrival at the Brooklyn-side tower, he was treated to the president’s personal anthem another seven times. Cannons boomed, bells rang and steam whistles screamed, on land and from the flotilla of boats gathered below.

Hours of oratory continued throughout the day as thousands of ticket holders streamed across the bridge. An enormous display of fireworks, bigger than anything seen before, filled the night sky. According to the event’s commemorative booklet, “The demonstration was confined to no class or body of the populace. It was a holiday for high and low, rich and poor; it was, in fact, the People's Day.”
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Fireworks light up the night sky on opening day, 1883.
 (Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Changing but Staying the Same

Engineered and built for the ages, the Brooklyn Bridge has nevertheless undergone several renovations and reconfigurations as traffic needs have changed. Regular trolley service continued over the bridge until 1950 when the tracks were ripped up and replaced with a pair of three-lane roadways. As of 2021, one of the lanes is now dedicated to two-way bike traffic.

One original feature still in use is the pedestrian boardwalk that runs above and between the two roadways. On opening day more than 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people used the bridge to cross between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Now more than 120,000 cars, 30,000 pedestrians and 4,000 cyclists make the crossing every day.
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An elevated pedestrian walkway has been a feature of the bridge since it opened.
(David Kidd)

Building on the Past

Later this year, workers will finish the largest rehabilitation project in the bridge’s history. The granite towers have been strengthened and cleaned. Removing a century of soot and grime has revealed the stone’s original bright gray color. The mortar between each stone has been removed and replaced with material sourced from the same quarries used in the original construction.

Attention has also been paid to the largely unseen rows of soaring stone arches that support the bridge’s vehicle ramps. Brickwork within the arches has been strengthened and restored to its original appearance. Begun 13 years ago, the project also included the creation of an adjacent one-acre park, known as “the Arches.”
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In 1903, trolleys and horse-drawn wagons were a regular sight on the bridge.
(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)
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Cars became the predominant mode of transportation over the bridge in the 1950s.
(David Kidd)
Opening today in honor of the 140th anniversary, The Arches brings much-needed public space to an area that had been closed for years. The site is directly adjacent to a row of 53 historic arches in Manhattan, and features space for basketball, shuffleboard and, of course, pickleball. “One hundred forty years ago, we opened the Brooklyn Bridge and connected two islands,” said Mayor Eric Adams at The Arches May 12 announcement. “This is a landmark 1883 moment for our communities, our public spaces and our city’s recovery.”
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Work on the arches continued into early May.
(Ed Reed)
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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