It's been 133 years since a woman was the first to cross the length of the Brooklyn Bridge carrying a rooster, and 130 years since jumping off the bridge — not something we recommend — was all the rage. (The result of that fad was the coining of the favorite parental saying: "If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump off, too?")
For more secrets of the first bridge ever to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan, we turned to Jonathan Anderson, who runs New York Local Tours with fiancée Alex Delare. Of all their tours, the Brooklyn Bridge tour is the most popular.
A woman with zero formal engineering training built it.
Three architects created the bridge over the 14 years of its construction. German-born John Augustus Roebling — a genius Anderson calls "the Da Vinci of the 19th century" — started the project, as he was trained in creating suspension bridges. Just before construction began, Roebling was injured in a boat accident, and died of tetanus several weeks later. His son, Washington A. Roebling, took up the project's mantle — only to get the bends, severely, while working on it. The person who finished the work? Washington Roebling's wife Emily, who had no engineering training, but worked with her sick husband and his father's drafts — walking down to the bridge to direct workers — to finish it. (Look for the plaque honoring Emily, which doesn't convey the extent of her contributions, as you traverse the bridge.)
Building the bridge was hugely controversial.
The first bridge to join the two huge boroughs, and the longest in the world at the time, spurred controversy. "When they first proposed the idea it was such a huge undertaking," says Anderson. "Nothing like this had ever been attempted before. Everyone was waiting for the bridge to fall down and kill everyone; they didn't think it was possible. Scientific American published all these articles about how they didn't know what they were doing. Everyone was half-expecting the bridge to be a disaster, and half expecting it to be the most amazing thing anyone had ever seen."
The newspaper that supported it most was in Brooklyn.
The New York Times, the Tribune, and Scientific American published both pro and con articles, but in Brooklyn, where the major newspaper was The Brooklyn Eagle, an editor (and champion of the bridge) named Thomas Kinsella chose to largely publish articles "about how awesome it would be," says Anderson.
The towers were sunk into the East River using a giant box the size of half a city block.
Though its 275-feet-tall towers might catch your eye the most, says Anderson, know that those same towers sink a good 78 feet into the riverbed on the Manhattan side, and approximately 50 feet on the Brooklyn side. Washington Roebling designed a 100-by-168-foot box called a "caisson," which he filled with compressed air, and piled rocks on top of it to push it into the riverbed until it hit bedrock, making room for the towers' base. (Workers helped dynamite and shovel out the riverbed from inside the caisson.)
The bridge was originally going to look like an Egyptian tomb.
"When John Roebling first designed the bridge in 1867," says Anderson, "his initial idea for the bridge was to design it to look Egyptian tomb." When his son Washington took over, he designed the "two super-beautiful archways." If Roebling, Sr., had stayed in charge, the bridge would have looked "kind of like a window — like a big box. Instead of coming up to a point, it would have been all right angles."
It is a genius feat of engineering.
"In the 1940s they did a roadway expansion to help the bridge accommodate cars," says Anderson. "City officials corralled a group of engineers and said 'Listen, the Brooklyn bridge is really important. We haven't touched it in 60 years. We need to know what to do to it to keep it standing.'" The engineers put in three years of studies, and the results were that "it could use a coat of paint, and that's it," says Anderson. "It is the most well-built bridge in the city, it's incredible. It will survive forever."
Stay out of the bike lane in order to survive — really.
Anderson and his partner reiterate one thing over and over to first-time bridge visitors: "Stay the hell out of the bike lane." He has seen "so many brutal accidents because someone's not paying attention; they step right into the bike lane and collide into a bike, and it's ugly." On the Brooklyn Bridge, there's nothing that separates the bike lane from the pedestrian lane; commuter cyclists can pick up serious speed, and it's easy to walk into them if you're not paying attention and ogling the Statue of Liberty.
Love locks will get cut off every week.
Want to declare your eternal love by putting "love locks," à la that bridge in Paris, on the Brooklyn Bridge? Good luck with that. They're there, says Anderson, "but they get cut off all the time. Every week, a guy with big scissors comes along who cuts them off."
Steve Brodie, who claimed he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, is in a "Looney Tunes" episode.
"Right when the bridge was built," says Anderson, "it was a fad to try to jump off it and live. There was a series of guys who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and it didn't really go great." One gent, Steve Brodie, "swam out into the East River and was like, 'Look, I did it!'" He became super-famous and super-successful, says Anderson, but most think — because Brodie didn't have a single bruise or broken bone — he didn't make the leap. Except in cartoon form: "There's an awesome episode of Looney Tunes in which Bugs Bunny convinces Steve Brodie to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge."
The best view of the bridge is from the subway.
Once upon a time the Brooklyn promenade was the best place from which to see the bridge, "but they built this god-awful condo that really obstructs the view, so honestly my favorite place to view the bridge is from the Q or B train over the Manhattan bridge," says Anderson. So remember to peek out!
Emily and Washington Roebling are buried north of NYC, in Cold Spring.
"We've become super-hardcore Brooklyn bridge nerds and we went up to visit Washington and Emily's grave in Cold Spring," says Anderson. He and his fiancée made the trip, asked around, and "no one had heard of them." They eventually found the cemetery on their own. "Nothing on their grave is like 'we built bridges,'" says Anderson. "Their whole memorial was like, 'We were so in love, and that's what's important.'"