Panic on the Brooklyn Bridge!

On May 24th 1883, the city of New York had celebrated a glorious day. It was the grand opening of the Great Bridge, aka the The New York and Brooklyn Bridge aka the East River Bridge. Since 1915 it has officially been known as, The Brooklyn Bridge. May 24th was an all day celebration and Brooklyn declared a holiday from work and school and Manhattan declared a half-holiday. The most spectacular part occurred during the evening, when huge fireworks exploded from both the bridge and ships in the river. The New York skies blazed in a colorful and shimmering mist of triumph and thousands of onlookers cheered as a new bond was forged between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

A Brooklyn Reverend was inspired to envision the bridge “as a monument to peace, a peace that was felt between these two cities willing to interlink their destinies.”

As with any monumental creation, tragedies marred the bridge enterprise.  The father of the Brooklyn Bridge, architect and designer, John Roebling, and his son, Washington Roebling, both succumbed to the dreaded caisson’s disease. The construction suffered thirty losses of life over the fifteen years it took to build this marvel.

It was an unspoken truth then, that the Brooklyn Bridge was Emily Roebling’s bridge, despite the notion that a woman could not possibly be responsible for such a grand structure, as well as the general public uneasiness about its stability.

Emily took over the entire project when her husband Washington lost some of his hearing, speech, and mobility. Washington however, was undeterred and observed the progress every day through a spyglass from his bedroom window. He gave Emily instructions to carry out. The newspapers often reported on her activities and she did her part dutifully. When the bridge was completed in early May, Emily was the first person to go across it in a brand new Victoria carriage, carrying a rooster as a sign of the Robeling’s victory. The dawn of a new era for transportation.  Hundreds of people crossed the structure daily all for one penny.

May 30th, 1883 was a lovely, early summery day. At around 4:00pm, over 1,600 people endeavored to cross the bridge at one time. That was a dreaded scenario Washington Roebling had warned the city about. But how could you have reasoned with those who believed they were making history that first week? Everyone wanted their chance to cross the Great Bridge.

The journey across reduced to a crawl, because many people loitered to stare at the skyline and watch the sailboats, instead of keeping the stream of traffic flowing. A group, possibly from a popular men’s club, began to rant and rave how they would “Go through and pass this ungainly crowd.”

With little consideration for the women and children, they formed a solid, straight line by placing their arms across each others shoulders and marched forward like an army. Those who were stuck behind unsuccessfully tried holding back the surging crowd. Decorum faded and people started raising their hands and groping their way forward.

According to various accounts, someone shouted that the bridge was collapsing, and caused the panic. Another story blamed pickpockets in the crowds and a woman screamed and fell. The loud noise frightened everyone into believing the bridge was falling.

Grunts, groans, and agonizing cries filled the air. Heaps of men, women, and children piled atop one another on the stairwell. The police had trouble quelling the frightened masses. They begged for the mercy of the throngs and ordered them to calm down and use better judgment. Irrationality swept through everyone like a fire and they still clamored ahead.

As it turned out, the loud noise was the mother of a crying child, not the bridge collapsing or cables unwinding. In the heat and excitement from the prolonged walk, the mother had fainted and dropped her child and another woman up ahead screamed when she heard the noise.

The people were breathless and turned purple as their bodies were forced against the metal grating. Men held children above their shoulders and attempted to pass them overhead to safety. Parasols, hats, and canes went flying and only added to the mayhem. On that day 12 people died in the stampede. Though the earliest news reports claimed only 35 suffered injuries, it was most likely over a hundred.

In 1884 Phineas T. Barnum quenched the public’s fears of a bridge collapse. He marched a parade of twenty-one elephants, including a six and a half ton jumbo, across the entire bridge. Since then there have been countless parades, marathons, protests, and marches across the bridge.

On September 11th 2001, the Brooklyn Bridge was used an escape route for thousands of people after the Twin Towers collapsed.


AP Photo/Mark Lennihan (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

As of 2012, the bridge still stands as one of Brooklyn’s finest achievements.

Read the original account from the New York Times, May 31st, 1883:  Dead on the New Bridge: Fatal crush at the Western Approach


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