The Brooklyn Bridge Disaster
The Brooklyn Bridge over the East River, which connects Brooklyn to Manhattan, was opened in 1883. Still in use almost a century and a half later, it is a New York City icon, and a National Historic Landmark as the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge. Like many major infrastructure projects, particularly those of the nineteenth century, construction of the bridge, which began in 1869 and lasted for fourteen years, was no picnic. Workers toiled in poorly ventilated underwater chambers where many got decompression sickness, and some were outright paralyzed. However, the work went on, and when the bridge was finally completed and opened to the public on May 24th, 1883, it was a sensation, marked by fireworks and civic pride. Then disaster struck six days later, and ruined the good mood.
May 30th, 1883, was a holiday. Crowds headed for the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge’s promenade – NYC’s highest vantage point back then. A pedestrian bottleneck formed on the Manhattan side. As the tightly packed crowd pressed forward, some people were pushed down a short flight of stairs. People screamed, and some jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the bridge was about to fall. The result was a panicked stampede. In the chaos, twelve people were crushed to death, and hundreds more were injured. Subsequent investigation pinned the disaster on a failure to place cops along the span, to keep the crowds dispersed and moving. It became standard practice thereafter for policemen on the bridge to keep people moving along.