One more thing to cross off my bucket list…if I had a bucket list. (Actually having one would make me feel old, which of course I am.)
Ever since reading Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough’s tome about the design and construction of what was then known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” it has been a goal to see it for myself. And traverse it on foot. So when I had the chance to Amtrak down to New York City this December to visit my sister, it was priority number one.
The story behind construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is so astounding, and complex, it took McCullough more than 600 pages to detail it in his 1972 account, The Great Bridge. The bridge also became the subject of Ken Burns’ very first PBS documentary in 1981.
The project was hatched in the mind of German immigrant engineer John Augustus Roebling, who conceived the idea of a 1,500-foot plus “steel suspension bridge”–the first of its kind in the world– over the East River, connecting Lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, then independent and the third largest city in America. Over a decade in planning and construction, and 1,595 feet in length, it became the longest suspension bridge in the world, by 50 per cent, upon its opening in 1883, a title it held for more than 20 years. Roebling himself died before construction even began, when his toes were accidentally crushed between a barge and a piling, resulting in an infection and a fatal case of lockjaw. Completion of the span fell to his 32-year-old engineer son Washington Roebling, who saw it through to completion despite incurring a lifelong debilitating case of “caisson disease,” now known as the bends.
Caissons were huge underwater caverns built of timber, where workmen labored in knee-deep sludge and soaring temperatures to assemble the bridge’s foundation. Often, when they came up through an air lock system, they got excruciating body pains from the then-unknown affliction. Several died and many more, like Roebling, were incapacitated. He was compelled to oversee construction from the window of his Brooklyn home, using a telescope.
When the bridge opened in 1883, it was a sensation. More than 150,000 people crossed it the first day on the elevated wooden footbridge, located above two lanes for vehicles (then horse-drawn). To allay concerns for the bridge’s safety in 1884, P.T. Barnum led his superstar elephant Jumbo and a parade of 21 other elephants across the span. It has become a symbol of New York City and in 1973 was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Monday, Dec. 16, my target date for the crossing, dawned clear but freezing cold, in the low 20s. I hoofed it to the Lexington Ave and 59th St. subway station and, as I had been told, needed only to jump on a southbound train to be deposited at the tip of Manhattan, exiting the stairwell to see the gargantuan bridge looming to my left. Despite the cold, the bridge was already teeming with pedestrians, including numerous runners, at around 10 am. The pedestrian level is divided in two, with a lane for bikers on the north side. Watching for bikes and dodging photo-wielding tourists made for a leisurely traverse, which was fine. Plenty of time to stop and take pictures for couples or threesomes wanting to be in the same frame, or to ask someone else to snap my own photo. (I haven’t yet mastered the “selfie.”)
The scene was exhilarating: the rumble of unseen traffic underfoot, pedestrians giddy with the bracing weather and 277 feet of elevation, and the spectacular Manhattan skyline, the bridge’s twin pillars and the river below as backdrop.
Total running time is only about 15-20 minutes, depending upon your pace, not counting stoppage time along the way, but well worth the effort. One can also hit the streets of Brooklyn for an extended run, if desired. Also nearby on the Manhattan side, City Hall, Chinatown and other venues for a closer examination, running or walking.
So if you’re seeking a large “bang” for your buck, check it out. If you’re in New York anyway, it’s only $2.50 each way on your Metro Card for a run you’ll never forget. You can also cross it off your bucket list, if you have one.