It’s hardly original advice but bears repeating anyway: no one visiting New York should leave, if they can help it, before they cross the Brooklyn Bridge—preferably on foot, if possible, and at a reverential pace that lets them soak up all the Neo-gothic structure’s storied history. Walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn, then back again, or the other away around, since that’s what the bridge was built for—the commutes of a nineteenth century bridge-but-not-yet-tunnel crowd (the first NYC subway tunnel didn’t open until 1908).
In 1899, filmmakers from American Mutoscope and Biograph elected for a mode of travel for a New York century, putting a camera at “the front end of a third rail car running at high speed,” notes a 1902 American Mutoscope catalogue. They accelerated the tour to the pace of a modern machine, chosing the Manhattan to Brooklyn route. “The entire trip consumes three minutes of time, during which abundant opportunity is given to observe all the structural wonders of the bridge, and far distant river panorama below.” (See one-third of the trip just below.)
Filmmaker Bill Morrison looped excerpts of those three New York minutes and extended them to nine in his short, stereoscopic journey “Outerborough,” at the top, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and scored with original music by Todd Reynolds. Taking the 1899 footage as its source material, the film turns a rapid transit tour into a moving mandala, a fractal repetition at frighteningly faster and faster speeds, of the bridge’s most mechanical vistas—the views of its looming, vaulted arches and of the steel cage surrounding the tracks.
One of the engineering wonders of the world, the Brooklyn Bridge opened 136 years ago this month, on May 24th, 1883. The first person to walk across it was the woman who oversaw its construction for 11 of the 14 years it took to build the bridge. After designer John Roebling died of tetanus, his son Washington took over, only to succumb to the bends during the sinking of the caissons and spend the rest of his life bedridden. Emily, his wife, “took on the challenge,” notes the blog 6sqft, consulting with her husband while actively supervising the project.
She “studied mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, strengths of materials and the intricacies of cable construction.” On its opening day, Emily walked the bridge’s 1,595 feet, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, “her long skirt billowing in the wind as she showed [the crowd] details of the construction,” writes David McCullough in The Great Bridge. Six days later, an accident caused a panic and a stampede that killed twelve people. Some months later, P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge in a stunt to prove its safety.
Barnum’s theatrics were surprisingly honest—the bridge may have needed selling to skeptical commuters, but it needed no hype. It outlived most of its contemporaries, despite the fact that it was built before engineers understood the aerodynamic properties of bridges. The Roeblings designed and built the bridge to be six times stronger than it needed to be, but no one could have foreseen just how durable the structure would prove.
It elicited a fascination that never waned for its palpable strength and beauty, yet fewer of its admirers chose to document the journey that has taken millions of Brooklynites over the river to lower Manhattan, by foot, bike, car, and yes, by train. Leave it to that futurist for the common man, Thomas Edison, to film the trip. See his 1899 footage of Brooklyn to Manhattan by train just above.
Immaculately Restored Film Lets You Revisit Life in New York City in 1911
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New York City: A Social History (A Free Online Course from N.Y.U.)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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