A Mesmerizing Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge: Watch Footage from 1899

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.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

An Online Gallery of Over 900,000 Breath­tak­ing Pho­tos of His­toric New York City

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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