One week after the Brooklyn Bridge opened, a rumor of its collapse caused a fatal stampede

Posted On Wed, May 30, 2018 By

Posted On Wed, May 30, 2018 By In Brooklyn, History

Drawing by a staff artist at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge officially opened, with roughly 1,800 vehicles and over 150,000 people crossing what was then the only passageway between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Less than a week later, 12 people were killed and over 35 others injured in a violent stampede.

On that fateful day, the bridge was brimming with people celebrating the Memorial Day holiday and checking out the new overpass, which was considered the longest bridge in the world at the time. A woman had tripped and fallen down the wooden stairs headed toward Manhattan, which caused another woman to scream. In a grand misinterpretation, a rumor was started that the bridge was about to collapse, sending the crowd into complete hysteria. Pedestrians ran to get off the bridge, stampeding their way to the entrance and pushing others to the ground.

Drawing by a staff artist at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

According to a New York Times article from that day: “As she lost her footing another woman screamed, and the throng behind crowded forward so rapidly that those at the top of the steps were pushed over and fell in a heap.”

Before this tragic day, many New Yorkers doubted the strength of a bridge that could stretch that long, 1,595 feet, and carry that many people. Plus, an estimated 27 men died during the construction of the behemoth bridge.

After the stampede, concerns about the bridge’s capability grew. To quell any doubts, P.T. Barnum was asked to parade his circus troupe of elephants across the bridge to prove that it was stable. In 1884, Barnum walked 21 elephants, 7 camels and 10 dromedaries from the bottom of Cortlandt Street and over the bridge. Jumbo, the prized giant African elephant, led the pack of circus animals.

While the bridge is six times stronger than necessary, with a capacity of over 18,700 tons, there are plans to renovate the 135 year old bridge. Plans include a redesigned gateway, as well as traffic and landscaping improvements. In 2010, repairs were estimated to cost $508 million. In 2016, 6sqft learned that the price tag jumped to a whopping $811 million.


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