Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bridge of the Week #7: Brooklyn Bridge

This week's bridge is the granddaddy of them all, the Brooklyn Bridge. Along with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, this is one of the iconic images of New York City. The history of the Brooklyn Bridge is well documented, and I won't get into all the deatils here, but here are the basics.

A crossing between New York City and Brooklyn, then two separate cities, over the East Riv(which is not actually a river but a tidal strait between two islands) had been imagined in various fomrs throughout the 1800's. John Roebling proposed his bridge in 1855. In 1867 the New York Bridge Company was formed to build the bridge, and all approvals were obtained in June 1869. Less than a month later, Robeling's foot was crushed in an accident while examining the site for the Brooklyn tower, and he died from tetanus in July. His son, Washington took over construction of the bridge.

Ground was broken on January 3, 1870. In 1872, Washington suffered from the bends after being in one of the caissons, and he was eventually left crippled and unable to visit the construction site. His apartment in Brooklyn gave him a view of the site, and he continued to supervise construction while his wife Emily took over construction site management.
The grand opening of the Brooklyn Bridge took place on May 23, 1883, with President Chester A. Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland in attendance. Emily Roebling was given the first ride across, holding a rooster in her lap. Apparently a rooster is a symbol of victory. The towers were (and are) 276 feet, 6 inches high, and clearance above the water 135 feet. The main span is 1,595 feet 6 inches, and the total length of the bridge, including approaches, is 6,016 feet. An elevated pedestrian walkway was constructed along the center of the bridge, and on either side was an elevated railroad track and two lanes for carriages and horseback. There was originally a penny toll for anyone wishing to use the bridge, including pedestrians, but the toll was discontinued in 1910 and today the bridge is toll-free for all. (And I myself hope it stays that way, although there are talks to add tolls for vehicles.) During reconstruction of the bridge from 1944-1954, a number of elements were strengthened, new approach ramps built, and all railroad and trolley tracks removed and replaced with three lanes of auto traffic in each direction. The bridge helped unite the cities of New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn by 1893 had annexed all the towns of King's County), and in 1898 New York City annexed Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island to create the five-borough city of Greater New York.

So what does this mean for the runner, I'm sure you wanted to know. To walk, run or bike on the walkway is an incredible experience, naturally with stunning views not only of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, but New York Harbor, Governor's Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Bayonne Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge. The walkway outside of the anchorages is concrete, and in between is a wooden boardwalk. Benches are placed periodically along the way, and at the towers are plaques describing the history and engineering of the bridge, and giving other interesting facts as well. Walking, running or cycling (but especially walking or running) across the bridge is something I highly recommend for tourists and for residents. In fact, its popularity with toursits, commuters and exercizers, especially on a beautiful afternoon, is its only flaw. A white line is painted down the center of the walkway with one side (the north) designated for cyclists and the other (the south0 designated for pedestrians. For the most part, pedestrians do stay on their side, but there are those who cross over and cause a hassle for cyclists. When I run across, which isn't often, I try to stay on the white line to avoid the bulk of the pedestrian traffic, but being able to carefully hop over to the cyclists' side briefly if necessary. But be cautious of, and have particular courtesy to the cyclists. They have a hard enough time there. I think it's best to treat such a run as a casual, recreational jog and enjoy the view. For a real workout, or if in a hurry to get from one side to the other, I'd recommend taking the Manhattan Bridge (which I will discuss at a future date).

Pedestrian access to the bridge is easy on the Manhattan side, just to the east of City Hall at Park Row and Centre St. It is right across the street from the entrance for the Brooklyn Bridge subway station, for the 4, 5, 6, J, M and Z trains. There is another entrance a bit along the walkway which can be accessed by a staircase from the Park Row underpass. There are two pedestrian entrances in Brooklyn as well. The main entrance, located in the traffic median at Adams and Tillary Sts., leads you along a rather long sidwalk between the traffic lanes before you reach the bridge itself. Closer to the bridge is an entrance at Prospect St. and Washington St./Cadman Plaza East. The High St./Brooklyn Bridge station for the A and C trains is located nearby at Cadman Park. The bridge lets you off in downtown Brooklyn, and the waterfront is not far away (logically). Also, if doing a bridge circuit, the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge is only a short distance away, especially if you use the Prospect St. entrance.

So that's the Brooklyn Bridge from a runner's or pedestrian's perspective. Like I said, much has been written about the bridge itself, and it is an American icon. It has given its name to, among other things, a short-lived 80's sitcom and a piece of music by composer Michael Daugherty for clarinet and concert band. There is a book about its history called The Great Bridge by David McCullough, that I fully intend to buy and read some day. In 1883, Harper's Weekly declared, "The work which is most likely to become our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge."

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