Curses, cons, and Cold War bunkers: Secrets of the Brooklyn Bridge
Consider the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s one of America’s oldest (and most beautiful) bridges, and thousands of people cross it every day with no thought at all. 125,000 cars, 4,000 pedestrians, and 2,600 cyclists make the journey from Manhattan to Brooklyn (or the other way around) on average each day. Before its status as a New York City icon was sealed, the bridge was the center of some pretty fascinating stuff. Even today, it remains a site for legends, a place for provocative art pieces and, of course, is a must-see for any tourist.
Freak accidents and dangerous conditions
The bridge is super structurally safe, but getting there was a dangerous process. In 1869, while taking final, pre-construction compass readings on the East River, architect and designer John Roebling was the victim of a freak accident. A rogue boat smashed the toes on one of his feet, and three weeks later, he was dead from tetanus. His son, Washington, took over… but he wasn’t safe from the bridge, either. The foundation of the bridge, below the water, was dug out by “sandhogs”. These were immigrants who rode in metal airlocks down below the underwater caissons, which kept water out while they blasted out the foundation.
Working inside the caissons was uncomfortable; the pressurized air and stuffy, hot conditions gave sandhogs headaches, bloody noses, and slowed heartbeats, but the journey back up in the airlocks was downright deadly. As the airlocks resurfaced, many sandhogs fell victim to “the bends”. Resurfacing from underwater too quickly dissolved gases in the blood at a dangerous rate. Symptoms included brutal joint pain, speech impairments, acute numbness, convulsions, paralysis, and even death. Washington Roebling was paralyzed from this during the construction and had to watch progress with a telescope while his wife, Emily, took the reins. Sounds kind of like the Roeblings were cursed! And this isn’t even counting those who died during other accidents (collapses, fires, explosions) while the bridge was being built. All in all, an estimated 27 people died during construction.
Rumors of collapse
You know how it’s illegal to yell “fire!” in a crowded place because it’ll cause a dangerous stampede? That kind of happened on the Brooklyn Bridge. It had only been open for 6 days before a tragic misunderstanding led to a deadly mob. Apparently what happened was a woman tripped on the stairs, and another woman saw and started screaming. Everyone on the bridge heard the second woman’s cried and panicked, thinking the bridge was collapsing. This caused a huge rush for the narrow staircases, where frightened bodies piled up. Some people cut open the iron fence and many escaped onto the streetcar tracks below. Pickpockets used the confusion to rob terrified pedestrians. When the dust finally settled, 12 people had died, trampled while trying to get down the staircase. A year later, famed showman P.T. Barnum led a parade of 21 elephants across the bridge to prove its sturdiness; in fact, the bridge can withstand the weight of 2,500 elephants.
Selling the Brooklyn Bridge
Famous con man George C. Parker was best known for “selling” NYC landmarks (including the Brooklyn Bridge, several times) that he didn’t own to unsuspecting immigrants. The NYPD even reportedly had to remove several of his victims from setting up toll booths on the bridge, trying to make a profit on what they thought was their property. Other landmarks “sold” by Parker included Madison Square Garden, the Met, Grant’s Tomb and the Statue of Liberty. He was convicted of fraud three times (and escaped arrest by dressing up as a cop once) and ultimately received a life sentence at Sing Sing for his crimes. In prison, he was a popular inmate, thanks to his many interesting stories of his misadventures as one of history’s most infamous con men.
Inside one of the giant stone arches below the bridge’s main entrance on the Manhattan side is a hidden Cold War bomb shelter, packed to the gills with supplies in case of a nuclear attack on New York City– but the exact location had been kept a secret for safety reasons.
In 2006, a routine structural inspection revealed the previously-forgotten vault, which was stockpiled with Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Crackers (yum, right?), paper blankets, water, and even medication like Dextran, which was used to treat shock (because, as you can imagine, one might be a tiny bit shocked after potentially surviving a flipping nuclear holocaust in New York City). Many of the boxes of supplies were stamped with two very telling dates– 1957 (when the Soviets launched Sputnik) and 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis).
Crazily enough, that bomb shelter isn’t the only room inside the bridge– on the Brooklyn side, there are 8 massive rooms (I’m talking 50-foot cathedral-style ceilings) framed by the piers that support the bridge. The cavernous area was done in a Gothic style similar to the bridge itself. This space, known as the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, isn’t open to the public anymore, but the bridge’s architect, John Roebling, had originally envisioned them as being shopping arcade-type spaces. Sadly, that never panned out– they were used for municipal storage (and the occasional art exhibition or event) until they were closed for security reasons in 2001.
And, of course, there are the wine cellars, vaults that were opened and used to store cases of wine. The consistent 60-degree temperature in the rooms made perfect wine-storing conditions. Back in the day, the wine cellars were known as the “Blue Grotto”, as there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary near the entrance. When the New York Times revisited the wine vaults in the 1970s, they found a fading inscription that read “Who loveth not wine, women and song, he remaineth a fool his whole life long.”
One of the more recent conspiracy theories about the bridge comes from 2014. One July morning of that year, New Yorkers discovered that the American flags atop the bridge had been mysteriously turned white. Jokes about Manhattan or Brooklyn surrendering to the other, or it being the work of Dido aside, it was a bit of a concern to some, especially given that the bridge is a high-profile landmark. Two Berlin artists eventually claimed responsibility, saying that they hand-sewed white fabric over the flags as a way to celebrate the beauty of public spaces and commemorate the anniversary of the death of German-born John Roebling.
And this isn’t the only weird and mysterious art project that Brooklyn Bridge has played party to, either; earlier that year, a grand piano showed up on the riverbank below the bridge. It made for a haunting scene… that visitors eagerly Instagrammed.
More mysteries to uncover…