Everyone loves a perfectly captured photo of the Brooklyn Bridge with the city skyline in the background. As you’re walking, go ahead and photograph your memories, but your headphones are just as important as your camera. There’s so much more to the Brooklyn Bridge than what meets the eye.
If you’re in the mood for an audio tour across the Brooklyn Bridge, check out our Brooklyn Bridge audio tour, which features some of the hidden history mentioned below. You can experience the on-demand walking tour at your own pace, whenever fits your travel plans best.
In this travel guide, we’ll give you a quick overview of the historical significance of the bridge in different areas and point out hidden details to keep an eye out for. You don’t need any tickets to walk across the bridge, so you can begin your walk whenever it fits your schedule best. If you want to avoid afternoon crowds, consider walking across the Brooklyn Bridge first thing in the morning to catch the sunrise or at night to see the city skyline lit up in all its glory.
We’re going to begin with some interesting stories on the Manhattan side, but you can also take the subway into Brooklyn and begin on the Brooklyn side, walking back into Manhattan. Note: Our audio tour begins in Manhattan and follows a specific order, so it can’t be started from the Brooklyn side.
Historical Context: The Roebling Family
To understand the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, you should be acquainted with the Roebling family.
The man tasked with the enormous task of bringing the vision of the Brooklyn Bridge to life was John A. Roebling, a titan of the engineering field. He was a no-nonsense man with an unparalleled work ethic. His proposal for the Brooklyn Bridge, a 14,000 word plan complete with soundings, drawings, and budget estimates, took him only three months to finish. Unfortunately, an injury during the construction phase led to John Roebling contracting tetanus, leading to his death in July of 1869.
Taking over control of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction was his son, Washington Roebling. Washington was the eldest of the Roebling children and had aided his father on the Brooklyn Bridge project from the beginning. He’d distinguished himself as an engineer during the Civil War, building bridges for the Union Army at key battlegrounds. Sadly, Washington, like his father, would not see the Brooklyn Bridge to completion. Washington fell victim to decompression disease in December of 1870, and he decided he could no longer go to the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction site. This is where Emily Roebling, Washington’s wife, takes center stage. Without Emily Roebling’s dedication, the Brooklyn Bridge would not be here today.
Emily made frequent visits to the bridge site, acting as Washington’s eyes and ears, but also handling her fair share of questions and concerns with the complete trust of the men to whom she spoke. During a speech on opening day, a congressman from New York proclaimed, “The name of Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling will thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature, and with all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art."
As you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, you can see the influence of all three Roeblings on the bridge, from its foundations all the way up to the towers.
Living Memorial Grove
Standing in the Living Memorial Grove, right next to City Hall Park, take a moment to take in your surroundings. You’re standing at the base of an engineering marvel.
If you were to travel back in time to May 24, 1883, the area you’re standing in now would have been filled with hundreds of New Yorkers and out-of-town travelers eagerly waiting for the Brooklyn Bridge to officially be declared open with an inaugural procession. Fireworks were being prepared, children were let out of school early, ferries crowded the river, and Emily Roebling was getting ready to cross the bridge in a horse-drawn carriage.
Center of the Promenade
Look around and soak in the unobstructed view of the East River. Here at the center, no cables, cars, or buildings stand in your way. From the beginning, John A. Roebling intended for the elevated promenade to allow people “to promenade over the bridge on fine days, in order to enjoy the beautiful views and the pure air.” The promenade has withstood the test of time and remains an iconic New York landmark, as does the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
Walking above the anchorages of the Brooklyn Bridge, you won’t be able to see them from where you stand. The anchorages are the colossal stone constructions beneath the bridge that house the anchors for the four main cables. Within each are 23-ton anchor plates that secure the ends of each cable and the almost 7,000 tons they collectively bear.
In his original design, John A. Roebling pitched the anchorages as multi-purpose. He proposed that the hollow insides of the 8-story monstrosities would provide the safest treasury vaults in the nation, and could be rented out as such.
Unity by Hank Willis Thomas
As you make your way into Brooklyn, you’ll walk up Tillary Street. Do you see the sculpture emerging, pointed hand raised high, reminiscent of Lady Liberty herself? This piece is called “Unity,” and was made by artist Hank Willis Thomas as an “homage to...the spirit of Brooklyn.”
It’s fitting that such a symbol of ambition and perseverance is placed at the entrance to Brooklyn from the foot of a bridge once thought impossible, made reality only through the painstaking labor of largely immigrant men (and women) who called this borough home.
Cadman Plaza Park and Juneteenth Grove
As you continue walking, you’ll see trees line the side of a park. Those trees make up the southeast corner of Cadman Plaza Park.
Keep walking and you’ll find vibrant benches and colors inspired by the Pan-African flag. This portion of the park was renamed Juneteenth Grove on June 19th of 2020, amidst the protests and cries for justice. Juneteenth is the holiday that honors the day a Union general finally made his way to Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved people that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them, the last people to hear the news.
Walking through Brooklyn Heights
Nearby Brooklyn streets such as Clark Street, Henry Street, and Pineapple Street all have their own fair share of historical significance. The history of this neighborhood stretches back far before the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and includes such claims to fame as the first suburb in America and the site of George Washington’s command during the Battle of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Heights Promenade
End your journey with a walk through Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Walk up to the railing to take in the full view of the city and let the magnitude of the Brooklyn Bridge wash over you.
In the area, the Brooklyn Bridge Park hosts a number of events throughout the year. Check out their calendar to see if you’d like to add any of their upcoming events to your travel itinerary.
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