When it opened on the afternoon of May 24, 1883, 250,000 people crossed the Great East River Suspension Bridge in the first four hours. 134 years later, the first bridge to span the East River and connect Brooklyn and Manhattan is still worth a special trip, as hundreds of New York City grade school students discover every spring and fall.
Before they venture onto the bridge to join the throngs of tourists and locals, the students who participate in the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy’s “The Great Brooklyn Bridge” school program gather with their teacher in the Environmental Education Center at 99 Plymouth Street for a mini-lesson. Guided by one of the Conservancy’s educators, the group explores the riveting story of the bridge’s 14-year construction, which seems just the thing to capture the imagination of the inquisitive students.
They find out about the bridge’s enormous concrete-filled caissons (near city-block-sized wooden boxes on which the towers rest). They imagine what it might have felt like to be a worker on the project – for example, moving earth with hand tools in the compressed air and the heat of the dimly lit caissons deep below the waterline. They wonder what it was like to raise the massive towers to a height of more than 275 feet above the waterline, one gigantic granite block at a time. They learn how the pencil-thin steel wires for the four main cables were pulled across the 1600-foot span of the East River one by one (more than 14,000 miles in total), and how finally the roadway was suspended from the cables. Along the way, students familiarize themselves with the ways in which the forces of tension and compression work on the towers and the cables. They may also build a model suspension bridge using their own bodies and a few yards of rope.
Finally it’s time to inspect the bridge itself.* On a walk that takes them to a height of more than 130 feet above the tidal waters of the East River, the students join the 4,000 pedestrians and more than 3,000 bicyclists who cross the bridge every day (in addition to the 120,000 motorized vehicles). Spreading out around the tower on the Brooklyn side, the students get their bearings, identify familiar landmarks of the Manhattan skyline – Governors Island, and, of course, Lady Liberty in the distance. Then, some explore the freshly restored brass plaques that tell the story of the bridge and make a rubbing to take home. Older students may tackle a scavenger hunt.
First-time bridge walkers are often surprised by the force of the wind and the slight movements of the walkway underfoot. Like other large bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge is designed to be flexible to reduce the stresses on the structure. The gentle sway, however, can be an added challenge for those not quite at ease at the vertiginous height. But, as one brave second grader recently commented on the way down to terra firma, “It was worth it!”
*Should the weather make a trip to the bridge unadvisable, the children take on the role of engineers and experiment with suspension bridge construction in the climate-controlled Ed Center.