Brooklyn Bridge drawings and plans

Collection REC0010 - RG 046. Department of Transportation

Abstract

The Brooklyn Bridge was built over a thirteen year span beginning in 1869. This extensive collection contains the architectural plans and drawings created during the design, planning and construction stages for the suspension bridge by Civil Engineer, John Augustus Roebling, and includes drawings by his son Washington A. Roebling. The bridge officially opened in 1883.

Extent

159.5 cubic feet (9,865 sheets of drawings and 16 boxes)

Dates

1869-1981, bulk 1869-1950



Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Patrons are required to use microfilm for those items for which it is available. Advance notice is required for using original material. Please contact us to arrange access.

Physical Location

Materials are stored onsite at 31 Chambers St.

Custodial History

In a carpentry shop beneath the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, in 1969, approximately 10,000 drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge were found by Francis P. Valentine, an engineer with the Department of Transportation. After contacting a variety of museums and historical societies, the Whitney Museum of Art conserved and displayed 65 of the most striking drawings. In 1976 the drawings were transferred to the Municipal Archives. They make up the bulk of the collection and are accessioned under number 2017-016.

This collection also contains other accessions of Brooklyn Bridge drawings: 1991-006, 2005-031 and 2005-032. Drawings in accession 1991-006 contain Municipal Archives numbers leading archivists to believe that these drawings were separated from the main collection to be part of an exhibit with the Central Park Conservancy. Accession 2005-031 consists of 12 blueprints and maps that are related to the reconstruction of the bridge in the 1930s. They consist of various sections and approaches of and to the bridge. These drawings were created by Consulting Engineer, D. B. Steinman. The Brooklyn Museum of Art held drawings as they curated an exhibit of Brooklyn Bridge drawings to mark the 75th anniversary and it is widely believed that these drawings were from that exhibit.

Alternate Forms Available

This collection has been partially microfilmed. Microfilm is available on-site or via interlibrary loan.

Related Materials

Collection REC 0018 contains the records of Idilio Gracia Peña, who served as Commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services from 1990-1995 and Director of the Municipal Archives records from 1978-1989. See Series II: Director of the Municipal Archives subject files for information regarding the varied administrative work and detail that went into the conservation, care, exhibition and loan history of the Brooklyn Bridge drawings collection.

The Municipal Archives also holds a large collection of historic Brooklyn Bridge photographs, many of which have been digitized and can be accessed via the online gallery.

For material on the personal and professional activities of the Roebling family, see the Roebling collection, 1830-1926 (MC 04) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Archives and Special Collections.

Processing Information

Under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and matching donations by non-Federal sources, these drawings were catalogued and microfilmed to the item level beginning in 1979. In 1982 under a grant administered by the Cultural Council Foundation this work was completed. Typed index cards of the complete catalog were checked for accuracy and additional processing and standardization of description was completed by staff archivist Nathalie Belkin in 2018.
The collection contains original plans, drawings, additions and alterations to the Brooklyn Bridge and its immediate surroundings, including the land, properties and roads utilizing the structure. The collection reflects John Roebling’s ideas and dreams for the bridge, as well as his hope that it was to be part of a bigger plan for the cities of Brooklyn and New York.

The drawings create a full picture of the design and implementation of construction for the bridge. Blueprints cover boiler houses, compressors, anchorage, elevation, depth, drainage, piers, cables, masonry from the largest pieces of machinery to the smallest anchors as well as tram lines and toll areas for horse-drawn carriages and pedestrian walkways. Also covered in detail is the railroad and trolley cars to be used. Every part of the bridge is drawn with precise detail, including the surrounding greenery, buildings and approach roads on both the Brooklyn and Manhattan sides. Other parts of the collection include signs and notices to employees of the rules and regulations when working on site, as well as important telephone numbers and time schedules for work. Surveys and studies were undertaken for traffic, weight and use of the bridge are also detailed in plans and lists contained in the collection.

A large number of the drawings are duplicated or drawn on different materials. Many have been annotated, updated or contain written notes by either the designer or draftsman; this is typical for the time and scope of the project.
In February 1864, a Commission was formed to investigate the expediency and feasibility of a bridge that would cross the East River, after it was deemed that the ferries serving the City of Brooklyn and the City of New York were showing signs of inadequacy due to the rising number of people traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan. In 1867, as a result of the Commission’s findings, New York legislators approved Civil Engineer, John Augustus Roebling’s plan for the suspension bridge joining Manhattan and Brooklyn, which would become known as the Brooklyn Bridge. Originally named the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, followed by the East River Bridge, the moniker “Brooklyn Bridge” came from a letter written to the Daily Eagle in January of 1867.

Between 1868 and 1869 the Common Council appropriated almost $1.5 million for construction. The Brooklyn Bridge would be the very first steel suspension bridge and have the longest span in the world for its time: 1,600 feet from tower to tower. Residents of both Brooklyn and Manhattan welcomed the news of the coming bridge. The idea of another more safer and reliable crossing of the East River was extremely popular, as was the promise of increased property values and more customers to various merchants on either side of the river. The Brooklyn Bridge was to be part of a greater mission: to create the largest and most modern commercial emporium in the United States by the joining of two booming cities.

Before the construction of the bridge, as he was conducting surveys for the project, John Augustus Roebling sustained a fatal injury to his foot when a ferry pinned it against a piling. Ten days after the amputation of his crushed toes, Roebling developed a tetanus infection which left him incapacitated and resulted in his death in 1869. Prior to his death, Roebling had placed his son, Washington A. Roebling in charge of the project as Chief Engineer. Washington had worked on several other bridges with his father, including the plans for the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was to span the East River with one central, unbroken crossing which would be held aloft by large cables hanging from enormous stone towers. These would be secured on each shore by two large anchorages. These anchorages would take up the space of a city block, but be substantial enough to offset the tremendous pull of the cables. The towers from which the cables would hang would be identical and stand on both the New York and Brooklyn sides of the East River. Within these towers would be in the infamous gothic arches, built to provide roadways for transport to pass through. The tops of the arches would be a heavy cornice and three large capstones.

The bridge's two imposing towers were built by floating two caissons (giant upside-down boxes made of southern yellow pine) across the span of the East River, and then build the stone towers on top of them until they sank to the bottom of the river. Compressed air was pumped into the caissons with workers entering the space to dig the sediment until the caissons sank to the bedrock. The whole weight of the bridge sat, as it does today, upon a 15-foot thickness of southern yellow pine wood under the sediment.

During this early period of tower construction many workers became sick with an unknown disease, “caisson disease,” so named by the physician for the project, Andrew Smith. More commonly known today as the bends, the illness was a result of decompression from gas bubbles forming in the body and a body ascending from depth, or ascending to altitude. Washington Roebling himself suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of the bends, shortly after ground was broken for the Brooklyn tower foundation, on January 3, 1870. The debilitating condition left him bedridden and unable to supervise the construction firsthand.

Roebling remained the Chief Engineer but had to supervise the entire project from his apartment which had a view of the on-going work. He was aided by his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who provided the crucial link between her husband and the on-site engineers. Under her husband's guidance, Emily studied higher mathematics, calculations of catenary curves, strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. Emily spent the next 11 years assisting her husband and helping supervise bridge construction. When iron probes underneath the caisson for the Manhattan tower found the bedrock to be even deeper than expected, Roebling halted construction due to the increased risk of decompression sickness. He later deemed the aggregate overlying the bedrock 30 feet below it to be firm enough to support the tower base, and construction continued.

With construction completed 13 years after it began, at the cost of $15.5 million and taking the lives of approximately 27 people, the Brooklyn Bridge was officially opened on May 24, 1883. Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony, and many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion. President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Franklin Edson crossed the bridge to celebratory cannon fire and were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low when they reached the Brooklyn-side tower. Unfortunately, Roebling was too ill to attend the ceremony but held a grand banquet at his house on the day of the bridge opening, where President Arthur shook his hand. Emily Roebling, however, was one of the first over the bridge, riding in a carriage with a rooster in her lap, the symbol of victory. Other festivities included the performance of a band, gunfire from ships in the Bay, and a fireworks display.

The Bridge was initially designed as a toll bridge carrying horse-drawn travelers and rail traffic with a separate, elevated pedestrian and bicycle walkway. As an 1897 report from the Board of Trustees noted, the popularity of the bridge increased its economic viability exponentially over the first five years of its opening. By 1901, automobiles were crossing the bridge, using only one lane in each direction. When mass transit over the bridge was discontinued in 1950, six lanes were allocated to vehicular traffic.

Today, the Brooklyn Bridge is synonymous with New York as a popular tourist attraction with its long shadow and tall arches a familiar presence in films, television programs and advertisements.

Sources

  1. Board of Trustees of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. Opening Ceremonies of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge: Thursday, May 24, 1883, Commencing At 2 O'clock P.M. At the Brooklyn Approach. [Brooklyn]: Eagle Print, 1883.
  2. Board of Trustees of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. Report of the Trustees of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. [New York: The Trustees] 1897.
  3. E.P.D. “Bridging the East River…Another Project.” Received by the Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 25 Jan. 1867
  4. George, Judith St. The Brooklyn Bridge: They Said It Couldn't Be Built. 1st ed. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.
  5. McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 1st ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.
  6. McCullough, David. "The Treasure from the Carpentry Shop." American Heritage 31, no. 1 (December 1979). root>
  7. Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Phoenix Edition, 1979.
  8. United States. Department of Records and Information Services. Municipal Archives. National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant Application. By Eugene J. Bockman and John T. Carroll. New York, NY: Department of Records and Information Services, 1976.
This collection of Brooklyn Bridge drawings and plans are arranged into 4 series. The original order of the numbered drawings has been retained. Where numbering mistakes have been made, these have not been changed, but are noted in the finding aid.

Series Outline

  1. Numbered drawings, 1869-1950
  2. Unnumbered drawings, 1869-1950
  3. Oversized numbered drawings, 1869-1950
  4. Index, 1981
Title
Guide to the Brooklyn Bridge drawings and plans, 1869-1981
Status
Completed
Author
Nathalie Belkin
Date
2018
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
eng