That Day When Elephants Marched Across Brooklyn Bridge

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by Vittorio Compagno

The history of New York City is studded with unusual and extravagant events. From the annual traditions that take place New Years Eve in Times Square, to the anecdote of the conservation of the eyes of Albert Einstein in one of the millions of vaults of the city, the Big Apple is unique among the unique.

Today I want to talk about one of those singular New York events, the day when exotic creatures marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m talking about elephants, camels and dromedaries who, for the inauguration of the historic East River bridge, which showed themselves to New Yorkers in all their majesty and grandeur, diametrically opposed and unprecedented compared to the rats to which citizens were accustomed.

The Brooklyn Bridge was designed to solve a pressing need for the denizens of the two boroughs on the banks of the East River: Brooklyn and Manhattan to facilitate travel to and fro.

Carl Kruse Blog: Image of frozen East River in New York

The idea of a bridge had already flashed between the minds of New Yorkers who regularly traveled that route by boat that bounced between the two banks of the watercourse.

John Roebling also thought of this during a cold morning in 1852, a day so chilly the waters of the East River froze for several hours. The engineer, stuck between the Brooklyn and Manhattan banks with his son Washington, thought he could solve the problem of transporting an increasing number of people from one side to the other with a bridge. Not just any bridge, he thought, but a majestic one, that honored the two towns, supported by the same engineering skill that had helped him to complete his previous works.

Carl kruse Blog - John Roebling

The common feeling towards the construction of a bridge grew just as the amount of people that moved between the two banks increased. The event that galvanized the attention of the city administration happened fifteen years later, in 1867. It was bad weather again, followed by another snowstorm, followed by an inevitable freezing of the East River waters that led the City Council to commission the New York Bridge Company that year to build a bridge that would become a symbol of an ever growing city.

John Roebling himself was put in charge of the project, one of the most ambitious engineering endeavors of the time. The first suspension bridge in the world, with two towers reaching up to 85 meters each, higher than any construction in the New York landscape until then, supported by huge steel wires, all for a length of 1827 meters.

Construction of the bridge took place with dozens of unforeseen events, first of all the death of the inventor and chief engineer John Roebling in 1869, due to a tetanus infection. He was succeeded by his son Washington, now thirty years old, who was forced into a wheelchair some time later. The incident in which Roebling Jr. was involved affected many workers before him, and slowed down the construction of the bridge. It was decompression sickness, one of the many risks that occurred when in the first phase of the project the foundations had to be laid for the bridge at the bottom of the river.

Carl Kruse Blog - The Foundations of Brooklyn Bridge

After the accident, which could prove fatal, Washington was unable to return to the construction site, and delegated to his wife Emily Warren Roebling the task of supervising the project.

Mrs. Roebling, who received daily dispatches from her husband to give instructions to the workers, simultaneously studied civil engineering, becoming the de facto first female foreman.

Everything went more or less smoothly, and the Brooklyn and New York Bridge (that was its name at the time) was inaugurated on 24 May 1883, thanks to the work of 600 workers and the sacrifice of 20 of them. At the inauguration, an immense crowd poured on the bridge, headed by Emily Warren Roebling, and it was a feast throughout the city: a new monument was just born, and destined to remain in the heart of New Yorkers forever.

A week after that historic inauguration, the worst happened. Like almost all tragic events involving a crowd, this started from something almost nonsensical.

Carl Kruse Blog - Brookly Bridge

A woman climbing the staircase leading to the end of the corresponding bridge in Manhattan, fell, creating a belief among the crowd that the Brooklyn Bridge was just about to fall. Many suspicions had been created about the stability of that bridge, which had such experimental technology for the time, that it received criticism even from experts. Those criticisms were fuel for the fire for the crowd, which in the throes of a general panic overwhelmed itself, managing to kill 12 people in a stampede.

The city image of the bridge was inexorably about to become that of a cursed monument, a hated point of passage in the daily routine of New Yorkers because of the tragedy.

However, one day, circus entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum wondered if he could exploit the situation to his advantage, and at the same time drive away the ghost of a wretched bridge.

P.T. Barnum proposed to march on the Brooklyn Bridge with 21 elephants, headed by the famous Jumbo, and 17 camels to demonstrate the structural solidity of the bridge, and to refute once and for all the rumors about its instability.

At first, the proposal of the famous showman was rejected, but later the city administration understood that the risky gesture could prove useful.

Thus, on May 17, 1884, 38 exotic animals marched the length of the bridge, amid the startling and incredulous looks of the spectators, and arrived across the East River unharmed.

That gesture is still remembered today as one of the greatest marketing gimmicks of all time helped everyone understand that the Brooklyn Bridge, in all its majesty, similar to that of the beasts that had crossed it, would remain forever in the history of New York City.

Carl Kruse Blog - Elephants on the Brooklyn Bridge

To commemorate the event, a statue of three elephants, lead by Jumbo, can still be found on the parapet built along the East River, next to the Bridge, and a plaque, commissioned by The Brooklyn Engineers Club reads:

The Builders of the Bridge

Dedicated to the Memory of Emily Warren Roebling, 1843-1903, Whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband Colonel Washington A. Roebling, C.E., 1837-1926, complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father John A. Roebling. C.E., 1806-1869, Who gave his life to the bridge.

“Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”


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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Vittorio Compagno include: What Are The Risks of Facial Recognition and Are Memes Art?
The blog’s last article was Murukami’s Wood: Death, Winter and Love.

3 thoughts on “That Day When Elephants Marched Across Brooklyn Bridge

  1. Seeing is believing. So 21 elephants and assorted beasts cross the bridge with no problem? My guess is I could probably as well.

  2. I didn’t realize P.T. Barnum was alive in the 1880’s. For some reason I thought he was much more our contemporary.

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