Tuesday passed with very little fanfare, but it was the 133rd birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first of the East River crossings to be built, and the focus of many books, films, and even an Italian gum. (And a full chapter in both Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York.)
May 24 also happens to be the birthday of Queen Victoria, and back in 1883 when the bridge opened, this conjunction of dates proved to be a problem.
Many of the thousands of workers who constructed the bridge between 1869 and 1883 were Irish and they had no great love for the queen. Victoria's ministers were seen as having obstructed aid to the Irish during the great potato famine (which began in 1845) and rumors circulated that the queen had donated only £5 to the Irish -- and on the same day she'd given the same amount to a dog shelter. That wasn't true, but it didn't matter much to New York's large Irish population, who tried to persuade the city to postpone the bridge's opening ceremonies to a different day. The city refused but then began to worry that the bridge workers would cause a disturbance and had to pay for extra police to quell any possible riots.
The grand opening -- an elaborate ceremony that included President Chester A. Arthur, Governor Grover Cleveland, and the mayors of New York and Brooklyn (then still independent cities) -- went smoothly with no violence. Indeed, the biggest problem came a week later when a throng of pedestrians (who had paid a penny each to cross the span) got scared and cried out that the bridge was collapsing, In the ensuing melee, a dozen people were trampled to death.
There's a chapter in Footprints about Seth Low that goes into much greater detail about the bridge's opening day that's worth a look.
RESERVATIONS ARE ALMOST FILLED UP
for our 3rd Annual Alexander Hamilton Memorial Day Weekend Walk
Read all about it and reserve at
Read more about NYC history in
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