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The walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge was the site of a shocking disaster on May 30, 1883, only a week after it opened to the public. With businesses closed for a patriotic holiday, crowds had flocked to the bridge's promenade, the highest vantage point in New York City at the time.
Near the Manhattan side of the great bridge a pedestrian bottleneck became tightly packed, and the shoving of the crowd sent people toppling down a short flight of stairs. People screamed. The crowd panicked, fearful that the entire structure was in danger of collapsing into the river.
The crush of people on the walkway became intense. Workmen putting finishing touches on the bridge raced along trusses to the scene and began tearing down railings to alleviate the crowding. People picked up babies and children and tried to pass them overhead, out of the crowd.
Within just a few minutes the frenzy had passed. But 12 people had been crushed to death. Hundreds more were injured, many seriously. The deadly stampede placed a dark cloud over what had been a celebratory first week for the bridge.
Detailed accounts of the mayhem on the bridge became a sensation in the highly competitive world of New York City newspapers. As the city's papers were still congregated in the neighborhood of Park Row, only blocks from the Manhattan end of the bridge, the story could not have been more local.
The Scene on the Bridge
The bridge had officially opened on Thursday, May 24, 1883. Traffic during the first weekend was very heavy, as sightseers flocked to enjoy the novelty of strolling hundreds of feet above the East River.
The New York Tribune, on Monday, May 28, 1883, printed a front page story indicating that the bridge might have become too popular. It ominously mentioned that bridge workers, at one point on Sunday afternoon, feared a riot.
Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day fell that Wednesday, May 30, 1883. After morning rain, the day turned very pleasant. The New York Sun, on the front page of the next day's edition, described the scene:
"When the rain was over yesterday afternoon the Brooklyn Bridge, which had its crowds in the morning, but had become comparatively open again, began to threaten a blockade. With the hundreds who came down town to the New York gates were hundreds of men in the uniform of the Grand Army of the Republic.
"Most of the people strolled over to Brooklyn, and then turned back without leaving the bridge. Thousands were coming over from Brooklyn, returning from cemeteries where soldier's graves had been decorated, or taking advantage of the holiday to see the bridge.
"There were not so many on the bridge as on the day after the opening, or on the following Sunday, but they seemed inclined to loiter. There would be an open space of from fifty to one hundred feet, and then a dense jam."
Problems became intense at the top of a nine-foot high flight of stairs built into the walkway, near the point at which the main suspension cables passed by the promenade on the Manhattan side of the bridge. The pressing of the crowd pushed some people down the stairs.
Did You Know?
Predictions of the Brooklyn Bridge's collapse had been common. In 1876, at about the halfway point of its construction, the chief mechanic of the bridge crossed between the Brooklyn and Manhattan towers on a cable to publicly demonstrate confidence in the bridge's design.
"Somebody shouted out that there was danger," reported the New York Sun. "And the impression prevailed that the bridge was giving way beneath the crowd."
The newspaper mentioned, "A woman held her baby over the trestle work and begged someone to take it."
The situation had turned desperate. From the New York Sun:
"At last, with a single shriek that cut through the clamor of thousands of voices, a young girl lost her footing, and fell down the lower flight of steps. She lay for a moment, and then raised herself on her hands, and would have got up. But in another moment she was buried under the bodies of others who fell over the steps after her. She was dead when they got her out more than half an hour afterward.
"Men sprang upon the rails at the side and waved the crowds back from both the New York and Brooklyn sides. But the people continued to crowd on toward the steps. No police were in sight. Men in the crowd lifted their children above their heads to save them from the crush. People were still paying their pennies at both gates and swarming in."
Within minutes the frantic scene had calmed. Soldiers, who had been parading near the bridge in Decoration Day commemorations, rushed to the scene. The New York Sun described the aftermath:
"A company of the Twelfth New York Regiment worked hard at dragging them out. Twenty-five seemed to be nearly dead. They were laid along the north and south sides of the pathway, and the people from Brooklyn passed on between them. Men and women turned faint at the sight of the swollen and blood-stained faces of the dead. Four men, a lad, six women, and a girl of 15 were quite dead, or died in a few moments. They had been found at the bottom of the heap.
"The police stopped grocers' wagons coming from Brooklyn, and, carrying the bodies of the wounded and climbing down the planks to the road, laid them in the wagons, and told the drivers to hurry to the Chambers Street Hospital. Six bodies were laid in one wagon. The drivers whipped up their horses and drove with full speed to the hospital."
Newspaper accounts of the dead and wounded were heartbreaking. The New York Sun described how one young couple's afternoon stroll on the bridge turned tragic:
"Sarah Hennessey was married on Easter, and was walking on the bridge with her husband when the crowd closed in upon them. Her husband injured his left arm a week ago, and clung to his wife with his right hand. A little girl fell in front of him, and he was thrown upon his knees and kicked and bruised. Then his wife was torn from him, and he saw her trampled upon and killed. When he got off the bridge he searched for his wife and found her in the hospital."
According to a report in the New York Tribune of May 31, 1883, Sarah Hennessey had been married to her husband John Hennessey for seven weeks. She was 22 years old. They had lived in Brooklyn.
Rumors of the disaster spread quickly through the city. The New York Tribune reported: "An hour after the accident it was told in the vicinity of Madison Square that 25 persons were killed and hundreds wounded, and at 42nd Street that the bridge had fallen down and 1,500 had lost their lives."
In the days and weeks following the disaster the blame for the tragedy was directed at the management of the bridge. The bridge had its own small police force, and officials of the bridge company were criticized for failing to place policeman at strategic place to keep crowds dispersed.
It became standard practice for uniformed officers on the bridge to keep people moving along, and the Decoration Day tragedy was never repeated.
The fear that the bridge was in danger of collapsing was, of course, completely unfounded. The Brooklyn Bridge has been renovated to some extent, and the original trolley track was removed in the late 1940s and the roadways changed to accommodate more automobiles. But the walkway still stretches down the middle of the bridge and is still in use. The bridge is crossed every day by thousands of pedestrians, and the promenade with striking views that drew revelers in May 1883 is still an attraction for tourists today.