On May 30, 1883 — one week after it officially opened — 12 people were killed in a horrifying trample caused by the collapse of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Except of course, the Bridge didn’t actually collapse.
The prior week, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to terrific fanfare, with almost 14,000 people invited to cross this architectural behemoth which had sat in their harbor under construction for years.
The experience of crossing for the first time — to experience the sprawling city from a vantage in the harbor and at equal height of the tallest buildings of the time — must have been immense. And rather frightening.
One week later, on May 30th (Memorial Day that year), the path was still clogged with curiosity seekers.
Suddenly a woman fell on the stairs walking up on the Manhattan side, and her friend screamed.
Just this unnerving act alone created a rumor that the new bridge was about to collapse, that it couldn’t take the weight of all these people.
Panic ensued and people stampeded in every means possible to escape off the bridge. I feel the editorial from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle says it best:
“Two men tried to raise the prostrate woman and were instantly trampled and paid forfeit with their lives. In a few seconds human beings were piled four deep at the foot of the steps, and the crowd was hurried over them.”
From the report of a police officer on the bridge:
“I was just above the stairs, at the side of the promenade. There was a crowd going in each direction and I was trying to keep them moving. A woman stumbled on the stairway below the landing and fell. Another woman at the head of the stairway saw her fall, and she screamed. The whole thing was caused by that woman screaming.”
“Then came the rush and the panic. I succeeded in getting up the woman who had fallen, but my hands were stepped on and my head kicked. I tried to drive back the crowd but could do nothing. It seemed as though the people didn’t see the stairs till they were pushed headlong down them by the rushing crowd behind.“
Under a grim heading ‘The Pile of Dead’ in the New York Sun sits some frightful descriptions by survivors:
“I felt the pulse of a number of those who were taken out. The first was a woman, who lay on her back just below the steps, with one arm twisted under her and the other hand clenching the reman of a child’s shawl. She had gray hair. Her forehead had been cut by the fall and her face was stained with blood. I believe she died before they got her off the bridge.”
In the bloody tussle, 12 people died and over 36 were seriously injured. The victims ranged in age from 15 to 60, according to the Tribune.
The bridge, of course, wasn’t in any danger of collapsing. But few who walked upon it had ever stepped upon such a thing and it must have been a disorienting experience for the uninitiated.
And newspapers were periodically filled with the news of collapsing bridges. Only a few years before, on December 28, 1879, seventy-five people were killed when Scotland’s Tay Bridge collapsed during a storm.
Closer to home, a railway accident upon a bridge in Little Silver, New Jersey, killed three and injured dozens. (One of the survivors was former president Ulysses S. Grant.)
Following this unfortunate disaster upon the bridge, Brooklyn beefed up the police presence upon the bridge. “The order had evidently gone forth to keep everything moving for officers were stationed on the broad platforms circling the middle pier of each tower — favorite resorts hitherto for loungers and for others who want a shady spot in which to rest.” [source]
A variation of this article originally ran in 2007.