This great city took time out today to celebrate an immigrant story -- an American story, really, about people who came here in steerage and poverty, carrying dreams, visions, hope and little else.
For decades they came in waves, and their first sighting of the dream was a misty torch in New York harbor. Then they saw the vision, the soaring gothic arches and gleaming cables of a bridge that told them that here anything was possible, any gap could be spanned.
The Brooklyn Bridge, which awed immigrants and poets, enticed con artists and legend makers, was 100 years old today.
New York took to the birthday party the way only the Big Apple can, although a bit more blase than Gotham's officialdom had expected. Revelers lined the East River to watch a massive flotilla sail under the bridge, and fireboats spewed multicolored plumes of water in the city's traditional welcome. At nightfall, the formal party ended, with a spectacular sound-and-light show and a fireworks display over the river: 9,600 rockets and shells thundering and flashing for more than half an hour.
Police estimated that 1 1/2 million persons watched the spectacle from FDR Drive in Manhattan and Brooklyn's Promenade. Thousands more cheered from boats, roof-tops and office buildings.
The worst fears of New Yorks leaders did not materialize. There was no gridlock, that urban nightmare in which so many automobiles clog streets that nothing moves but angry hands on horns.
People walked -- down through the battery and Fulton's Landing on the Manhattan side, across the bridge, up the river channel and past the Brooklyn Navy yard in Flatbush territory.
They also talked, sometimes boisterously, sometimes wistfully, about a bridge that had become a symbol, a legend and an American epic about hardworking newcomers who had nowhere to go but up. Boss Tweed, the 300-pound Tammany Hall political boss, was said to have held up construction of the bridge until its promoters delivered a payoff of $60,000. It came by boat, for the Brooklyn Bridge was the first to connect Manhattan Island to the then separate city of Brooklyn. Some doubt that story.But the legend fits the man and befits the bridge.
But one of this city's largest legends was about the bridge itself, the dream of a German immigrant and the inspiration of a million others who followed him. It was John Roebling's passion that a 6,000-foot suspension bridge be built across the East River. Roebling died before the work began; he was a victim of his dream just as others would be.
Roebling died of tetanus after his foot was crushed by a ferry boat as he surveyed the site in 1869. His son, Washington, took over. But triumph and tragedy were meant for the Roeblings, just as they were for the immigrants who followed and the country they helped build.
One year after John Roebling's death, a fire broke out in one of the caissons deep under the river where workers fought rats and mud to set the Brooklyn Bridge's foundations. Washington Roebling rushed down to help his workers. The fire extinguished, he also rushed back up -- and suffered the bends, a crippling and then little-known decompression sickness. He was treated with a salt-and-whisky rubdown.
For the next 14 years Washington Roebling was bedridden in Brooklyn. He watched the bridge's progress by telescope and sent his wife out to the construction crew with intricate engineering changes.
Twenty-seven other men died working on the bridge, some plummeting into the river, others diying agonizingly from the ailment Washington Roebling barely survived.
One hundred years ago today the Roeblings' engineering marvel opened. President Chester A. Arthur led the first parade across Manhattan's first bridge, waving a beaver hat to the crowds. Washington Roebling watched through his telescope.
At that time, the $15 million bridge loomed over a different Manhattan skyline, its 276-foot-high arches were rivaled only by the pinnacle of Wall Street's Trinity Church. The first tolls were 1 cent for pedestrians, 2 cent for hogs, 3 cents for bicycles and 10 cents for horse-drawn carriages.
Today, 18,000 people marched across the bridge, avoiding such modern problems as gridlock and attending $500 celebration parties -- a year's wages for the mean who first climbed the spires and dug dangerously into the the river's muck. Others watched the parade and fireworks from riverfront apartments that now loom high above the old bridge.
Sixty-five other bridges and tunnels now connect Manhattan to the rest of the country, most of them built by immigrants who drew their vision that anything was possible in America from that first sighting of the Reoblings' engineering and poetic triumph.