On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic. Though now we know it as a beautiful landmark, New Yorkers of the time were a bit more wary. At the time, it was the only bridge spanning the East River, connecting the separate cities of Brooklyn and New York, and many doubted that a bridge that large could hold.

(Left) Kyser & Rex, Mechanical bank: Jumbo the Elephant, 1880-1900. New-York Historical Society; (right) R. H. Radford, Badge, 1883. Badge commemorating the opening of Brooklyn Bridge in 1883

This fear is what may have prompted a stampede a week after the Brooklyn Bridge opened, on May 30. The New York Times wrote that a woman tripped and fell on the steps up to the bridge, prompting another woman to scream and crowds to push forward. Then, panic: “Those following were in turn pushed over and in a moment the narrow stairway was choked with human beings, piled one on top of the other, who were being crushed to death. In a few minutes, 12 persons were killed, 7 injured so seriously that their lives are despaired of, and 28 others more or less severely wounded.”

Earlier that year, showman and circus founder P.T. Barnum had suggested marching his elephants, led by his most famous one, Jumbo, across the bridge in celebration of its opening. He was turned down, but with public trust of the structure still wavering, a display of the Brooklyn Bridge’s strength seemed to be a good idea. On May 17, 1884, Barnum marched 21 elephants across the bridge, along with 17 camels.

The animals made it across just fine, proving that the bridge was steady. At the time it opened, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and it lives on today as one of New York’s finest landmarks.

Geo. P. Hall & Son, Manhattan: High angle shot of the Brooklyn Bridge, viewed from the Manhattan side, 1898. New-York Historical Society Library

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