Today (Tuesday, December 19th) marks the anniversary of the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. The Bridge was opened on a Saturday and was one of the greatest celebrations the Newly formed city had ever witnessed. The air all around Williamsburg that brisk winter morning was electric and buzzing with excitement. After six long years of watching the construction of the bridge, the span would finally open. There was jubilation in the area, especially amongst property owners who knew that the bridge would dramatically increase the value of their properties.
The man who was responsible for getting the bridge built was State Senator Patrick McCarren (1849- 1909) whom McCarren Park is named after. McCarren, who had grown up in the area was a political kingpin who was derisively called “The Sugar Senator” for his total subservience to the local sugar trust. Sugar was the area’s biggest industry and McCarren became one of the first corporate lobbyists in American history. I described in my book The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King how McCarren ignored the plight of his constituents who toiled in sauna like conditions in the many sugar mills that lined the East River, while enriching himself with sugar money legal and lobbying fees.
McCarren greased enough palms in Albany with sugar money to achieve his dream. Way back in 1892 Senator McCarren had gotten the legislation to fund the bridge through the State Assembly and Senate and finally coerced the governor to sign it. Twenty years earlier in 1883, the older citizens could recall the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, but this bridge was different. The Williamsburg span was their bridge, the Brainchild of their very own State Senator, Patrick Henry McCarren. There was an exciting sense that the bridge would dramatically transform the Eastern District of Brooklyn, but they could only guess at all the various changes the new bridge might bring.If the Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering marvel, then McCarren’s Bridge was even more miraculous. It surpassed the first span in many ways. It was longer, wider and heavier. Its towers were higher and stronger and were made of steel, not masonry. Even the new bridge’s cables were far superior. They were far bigger and stronger so that the span could support a wider roadways and much more traffic. The new bridge’s most superior feature was its capacity. It had two-foot walks, two roadways, two elevated tracks and four surface railway tracks.
When the opening ceremony date was announced all the locals talked of nothing else and the ladies discussed what they would wear the first time they crossed the great bridge. There was general consternation when the people learned not only that the bridge was not fully complete, but also that only politicians and very important people would be allowed to cross the bridge that first day. They learned that Mayor Low had pushed to have the celebration observed before he left office at the end of the year, despite the fact that construction was still not finished. The truth that they were celebrating the completion of a still unfinished bridge, however, did not seem at all to disturb the gaiety surrounding the opening ceremonies.
An observer on the morning of Saturday, December 19th would have noticed that thousands of locals anxiously opened their windows to check the weather. The greatest concern early that morning was the thick, stubborn, threatening fog that hung over the river obscuring the view of the great span. There were fears that the fog would not lift and that the people on both banks would not be able to see the celebration. However, the tens of thousands of spectators were in luck. As the sun began to rise in the sky, it slowly burned off the fog that had shrouded the bridge. Shortly after noon the span became visible to the crowds on the East River ferries and to the hundreds of spectators who had already staked out the best vantage points in the area. When enough of the fog burned off the majestic and monumental structure appeared, there was relief and rejoicing across the area.
For the first time, the people of Williamsburg could make out how the huge bridge structure had been transformed during the night by the art of the decorator. Its immense proportions might have appalled the draper of flags and buntings, but he had gone at his task bravely and his work greatly enhanced the bridge’s beauty. His decoration of rosettes and semi-rosettes of Old Glory, long strings of bunting and banners and lines of American flags lent grace to the Spartan metal structure.
There were two delegations of dignitaries who would meet at the middle of the bridge: a Manhattan group led by the mayor, and a Brooklyn group led by the Borough President. Mayor Low resplendent in a frock coat and top hat left the City Hall in Manhattan at about 1 o’clock for the bridge, accompanied by Borough President Jacob A. Cantor, of Manhattan and a group of a hundred or so other equally well-dressed, top hatted dignitaries. The mayor’s group rode their carriages up Broadway to Broom Street, escorted by cavalry Troop A of the New York State National Guard the sound of whose hooves clicked against the hard pavement. As the Mayor rode along Broadway, his mind must certainly have drifted back to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 when he had been mayor of Brooklyn. He remembered standing next to President Arthur who cut the ribbon to open the bridge. He recalled the din of horns from below the span that seemed to fill the river with sound just after the ribbon was cut. Recently, he had cajoled Comptroller Grout to have the festivities moved up so that he could claim the honor of being mayor at the opening ceremonies of New York’s first two East River Bridges.
The air was festive. Great crowds lined Broadway. Women waved handkerchiefs and men shouted words of praise to the group as their carriages rolled by. When they reached Broome Street they passed through formations of the 71st regiment standing at attention waiting for the mayor’s review. The delegation rode on through the Lower East Side where Alderman Sullivan turned out his constituents, who despite their political differences with the mayor, cheered him and Sullivan loudly from the rooftops. The party got out of their carriages at the foot of the bridge at the corner of Delancey and Clinton Streets. They waited a few minutes looking at their watches for the exact minute when they would begin their historic walk across the newly opened span.
In the meantime, a similar party of dignitaries departed Borough Hall in Brooklyn led by the Borough President Edward Swanstrom who was overshadowed by the hero of the day, Chief Bridge Engineer Leffert Buck, the man who had overseen the construction of the bridge. The Chief engineer felt embarrassed when cheers for him were louder and more enthusiastic than for the Borough President. Prominent amongst the group of Brooklyn dignitaries was the godfather of the new bridge Senator McCarren, who looked regal in a tight fitting black frock coat and matching top hat. The locals cheered him wildly for his role in making this event possible.
The two groups of politicians marched onto the bridge and met at the center of the span. They made speeches there, but the greatest celebration would be that evening. A flotilla of boats sailed under the bridge and all of them let out their steam whistles. The city fathers had planned a huge firework and light show. Tens of thousands of locals braved the cold to witness the glorious rockets that shot off from the bridge and to see the luminous electric lights that were turned on for the first time that night. Perhaps the greatest cheer of the evening went up when locals could recognize a huge likeness of Senator McCarren that had been created from fireworks along the side of the bridge.
The opening of the bridge changed Williamsburg forever. Perhaps the greatest effect of the bridge was social. Thousands of Jews from the Lower East Side crossed the bridge to settle in Brooklyn. Quickly, Williamsburg became a large Jewish community and the New York Times and others nicknamed the span, “The Jewish Highway.” McCarren is now a largely forgotten figure, but the bridge he helped create still stands.