The Opening Ceremony of The Brooklyn Bridge

The New York and Brooklyn Bridge was formally opened on Thursday, May 24th, 1883, with befitting pomp and ceremonial, in the presence of the largest multitude that ever gathered in the two cities. From the announcement by the Trustees of the date which was to mark the turning-over of the work to the public, it was evident that the popular demonstration would be upon a scale commensurate with the magnificence of the structure and its importance to the people of the United States. The evidences of widespread and profound interest in the event were early and unmistakable. They were not confined to the metropolis and its sister city on the Long Island shore, nor yet to the majestic Empire State. The occurrence was recognized as one of National importance; and throughout the Union, from the rocky headlands of Maine to the golden shores of the Pacific, and from the gleaming waters of the St. Lawrence to the vast expanse of the Mexican Gulf, the opening ceremonies were regarded with intelligent concern and approval. Nearly every State contributed its representatives to the swelling throng that attended, while those who were unable to be present contemplated with pride and satisfaction the completion and consecration to its purpose of the greatest engineering work of modern times.

In the communities most directly benefited by the Bridge the demonstration was confined to no class or body of the populace. It was a holiday for high and low, rich and poor; it was, in fact, the People’s Day. More delightful weather never dawned upon a festal morning. The heavens were radiant with the celestial blue of approaching summer; silvery fragments of cloud sailed gracefully across the firmament like winged messengers, bearing greetings of work well done; the clearest of spring sunshine tinged everything with a touch of gold, and a brisk, bracing breeze blown up from the Atlantic cooled the atmosphere to a healthful and invigorating temperature. The incoming dawn revealed the twin cities gorgeous in gala attire. From towering steeple and lofty façade, from the fronts of business houses and the cornices and walls of private dwellings, from the forests of shipping along the wharves and the vessels in the dimpled bay, floated bunting fashioned in every conceivable design, while high above all, from the massive and enduring granite towers of the Bridge the Stars and Stripes signaled to the world from the gateway of the continent the arrival of the auspicious day.

Almost before the sun was up the thoroughfares of both cities put on a festival appearance. Business was generally suspended. The mercantile and professional communities vied with one another in the extent and splendor of their decorations, while from the hearty voice of Labor arose a chorus of ringing acclamation. Tens of thousands of men, women and children crowded into the streets, and, after gazing admiringly upon the decorations, wended their way in the direction of the mighty river span. From neighboring cities and from the adjacent country for many miles around the incoming trains brought multitudes of excursionists and sight-seers. It seemed marvelous that they could all find accommodation, but the generous hospitality of the cities was cordially extended, and all were adequately provided for. The scenes presented during the day upon the streets and avenues of New York and Brooklyn will never be forgotten by those who witnessed them. Notwithstanding the enormous massing of people, the best of order was everywhere observable, and the day happily was free from any accident of a serious nature. The arrangements for the celebration were of a sensible and becoming character, and beside insuring an unobstructed and speedy course for the ceremonies, contributed beyond measure to the popular enjoyment.

Early in the afternoon the President of the United States, Gen. Chester A. Arthur, and the Hon. Grover Cleveland, Governor of the State of New York, the former accompanied by the members of his Cabinet and the latter by the officers of his Staff, were escorted from the Fifth Avenue Hotel to the New York City Hall, where they were joined by his Honor Mayor Franklin Edson and the New York officials. From the City Hall the procession proceeded to the New York Approach to the Bridge. The Seventh Regiment, N.G., S.N.Y., Col. Emmons Clark, commanding, acted as escort to the Presidential and Gubernatorial party. The regimental band, of 75 pieces, headed the column and played popular airs as the procession moved along the crowded and gaily decorated thoroughfares. At the New York Tower a battalion of the Fifth United States Artillery, under command of Major Jackson, joined the escort, and between the lines of brilliantly uniformed troops the distinguished guests passed upon the roadway. They were formally received by a Committee of the Bridge Trustees, headed by Mr. William C. Kingsley, Vice-President and acting President of the Board.

The arrival at the New York Tower was proclaimed to the multitudes on shore by the thundering of many cannon. Salutes were fired from the forts in the harbor, from the United States Navy Yard, and from the summit of Fort Greene. The United States fleet, consisting of the “Tennessee,” the “Yantic,” the “Kearsarge,” the “Vandalia,” and the “Minnesota,” Rear-Admiral George H. Cooper, commanding, was anchored in the river below the Bridge and joined in the salute. As the procession moved across the roadway the yards of the men-of-war were manned, and from the docks and factories arose a tremendous babel of sounds, caused by the clanging of bells, the roaring of steam whistles, and the cheers of enthusiastic people, while sounding from afar, in delightful contrast with the clamorous discord, the silver chimes of Trinity rang out upon the river.

In the ornate iron railway depot at the Brooklyn terminus, where the exercises were to take place, the arrival of the approaching procession was anxiously awaited. The interior was bright with tasteful decorations, the prevailing feature being the sky-blue hangings of satin bordered with silver, and the coats-of-arms of the States appropriately interspersed amid a forest of flags. On the Brooklyn side the duties of escort were transferred to the 23d Regiment, N.G., S.N.Y., Colonel Rodney C. Ward commanding. The regiment appeared upon this occasion for the first time in their new State service uniform, and performed their duties most efficiently. The arrangements for the procession and exercises were under the direction of Major-General James Jourdan, commanding the Second Division, N.G., S.N.Y., who was ably assisted by the members of the Division Staff. The building was thronged in every part. In the throng were many of the most conspicuous citizens of New York and other States, including representatives of the bench, the bar, the pulpit, the press, and all other professions. Beside the President and his Cabinet, consisting of the Hon. Charles J. Folger, Secretary of the Treasury; the Hon. William E. Chandler, Secretary of the Navy; the Hon. Henry M. Teller, Secretary of the Interior; the Hon. Walter Q. Gresham, Postmaster-General, and the Hon. Benjamin Harris Brewster, Attorney-General; and Governor Cleveland and Staff, there were present the Governors of several States and the Mayors of nearly all the cities in the vicinity of the metropolis. In the vast assemblage none were more conspicuous than the officers of the Army and Navy, who occupied an entire section and attracted general attention.

When the Presidential party and their escort entered the hall they were greeted with enthusiastic cheers. They occupied seats directly opposite the stand erected for the orators of the day. The exercises proceeded without delay in an orderly manner, and were appropriate and impressive throughout. Music was furnished during the ceremonies by the bands of the Seventh and Twenty-third regiments. The Hon. James S.T. Stranahan presided with the skill and dignity gained during his long experience in public life. Near him were the speakers, Mr. William C. Kingsley, Rev. Richard S. Storrs, D.D., the Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, Mayor Franklin Edson, of New York, and Mayor Seth Low, of Brooklyn, together with the members of the Board of Bridge Trustees. Mr. Stranahan opened the ceremonies by introducing Bishop Littlejohn, who wore the Episcopal robes. The Bishop fervently and impressively made the opening prayer, the great assemblage bowing their heads reverentially during its delivery. Vice-President Kingsley was next introduced, and was received with hearty applause. Mr. Kingsley, in clear and distinct tones, and in comprehensive and business-like terms, proceeded to make the formal speech presenting the Bridge to the cities of New York and Brooklyn. The address was heard with careful attention, and upon its conclusion a round of enthusiastic applause swept through the building. His Honor Mayor Low followed Mr. Kingsley with a concise and appropriate speech, receiving the structure on behalf of the City of Brooklyn. His address elicited several demonstrations of approval from the audience. The Hon. Franklin Edson, Mayor of New York, who was the next speaker, was heartily applauded as he aptly accepted the Bridge in behalf of the authorities of the great metropolis. When Mr. Hewitt was introduced as the orator on the part of New York City, he was warmly cheered. His eloquent address riveted the attention of his hearers from beginning to end, and his pointed and conclusive vindication of the bridge manage16ment from the outset aroused the enthusiasm of his hearers to the utmost pitch. Following Mr. Hewitt came the Rev. Richard S. Storrs, D.D., who delivered the oration on behalf of Brooklyn. Never did the distinguished preacher appear to better advantage, and his oration, which was punctuated with applause, was characterized as a masterpiece by all who heard it. Upon the conclusion of his address the presiding officer declared the exercises at an end, and the company in the building dispersed.

The festivities, however, did not end with the conclusion of the formal ceremonies. The celebration was continued in both cities throughout the day and far into the night. Thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic people crowded the streets. After the ceremonies, the President, the Governor, the speakers of the day, and the Trustees were driven to the residence of Col. Washington A. Roebling, on Columbia Heights, where a reception was held. As they passed through the streets the people cheered as people only can who cheer in the atmosphere of a free government. From Col. Roebling’s house the company proceeded to the residence of Mayor Low, where they were entertained at a banquet. In the evening, under the auspices of the Municipal authorities, a grand reception to President Arthur and Governor Cleveland was given by the citizens of Brooklyn at the Academy of Music, and was attended by a great multitude. Another striking feature of the celebration at night was the display of fireworks on the Bridge given under the direction of the Board of Trustees. The pyrotechnic exhibition was viewed by almost the entire populace of the two cities, and a vast concourse of visitors from abroad. The East River was fairly blocked with craft of every description bearing legions of delighted spectators, and the streets and housetops were packed with people. The display was generally characterized as one of the grandest ever witnessed in America. The people of both cities evinced their public spirit in the decorations by day and the illuminations by night. The illuminations in Brooklyn, particularly, were on a magnificent scale, and excited the admiration of multitudes18 of visitors to the city. In addition to the special features of the celebration there were many entertainments in honor of the event, including concerts in the various city parks. Throughout the afternoon and evening the best of order was preserved; the casualties that occurred were few and unimportant, and the auspicious day ended without the intrusion of anything that would carry with it other than pleasant memories of the significant event which it commemorated.

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