Some 125 years later, the Brooklyn Bridge remains a powerful symbol of engineering might and imagination, and a revered fixture in the landscape of the nation's largest city.
And it can still draw a crowd. Thousands of people are expected at the bridge's 125th birthday blowout Thursday, with fireworks, a Navy flyover, a colorful new lighting scheme and the debut of a tribute song scheduled to honor the storied span. It opened on May 24, 1883.
"It's an icon for not only New York, but for America," said Brooklyn's official historian, Ron Schweiger.
The 6,000-foot-long landmark is one of the nation's oldest suspension bridges and among its most treasured.
Tourists flock to see its interplay of architectural grace and muscle and its commanding views of the Manhattan skyline. Historians note its role in shaping the city: It linked Manhattan with what was then a largely rural Brooklyn, helping spur a Brooklyn growth spurt, Schweiger said. Brooklyn's population grew by 42 percent between 1880 and 1890, while Manhattan's grew by about 26 percent, census figures show.
Engineers laud the bridge's strength and innovation.
"There was nothing like this before, at least nothing like this that was of this scale built before," said Serafim Arzoumanidis, a New York-based engineer and bridge designer.
The Brooklyn Bridge is roughly six times as long as the biggest earlier bridge of its type, and its Gothic-arched stone towers and web of steel cables are technically impressive even by today's standards, he said.
Building the bridge took 13 years, cost $15 million and claimed several lives, including that of its celebrated designer, John Roebling. He succumbed to an infection after being hurt while looking over the site. His son, Washington Roebling, took over the project.
Its dedication was dubbed "People's Day" and featured two parades, an hourlong fireworks show and an appearance by President Chester Arthur. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called the occasion "an enormous stride in the march of American progress"; Harper's Weekly, a popular illustrated magazine, declared the bridge the manmade work "most likely to become our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity."
The bridge now carries about 126,000 cars per day, at the city's last count in 2006, and is used by countless cyclists and pedestrians. It has been refurbished repeatedly, and some parts have been strengthened. But the towers, main cables and main beams are original.
Recent inspections have flagged some problems. The U.S. Department of Transportation rated the bridge as structurally deficient in 2006, and state inspectors ranked its condition as "poor" in a recent survey.
Federal and city transportation officials have said the criticisms largely reflected deterioration of the bridge's newer approach ramps, and city officials have stressed that the bridge is safe.
The city plans to spend $250 million to $300 million fixing the ramps and painting the bridge, starting early next year, city Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Timbers said Wednesday.