Brooklyn in the 1880’s

    Brooklyn in the 1880’s was a far cry from the almost rural landscape that existed  when Matthew Keenan first built his house on Underhill Ave in 1848-49. Back then the chief means of  transport was the horse drawn carriage or cart. Although steam rail cars had operated along Atlantic Avenue since the 1830’s  these were not really intended for local transport.

     In 1832 the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad built a ten mile stretch of track between Brooklyn and Jamaica. These tracks ran along Atlantic Ave. right behind the house that Patrick Keenan bought on Pacific St. When the Long Island Rail Road  was founded in 1834 it leased the track laid down by the B&J and began building its own extensions.

     The original plan was not conceived  as a local service to serve Long Island, but rather as a quicker route to travel from Boston to New York. Trains would run from Boston to Stonington, Connecticut, where the passengers would cross by ferry to Long Island. They would then ride on the LIRR to Fulton Street in Brooklyn, and finally cross by ferry to New York. The Island-long route was completed in 1844 and at first was highly successful. However, in 1849 the New York and New Haven Railroad opened a track  through the “impassable” country of southern Connecticut, and a direct overland route from New York to Boston was established. 

     Then in 1860, the City of Brooklyn banned the use of steam engines in populated areas. The Long Island Rail Road subsequently reduced service to Brooklyn, eliminating the track between the current Flatbush Avenue terminal and the then Fulton Street terminal.

   But an improved system of rail travel was necessary to keep up with the great strides in industrial, residential and recreational development of the outlying towns surrounding Brooklyn.  The earliest forms of mass transit in cities were the horse-cars, which were trolleys pulled by horses. Horse cars would bring passengers to the outskirts of the city where they would then transfer to steam rail cars, taking them to Canarsie, and to beach resorts such as Coney Island. But it was a long, trying ride and very inconvenient for a worker to take back and forth to work each day.

     The Brooklyn City Railroad (BCRR) was the oldest and one of the largest operators of streetcars (horse cars and later trolleys) in the City of Brooklyn. The BCRR was incorporated on December 17, 1853 with capital of $2,500,000, a large sum in those days. Its first line, the Myrtle Avenue Line, was the first horse car line in Brooklyn, and opened on July 3, 1854. The line operated from Fulton Ferry via Fulton Street and Myrtle Avenue to the former stagecoach stables at Marcy Avenue. By the 1890’s the Brooklyn City operated 27 streetcar lines. Numerous other smaller railroad companies had their own lines and territories.

     The 1880 Census showed that Thomas Smith (the husband of Mary Keenan)  was no longer working as a machinist, but was employed as a conductor by the Brooklyn City Railroad. The Smiths  were living at 336 Thompkins Ave. in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a block south of Gates Ave. This schedule from 1874 shows the BCRR running a Gates Ave line, which was probably the one that Thomas worked.

    As we noted before, both  James and John Keenan were also employed by a  railroad in 1880. Perhaps Thomas helped his brother-in-laws obtain work with the BRCC. Or  they could have worked for the Prospect Park and Flatbush Railroad, whose depot and stables were only two blocks away from where they were living on Bergen St. at the time.

     Eventually horse drawn cars were replaced by electric trolleys and steam powered trains were allowed to return with the advent of elevated tracks. Elevated lines in Brooklyn began operation in May of  1885. Service was provided over the streets of Myrtle, 5th, Fulton, Lexington, and Broadway. The first El, starting at Washington and York Streets and running  to Broadway and Gates Avenue, was called the Old Main Line. The first cable car system in New York was actually a steam-engine hybrid that ran over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Engineers didn’t believe a regular steam locomotive could travel up an incline to get onto the bridge, so this dual steam/cable method was created. This cable service was provided on the Brooklyn Bridge from 1883-1898 and was eventually through routed with the Brooklyn Els.

     Of all the engineering advances in the 1800’s, the Brooklyn Bridge stands out as perhaps the most famous and most remarkable. It took more than a decade to build, cost the life of its designer and was constantly criticized by skeptics who predicted the entire structure was going to collapse into New York’s East River.

     In 1860, forty percent of Brooklyn’s wage earners worked in New York City, and the East River ferries carried more than 32 million passengers a year. However, there was no way they  could  keep up with the increasing demand for transportation as the city expanded. 

        Talk of somehow bridging the East River began as early as 1800, when large bridges were only the stuff of dreams. The advantages of having a convenient link between the two growing cities of New York and Brooklyn were obvious. But the idea was thought to be impossible because of the width of the waterway, which, despite its name, wasn’t really a river. The East River is actually a salt water estuary, prone to turbulence and tidal conditions.

    Further complicating matters was the fact that the East River was one of the busiest waterways on earth, with hundreds of crafts of all sizes sailing on it at any time. Any bridge spanning the water would have to allow for ships to pass beneath it, meaning that  a very high suspension bridge was the only practical solution. And the bridge would have to be the largest bridge ever built, nearly twice the length of the famed Menai Suspension Bridge, which had heralded the age of great suspension bridges when it opened in 1826.

     John Roebling, an immigrant from Germany, did not invent the suspension bridge, but his work building bridges in America made him the most prominent bridge builder in the US in the mid-1800’s. His bridges over the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh (completed in 1860) and over the Ohio River at Cincinnati (completed 1867) were considered remarkable achievements. Roebling began dreaming of spanning the East River between New York and Brooklyn as early as 1857, when he drew designs for enormous towers that would hold the bridge’s cables.

     The Civil War put any such plans on hold, but in 1867 the New York State legislature chartered a company to build a bridge across the East River and Roebling was chosen as its chief engineer. However just as work was beginning on the bridge in the summer of 1869, tragedy struck. John Roebling severely injured his foot in a freak accident as he was surveying the spot where the Brooklyn tower would be built. He died of  lockjaw not long after, and his son Washington Roebling, who had distinguished himself as a Union officer in the Civil War, became chief engineer of the bridge project.

     To dig the foundations for the bridge’s enormous stone towers, caissons, enormous wooden boxes with no bottoms, were sunk in the river. Compressed air was pumped into them, and men inside would dig away at the sand and rock on the river bottom. The stone towers were built atop the caissons, which sank deeper into the river bottom.

     Caisson work was extremely difficult, and the men doing it, called “sand hogs,” took great risks. Washington Roebling, who went into the caisson to oversee work, was also involved in an accident and never fully recovered. An invalid after the accident, Roebling stayed in his house in Brooklyn Heights. His wife Emily, who trained herself as an engineer, would take his instructions to the bridge site every day.

    After the caissons had been sunk to the river bottom, they were filled with concrete, and the construction of the stone towers continued above. When the towers reached their ultimate height, 278 feet above high water, work began on the four enormous cables that would support the roadway.Spinning the cables between the towers began in the summer of 1877, and was finished a year and four months later. But it would take nearly another five years to suspend the roadway from the cables and have the bridge ready for traffic.

   By the time it was finished in 1883, the bridge had cost about $15 million, more than twice what John Roebling had originally estimated. And while no official figures were kept on how many men died building the bridge, it has been reasonably estimated that about 20 to 30 men perished in various accidents.

  The grand opening for the bridge was held on May 24, 1883. President Chester A. Arthur came to New York City for the event and led a group of dignitaries who walked across the bridge. Military bands played, and cannons in the Brooklyn Navy Yard sounded salutes.

     The bridge brought a new wave of people into Brooklyn: immigrants seeking relief  from the high rents and small apartments of New York City. And the city of Brooklyn expanded to accommodate the new population, eventually swallowing up all of Kings County.

     By the 1880’s  Brooklyn had evolved into one of the leading producers of manufactured goods in the nation. Brooklyn’s largest industry, sugar refining, produced more than half the sugar consumed in the United States. There were also dockyards, gas refineries, ironworks, slaughterhouses, book publishers, sweatshops, and factories producing everything from clocks, pencils, and glue, to cakes, beer, and cigars. Work, though not always safe or healthy, was widely available.