The elephants that tested the Brooklyn Bridge

When the Brooklyn Bridge—under construction for 13 years—was gearing up for opening day in May 1883, 19th century New York’s biggest showman made a proposal.

To test out the bridge, P.T. Barnum offered, he’d walk his troupe of elephants across it.

Authorities turned him down. But a year later, on May 17, 1884, his elephant march (plus other creatures) happened, as this 2004 New Yorker cover cleverly illustrates.

It was a demonstration to the public that the bridge was safe and a brilliant promotional stunt for Barnum’s Museum and touring show.

“To people who looked up from the river at the big arch of electric lights it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island,” wrote The New York Times.

“At 9:30 o’clock 21 elephants, 7 camels, and 10 dromedaries issued from the ferry at the foot of Courtlandt-Street. . . . The other elephants shuffled along, raising their trunks and snorting as every train went by. Old Jumbo brought up the rear.”

Jumbo was Barnum’s prized giant African elephant, shown in this sketch arriving by crate to the city. He was already a celebrity in London when Barnum purchased him.

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11 Responses to “The elephants that tested the Brooklyn Bridge”

  1. Goggla Says:

    Wow, I had no idea – how funny!

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I admit I had to look up what a dromedary is….

  3. Lisa Says:

    I used to take 20-mile bike rides, as part of my daily regimen. One December morning, before dawn, I was riding north on sixth avenue in the 40’s. I saw what looked like several camels crossing the avenue, several blocks away. Was I still dreaming? Nope– as I rode closer, I confirmed that an actual string of camels were being led to Radio City, presumably props for some sort of Christmas spectacular.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    That reminds me of the annual one a.m. march through the midtown tunnel to get the circus animals from a rail car or truck bed in Queens to Madison Square Garden when Ringling Bros. is in town in the winter. I always mean to go watch it.

  5. Stephanie Says:

    I thought this cartoon was a comment on the fear the Republicans were feeling as they were coming to New York City for their convention in 2004 (note that the date on the cover was right around the convention).

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    Fascinating, I’d forgotten about that. While researching the elephant walk I came across this thread on Wired New York, where someone had posted the cover—an apparent reference to it, but perhaps not:

    I don’t remember the Republican delegates and attendees being afraid to come to New York though. So I’m not sure that cover was so accurate.

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  8. Suzie Sunkel Says:

    I just visited my Dad who does not recognize me but enjoys having visitors. I have been bringing a children’s book on NYC to read to him which he enjoys. This visit when we were looking at the Brooklyn Bridge page he acted like he was reading the caption under the picture, he said, Barnum brought 21 elephants over the bridge to prove it was strong so people would feel safe. Every time we got to this page he went more into detail, it was so cool.
    I had no idea. I Immediately went to reseach this online and found many stories about the elephants walk on the Brooklyn Bridge.

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