140 years ago on May 30th, 1883
Memorial Day visitors overcrowd a Brooklyn Bridge stairway and cause a stampede that kills 12 people and injures dozens more
The Brooklyn Bridge had only been open six days, but a tragic event struck when something caused a crowd of people to panic as they were climbing a set of stairs at the Brooklyn Bridge. The details are still unclear to this day, but in newspaper reports from the time of the event, the New York Times described a crush of people going up stairs at the Manhattan side of the bridge and the New-York Tribune claimed that there had been ongoing problems with crowding at that location.
Although described as a stampede, the event sounds more like extreme overcrowding, with the Tribune including details that some people fell over the sides of the stairway and were trampled as people rushed away.
The Memorial Day holiday and the recently-opened bridge attracted huge crowds in what Tribune called a "fatal fascination", with bands playing music and people stopping to admire the skyline, which led to as many as 15,000 to 20,000 pedestrians on the bridge at one time. Pedestrians were charged one penny to cross the bridge, so, after the disaster, a review of the tolls collected revealed that 97,224 people had paid to cross the bridge that day, which was actually down from the previous Sunday, when 163,500 people had crossed. The crowding was worse on the Manhattan side, as most people entered the bridge from there, and, like many do today, turned around at some point to return, increasing the number of people attempting to pass by each other on stairways. The growing crowd backed up as people slowed down to descend the stairs and caused a crush of people in the crowds behind who had no other escape. Panic set in and the crowds jostled and pushed, trying to escape until bridge workers arrived and removed a piece of iron fence that allowed pedestrians exit the path.
Here's a quote from W.H. Hunt, interviewed by the Tribune, who had been on the bridge that day: "I started across the Bridge about 4 o'clock, but turned back after I had got about half way over on account of the crowd. I noticed a jam in front of me, but there was a constant stream flowing from Brooklyn, and before I was aware of the danger, I was firmly wedged in the crowd and carried irresistibly toward the fatal steps. The people went down those steps by the score, and we that were behind couldn't stop. With the screams of the women, the shouts of the men, and the cries of the children it was the most horrible thing I ever saw. There didn't seem to be anybody there with any authority, and the people were perfectly panic-stricken. … I was not over half a dozen steps away from the stairs when the police and ambulances arrived, and I don't doubt but that I should have been seriously injured had they arrived fifteen minutes later. The pressure of the crowd was irresistible."
On June 1st, two days after the tragedy, the Tribune described the scene on the bridge, where much smaller crowds passed by the stairs and the general feeling of celebration that had carried over from the bridge's recent opening day ceremony was now gone.