Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Revolutionary engineering in the late 19th century

By Dan Egan 

An iconic view of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Photo by Dan Egan)

The Brooklyn Bridge was a landmark the instant it opened in 1883. It was, at the time, the longest suspension bridge in the world. It was also the first constructed with steel cables, which were strung between twin 276-foot-tall neo-Gothic granite towers that loomed over the East River—and the rest of New York. The bridge deck between the towers spanned more than 1,600 feet and though it might have looked airy–fragile, even—from afar, its designer John Roebling made sure that the bridge, which was constructed to carry trains, carriages and pedestrians, was built to last. In fact, he once boasted it would be six times stronger than it needed to be to carry the expected loads.

For the public, Roebling’s assurances were not enough initially. On May 31, 1883, just a week after the bridge opened, thousands of people were walking across it when a woman stumbled near the Manhattan side. “As she lost her footing another woman screamed, and throngs behind crowded forward,” the New York Times reported. “In a few minutes, 12 persons were killed, 7 injured so seriously that their lives are despaired of, and 28 others more or less severely wounded.” What triggered the panic? Some alleged a group of roughs incited the crowd, others said it was the sheer terror that the new bridge couldn’t handle the stress and was collapsing. “Probably, there is some truth to both accounts,” writes David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It is an epic story indeed. The initial plan was to build the bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan in five years for about $7 million, excluding land acquisition costs, according to the New York Times. By the time construction finished 14 years after it had begun, the tab had climbed to about $16 million. The cost came in more than dollars. McCullough reported that there is no official death tally for workers, but said that reasonable estimates put that figure somewhere around 20. One of them was bridge designer Roebling. He fell victim to tetanus after a ferry smashed into his foot as he was surveying the construction site along the East River, the New York Times reported.

Roebling’s son, Washington Roebling, took over the job, but he did not escape unscathed either. Construction required crews to deploy massive “caissons” at the site below each tower–watertight pressurized chambers that allowed crews to burrow more than 70 feet into the riverbed to build to anchor the structures. Work in those chambers was treacherous, and Washington Roebling suffered paralysis after suffering what the New York Times called “caisson disease,” a phenomenon today known as the bends. “Although his physical health has been impaired to such an extent that he is a confirmed invalid, his mental faculties have retained their vigor, and during all these long years he has directed the work from an upper room in his residence on Columbia Heights, in Brooklyn,” the New York Times wrote the day the bridge opened. “As the towers grew and the spinning of the web between them progressed, the younger Roebling has watched from his window the movements of the workmen with the aid of a powerful glass.”

A plaque designating the Brooklyn Bridge a national landmark. (Photo by Dan Egan)

He had more help than that. His wife Emily took over many of his duties, and many people came to believe she was the brains behind the bridge. “After a time, it was common gossip that hers was the real mind behind the hugely difficult undertaking and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the product of a woman, an idea that was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous,” reports the group, Friends of the Brooklyn Bridge.  “This was not an age when women, especially affluent women, were supposed to be much more than ornaments.”

What the Roebling family engineered together endures. The City of New York reports more than 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 bicycles cross the bridge every day. Although the bridge is no longer the only span across the East River, it remains the most majestic–and inspiring. On a late fall day in November 2011, city employee Cesar Pazmino was sent up one of the suspension cables to the top of each tower for some minor maintenance. When he returned to the bridge deck he was still beaming from a trip he’s taken countless times. He said he doubts New York could build such an iconic, inspiring and enduring bridge again. “This,” he said, looking back up at the north tower where a stiff southerly wind starched an American flag, “was a dream that came true.”

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