The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Roebling Family Production

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in the Five Boroughs of New York City. For over a hundred years, it has been the main crossing-point of the East River for New Yorkers and Brooklynites, heading to each other’s part of town for work and play. Yet, in the scope of history, the Brooklyn bridge hasn’t been around that long at all. When its construction was finished in 1883, it was the biggest suspension-bridge in the United States, but the story behind its construction is one that is even more amazing that the structure that resulted from it. It took fourteen years, hundreds of men, cost one man his life, another man his mobility and thrust an unprepared housewife into the harrowing man’s world of engineering, construction and design, a world which she knew nothing about. This is the story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Before the Bridge

New York City in the 1860s was a powerhouse. Being at the gateway to the United States from the Atlantic Ocean, it received thousands of immigrants who travelled to the New World from the old one, seeking work, freedom, wealth and prosperity. As a result, New York City’s population skyrocketed. From 49,000 in 1790 to 1,478,100 people in 1870. Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island were overflowing with people, and more people were coming every year. The end of the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves meant that there was a massive migration to the North which swelled New York City’s ranks. A full 300,000 people flooded into the Five Boroughs between 1860-1870 and New York was struggling to cope. There were few bridges crossing the Hudson and East Rivers, and people travelling between Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan relied largely on river-ferries.


A map of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, dated 1860. The lack of bridges meant that commuters had to take long, slow boat-rides across the East River to reach their destinations

River-ferries were slow and inefficient, hardly suitable for an emerging economic powerhouse such as New York. What was needed was a bridge. A real bridge. Something that would stand the test of time and that would allow New Yorkers to travel to and from Manhattan as they pleased without hindrance from water. What they needed was a man named John Augustus Roebling.

The Roebling Family

The Roebling Family came from Germany. J.A. Roebling’s original name was Johann August Robling and he was born in Germany in July of 1806. By the 1860s, Roebling had moved to America and had established himself as a wealthy and prominent civil engineer. It was his ambition to build a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan and spare Manhattanites and Brooklynites the daily commute by ferry between the two boroughs. By the late 1860s, Roebling was a civil engineer of considerable experience, having already built several successful suspension-bridges. It was after the American Civil War that he decided that New York City required a proper crossing of the East River. Such an important American city could not possibly survive on slow, inefficient and river-choking ferries to transport its citizens back and forth from home to work every day. They needed a bridge so that they could walk, ride and drive across the river between home and work and save time on their daily communte and be more productive members of society.

Sadly, John Roebling never saw the finished product of the dream that he had. In 1869, while walking along the riverbank of the East River, he became the victim of a horrific ferry-accident. He was scouting for possible locations where the bridge’s two towers would be built when a passenger-ferry crashed into the ferry-landing where he was standing, crushing one of his feet and leaving him paralysed. His toes were amputated from his foot but Roebling refused to have his injury treated further, believing in water-therapy to cure him instead. Water-therapy involved a continual drip of cold, clean water onto the wound; this was supposed to keep the area clean and uninfected. Unfortunately it didn’t work and Roebling died on the 22nd of July, 1869, aged just 63.

After his death, John Roebling’s son, Washington Roebling (born 1837, died 1926) became the chief engineer in charge of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington was thirty-two when his father died, but had already seen much of life. He had been a soldier in the United States Army (the Union) during the Civil War and had seen much action, especially during the Battle of Gettysburg. Washington had originally been Assistant-Engineer, with his father being Chief Engineer, but after John’s death, Washington found out that he had been promoted!

Construction of the Bridge

Even back in 1869, construction was never going to be a cheap task. $1,500,000 (one and a half million dollars) had been set aside as construction-costs for the Brooklyn Bridge and six hundred workers were recruited to help build this monumental structure. It would take fourteen years and twenty-seven men would die in the process.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge started on the Second of January of 1870 on the Brooklyn side of the East River, with the construction of the Brooklyn-side bridge-tower. As this was going to be a suspension-bridge, the two towers that would hold the cables that would hold up the bridge’s roadway were going to be the most crucial parts of the bridge’s construction. They had to be phenomenally tall and incredibly strong and stable. To do this, the towers would have to be sunk right down through the riverbed, down to the bedrock that lay below. The towers weighed a staggering 120,000,000lbs each, or 60,000 tons apiece!

To achieve this, Washington Roebling ordered the construction of caissons. A caisson is a sealed, watertight, airtight chamber. This chamber, made of wood, would be dumped into the East River, over the proposed site of the tower. It would be sunk down to the riverbed and then all the water inside the caisson would be pumped out. Men could enter the caisson and work in the massive air-bubble that was left behind, digging out the foundations. As the foundations were dug, the caisson would sink deeper and deeper, until they reached bedrock.

But you try this in your bathtub at home. Get a drinking-glass, invert it and force it underwater. Then, let go. The air-pocket trapped inside the upturned glass would force it upwards. It would pop and float up to the top before filling with water and sinking again. If this happened to the caisson, dozens, even hundreds of men, would die, drowned in a matter of seconds as water rushes into the flooding caisson.

To combat this potentially lethal problem, while one set of men dug out the foundations, another set of men would start building the Brooklyn-side tower for the bridge on top of the caisson. As the tower grew progressively higher, its weight would cause it to sink below the waterline and this would keep the caisson in position, preventing it from being forced up to the surface by the air-pressure inside. Once the caisson reached the bedrock and had been embedded sufficiently into it, the caisson would be evacuated and then flooded with cement to seal it and create a solid foundation.

The caissons used for the sinking of the bridge-tower foundations were marvels of engineering in themselves. They contained two shafts for pumping out water, two shafts for men to go into and out of the bottom of the caisson, two supply-shafts to haul away excavated material and send down tools and other excavating-equipment and pipes for air, clean drinking-water and even gas-pipes to provide lighting!


A diagram drawn by Washington Roebling, detailing the interiors of the caissons

Working Underwater

Working under water is scary for anyone. But try working under water in a dark, damp, wooden chamber, buried over fifty feet down under water, mud and sand. This was the reality faced by the hundreds of excavation-workers who dug out the foundations for the Brooklyn-side tower of the Brooklyn Bridge. Progress was frustratingly slow. Six inches a WEEK was considered top speed. And to achieve that six-inches-a-week rate, apart from excavating enough debris from below, workers on top of the caisson had to mortar and lay three courses (levels) of stone to provide sufficient weight to force the caisson down far enough into that six inches. Not enough weight and a serious blowout could occur. In fact, a blowout did occur in autumn of 1870. Soil, rocks and sand were ejected out of the caisson and were blasted five hundred feet into the sky!

Apart from the threats posed by water down in the caissons, there was also the threat of fire. Even though the caisson was literally surrounded on all sides by water, the hot, sweaty, dim atmosphere inside the caisson was just ripe for fire. In December of 1870, a fire was discovered burning inside the Brooklyn caisson. Men with fire-hoses and water-pumps struggled to put it out. If the structural integrity of the caisson was compromised, water could come gushing in. Or even worse, the caisson could weaken, causing the Brooklyn bridge-tower to come crashing down through the caisson-roof, into the river, killing the men instantly, crushing them under tons of bricks, stone, cement and mortar!

The other major danger of working underwater and so far underground is one that is familiar to many divers. In the day of the Roeblings, this was an unknown illness, a mysterious medical condition that seemed to come from nowhere, but which played havoc with the workmen’s health. Today, we call it “Decompression Sickness” or “The Bends”.

In Roebling’s day, it was called “Caisson Disease” or “Caisson Sickness”.

“Caisson’s Disease” was caused by the differing air-pressures inside and outside of the caissons and the differing air-pressures that arose due to the great depths that the men had to travel to reach the bottom of the caissons. In March of 1871, the Brooklyn-side caisson of the bridge had reached bedrock. The caisson was flooded with cement and sealed shut while work continued to complete the rest of the tower. At the same time, construction began on the Manhattan-side tower and caisson.

Like many engineers, Roebling had a very hands-on approach to his work. He spent several hours a day, several days a week, several weeks a year down in the caissons, keeping an eye on day-to-day construction. This constant abuse of his body and prolonged affects of ‘Caisson Sickness’ had disasterous effects. He became paralysed and was bound to a wheelchair as a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Unable to work anymore, Washington Roebling could do nothing but sit in his bedroom at his Brooklyn Heights apartment and watch the construction of his family’s masterpiece through a telescope.

Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman

This is an oft-used phrase, but fewer times has it been more true than in this instance. And not only was there a great woman behind this great man, but a great woman who did great things, not only for her great man, but for the great city where she and her husband lived and worked.

Emily Warren Roebling.

Emily was Washington’s wife. In 1872 when Washington became paralysed due to Caisson Sickness, Emily not only cared for her husband, but also became his “assistant engineer”. She oversaw the daily running of the bridge’s construction, she relayed Washington’s orders to his on-site assistants and made sure that everything ran as smoothly as possible.

And she was only twenty-nine years old.

Washington was not idle in his wheelchair, though. He knew that if his wife was going to help him to complete the bridge that his father had designed and that he was constructing, she was going to have to know as much as he did. By degrees, Washington taught his wife anything and everything that he (and probably any other civil engineer at that time) knew about how to construct a suspension-bridge. Emily drank it all in and became determined to see the bridge completed.

The construction of the towers took years. It wasn’t until 1875 and 1876 that the Brooklyn and Manhattan towers were completed. And even then, the bridge was only a third completed! They still had to do the roadways and all the cables!

The cables are the most important part of any suspension-bridge. They hold up the road-deck that allows traffic to cross what’s underneath the bridge. If the cables fail, then the bridge collapses. Imagine then, this catastrophe: A world-famous bridge made of inferior steel cables which could snap at any second, sending hundreds of people to their deaths within a matter of minutes.

That was the fate of the Brooklyn Bridge, and would be now, and would have been a long time ago, were it not for swift and decisive intervention.

Wanting to cut corners and save money, unscrupulous assistants and business-partners of the Roeblings were attempting to line their pockets with cash by using substandard steel cables to hold up the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge. Steel was deliberately purchased that was cheap in price and poor in quality. When the deception was discovered, there was uproar. It was 1878 and the “H.M.S Pinafore” by Gilbert and Sullivan was premiering in London. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge continued as always, until one of the steel cables on the bridge…snapped.

There was an immediate police-investigation. Whoever was supplying substandard cables for the bridge had to be found out and dealt with…harshly. If the bridge was completed with such inferior materials, it was putting peoples’ lives at risk! What if the bridge collapsed during peak rush-hour? Or when there was a ship passing underneath it? The J. Lloyd Haigh Company, manufacturer and supplier of steel cables, was found at fault and other cable-suppliers were soon found to replace it. Construction on the roadways continued smoothly for the next several years. J. L. Haigh himself was convicted for his fraudulent activities concerning the substandard steel cables and was jailed in 1880.

By 1882, with his health still not improving, Washington Roebling was in serious danger of losing his job. It was by a narrow vote, and much campaigning, imploring and speechmaking by his wife, Emily, that Washington was allowed to keep his position as Chief Engineer.

Completion of the Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. The official opening day was the 24th of May, at 2:00pm. Barricades were erected, police-officers lined the streets and spanned across the approaches to the bridge to prevent unauthorised access. Shops closed, bells tolled and people from all over came to witness this grand event…including President Chester A. Arthur. The Irish in New York started rioting because the 24th of May was also the birthday of Queen Victoria!

In honour of her efforts in seeing the bridge’s completion through to the end, Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling was to be the first person to cross the new structure. In a carriage, Emily was driven across the bridge and the first crossing of the East River was declared officially open.

This was a big event. The toll for crossing the bridge on the Opening Day was one penny. This was increased to three pennies for every day thereafter. 150,300 people walked across Brooklyn Bridge on its first day, and 1,800 vehicles drove across it! That’s a phenomenal amount, when you consider that the bridge was only opened to traffic at 5:00pm that afternoon!

Brooklyn Bridge Facts

The Brooklyn Bridge is so famous and so easily recognisable that there’s bound to be lots of fact and fiction about it. Here’s some of the factual stuff…

– The Brooklyn Bridge has four main cables, each one is 15.75in thick.
– The steel cables were designed to be six times stronger than necessary to hold the bridge and its traffic. Tests done by Roebling himself determined that the substandard steel already in use before the scandal was discovered, was five times stronger than necessary. This was considered sufficient, but Roebling still insisted on changing steel-suppliers.
– 27 workers died in the bridge’s construction.
– The Brooklyn Bridge broke the world record for being the first bridge to have steel cables (all the others had cables of iron).
– It was once rumored that the bridge was going to collapse. This caused a stampede that killed a dozen people. Circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum sent twenty-one of his circus-elephants across the bridge to prove its strength to the public.

 

13 thoughts on “The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Roebling Family Production

  1. This is truly inspiring. Hats off to the Engineer’s wife too for patiently decoding the messages. Guess, this is the first project (and the only one) to be completed without the lead Engg. in the site.

     
  2. This is truly inspiring. Hats off to the Engineer’s wife too for patiently decoding the messages. Guess, this is the first project (and the only one) to be completed without the lead Engg. in the site.

     
  3. Read David McCollough’s book The Great Bridge

    Roebling did not become a paraplegic paralyzed for the rest of his life, contrary to what many have written. He regained the ability to walk, outlived his wife, his brothers, and nearly all the other engineers and key players associated with the bridge. In 1893, he and Emily visited the bridge and walked on it, unnoticed by anyone (see: https://books.google.com/books?id=NZvrq7MdkScC&pg=PA435&lpg=PA435&dq=washington+roebling+recovery+walked&source=bl&ots=jl27HCYZrM&sig=SjPqxh9JmhdAq80fwt6R1hSQ-ls&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDcQ6AEwBGoVChMIsYP5hoyHxwIVwXs-Ch3MrAVM#v=onepage&q=washington%20roebling%20recovery%20walked&f=false ) In the 1920s he became president of the family wire manufacturing business, the largest such enterprise in the world, (he was then in his 80s) and put in full work weeks for a number of years, modernizing the company and leading it to great success. He travelled to and from the office by trolley, unassisted. (as reported in McCollough’s book and also The Master Bridge Builders which is available online — see its epilogue in particular https://archive.org/stream/masterbridgebuil002651mbp/masterbridgebuil002651mbp_djvu.txt

    There was no great public scandal and police investigation of the Haigh wire fraud and Haigh was not prosecuted for it. The board of directors had chosen Haigh over Roebling’s objections (Roebling knew Haigh was crook) and so the board hushed up the fraud and Roebling engineered around it so the bad wire could stay in the bridge and the board would not be embarrassed. Haigh subsequently went to jail for unrelated crimes having to do with passing bad checks. When Haigh went bankrupt in 1879, the Times article reporting that event said nothing of the fraud and in fact said he was a man of excellent reputation and everyone was surprised by the bankruptcy (the Times article is available online at http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1879/12/30/94116116.html?pageNumber=8
    The court records for the case that finally put Haigh behind bars can be found here:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=lFKyN5UVYisC&pg=RA6-PA19&lpg=RA6-PA19&dq=j.+lloyd+haigh&source=bl&ots=N4dL6j7I1u&sig=yOPrSjlQchLeO2eQDIPnrTECCuM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB8Q6AEwATgKahUKEwjok9-qhofHAhVDOz4KHVEeDpc#v=onepage&q=j.%20lloyd%20haigh&f=false
    As I said, it was check kiting that had nothing to do with the bad wire he supplied to the bridge

    Water was not pumped out of the caissons, it was kept out by the force of compressed air. The deeper the caissons went, the higher the pressure required to keep the water out Inside the caissons, men dug and blasted to remove the soil and rock beneath them so that the caissons could go down through the muck to a suitable load-bearing strata. Dredges removed the material the men dug and blasted loose, going down through water-filled shafts. They were water filled to hold in the air pressure and the air pressure inside the caissons supported the tall columns of water in the shafts like giant barometers.

    The cost was never expected to be as low as $1.5 million. John Roebling’s initial estimate was $6 million. The ultimate cost was $15 million. The figure of $1.5 million is what the city of New York appropriated for its share. At the same time, the city of Brooklyn appropriated $3 million for its share. Private investors provided the rest of the initial capital. (The bridge was conceived to be a private, profit-making enterprise deriving revenue from bridge tolls, rail traffic, etc.)

     
  4. Read David McCollough’s book The Great Bridge

    Roebling did not become a paraplegic paralyzed for the rest of his life, contrary to what many have written. He regained the ability to walk, outlived his wife, his brothers, and nearly all the other engineers and key players associated with the bridge. In 1893, he and Emily visited the bridge and walked on it, unnoticed by anyone (see: https://books.google.com/books?id=NZvrq7MdkScC&pg=PA435&lpg=PA435&dq=washington+roebling+recovery+walked&source=bl&ots=jl27HCYZrM&sig=SjPqxh9JmhdAq80fwt6R1hSQ-ls&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDcQ6AEwBGoVChMIsYP5hoyHxwIVwXs-Ch3MrAVM#v=onepage&q=washington%20roebling%20recovery%20walked&f=false ) In the 1920s he became president of the family wire manufacturing business, the largest such enterprise in the world, (he was then in his 80s) and put in full work weeks for a number of years, modernizing the company and leading it to great success. He travelled to and from the office by trolley, unassisted. (as reported in McCollough’s book and also The Master Bridge Builders which is available online — see its epilogue in particular https://archive.org/stream/masterbridgebuil002651mbp/masterbridgebuil002651mbp_djvu.txt

    There was no great public scandal and police investigation of the Haigh wire fraud and Haigh was not prosecuted for it. The board of directors had chosen Haigh over Roebling’s objections (Roebling knew Haigh was crook) and so the board hushed up the fraud and Roebling engineered around it so the bad wire could stay in the bridge and the board would not be embarrassed. Haigh subsequently went to jail for unrelated crimes having to do with passing bad checks. When Haigh went bankrupt in 1879, the Times article reporting that event said nothing of the fraud and in fact said he was a man of excellent reputation and everyone was surprised by the bankruptcy (the Times article is available online at http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1879/12/30/94116116.html?pageNumber=8
    The court records for the case that finally put Haigh behind bars can be found here:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=lFKyN5UVYisC&pg=RA6-PA19&lpg=RA6-PA19&dq=j.+lloyd+haigh&source=bl&ots=N4dL6j7I1u&sig=yOPrSjlQchLeO2eQDIPnrTECCuM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB8Q6AEwATgKahUKEwjok9-qhofHAhVDOz4KHVEeDpc#v=onepage&q=j.%20lloyd%20haigh&f=false
    As I said, it was check kiting that had nothing to do with the bad wire he supplied to the bridge

    Water was not pumped out of the caissons, it was kept out by the force of compressed air. The deeper the caissons went, the higher the pressure required to keep the water out Inside the caissons, men dug and blasted to remove the soil and rock beneath them so that the caissons could go down through the muck to a suitable load-bearing strata. Dredges removed the material the men dug and blasted loose, going down through water-filled shafts. They were water filled to hold in the air pressure and the air pressure inside the caissons supported the tall columns of water in the shafts like giant barometers.

    The cost was never expected to be as low as $1.5 million. John Roebling’s initial estimate was $6 million. The ultimate cost was $15 million. The figure of $1.5 million is what the city of New York appropriated for its share. At the same time, the city of Brooklyn appropriated $3 million for its share. Private investors provided the rest of the initial capital. (The bridge was conceived to be a private, profit-making enterprise deriving revenue from bridge tolls, rail traffic, etc.)

     
  5. There were no shafts in the caissons for “pumping out water”. Those shafts were for pumping air into the caissons. It was the air pressure that kept the water out.

     

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