American Treasure: Brooklyn Bridge

Words: Indi Blake

Words and Photos: Indi Blake

An early morning worker kicks the snow off his shoes as he shuffles across the Brooklyn Bridge on his daily commute into Manhattan. This regular sight seems mundane and unextraordinary, but as the man continues, something about this scene is amiss. He pushes his way past the line of horse-drawn carriages and tips his bowler hat to a local shoe shiner as he makes his way across the East River. 

The year is 1890, 25 years before the First World War and only half the time between America’s declaration of its independence and today. New York is booming, and local commerce is easier than ever before. Just eight years earlier, in 1883, the world watched in awe as engineers completed what was, at the time, the world’s largest bridge and the tallest manmade object in North America, connecting the city of Brooklyn to Manhattan. Construction took more than 13 years and required around 200,000 tons of limestone and granite stacked from the river-bed to the tower's highest points, 278 feet above the East River. Around the same time, plumbing had first been installed in the White House and a new technology, the lightbulb, became available. The groundbreaking structure was seen as a symbol of a prosperous new era worldwide and tangible proof of American ingenuity and excellence. Today, 130 years later, this same mighty bridge still functions as a crucial conduit between New York’s most densely populated boroughs. 

While the history of its construction and long service have not been without controversy, the Brooklyn Bridge remains a preeminent international landmark and is one of the most interesting and important of all of America's civic treasures.

City planners in New York in the 1800s knew that a looming problem would soon descend upon their city. Population growth, if not handled with foresight, had the potential to destabilize the city and upend much of the progress New York had made in the preceding hundred years. The city had grown from around 60,000 people in 1800 to a whopping 1.5 million by 1890. Planners predicted that such growth would only continue, and without massive investment in improved roadways and civic infrastructure, New York would become so congested that productivity would grind to a halt. (Incidentally, those population predictions were right. Over the next decade, the city’s population more than doubled to 3.4 million.) In 1867 as part of a plan to accommodate the expected surge, a bridge was proposed to ease the pressure on the East River ferries that shuttled people to and from the neighboring city of Brooklyn.

A visionary engineer named John Roebling spearheaded the project. His ambitious proposal called for 90-meter stone towers and 5,600,000 meters of steel cable; the bridge was to be the largest of its kind in the world. In considering the construction of such a vast bridge, city planners faced an extremely high cost both financially and politically if the project failed. Though no one knew if It could even be done, the impact, if the bridge was successful, would be immense. Constructing such a bridge so as to not collapse under its own weight demanded innovative approaches to its design and materials. John Roebling envisioned a hybrid style that drew from features of both suspension and cable-stayed bridges. By incorporating additional structural features, Roebling believed that his project could avoid the disastrous collapses that had plagued other large bridges during this period. In September 1867, his master plan was approved by the Board of Trustees of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. 

Soon after his plan was set in motion, Roebling was injured in a freak accident while surveying his build site. It was a small wound, but a full 70 years before antibiotics became widely available, it festered, and he succumbed to tetanus which killed him in a matter of days. What initially appeared to be a fatal blow to the project would ultimately stand as merely the first of many challenges engineers and planners would overcome in realizing Roebling’s dream. 

Fortunately for the city, Roebling’s son Washington, an engineer who served as a colonel in the Civil War, agreed to step in as chief engineer of the project and would eventually live on to fulfill his father’s legacy.  In 1870, just a year after John’s death and under Washington’s leadership, construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge. 

The first step was to create a stable foundation for the towers on the riverbed, whose ever-shifting sediment could undermine the stability of the entire bridge. This presented a number of challenges. The original plans required massive bulky structures built of heavy stone. Workers would need to reach bedrock to ensure a secure base for the towers before building up. The advent of pile driving at this scale was years into the future, but a solution came via a new technology called a pneumatic caisson.

For each tower, workers constructed what was essentially a massive watertight wooden box roughly 170 feet wide by 100 feet long that was then sunk, with its open side down, to the bottom of the river using masonry blocks placed on top of it. Once at the bottom, pumps pulled water out of the box and replaced it with compressed breathable air that created a cramped, wet space for workers to excavate the river-bed. While workers dug, the crushing torrent of the river raged overhead, kept at bay by mere inches of wood. Workers with picks and shovels were paid 15 to 30 cents an hour to painstakingly dig down through the sediment. But many tons of mud and debris later, the bedrock under the Brooklyn tower lay exposed far below the surface of the East River. The Manhattan tower presented a bigger challenge. While workers digging in Brooklyn reached bedrock only 44 feet below the river's surface, workers on the Manhattan side dug past that depth, finding no sign of the bedrock. As they made their way through strata undisturbed for millions of years, the immense pressure of the water above began to affect crews who dared to continue work. A mysterious affliction unknown at the time but familiar to modern ocean divers as “the bends'' had contributed to the deaths of three men on the project and had left many others paralyzed. In addition to the injuries, a fire had broken out in one of the caissons putting the project far behind schedule. Workers cited Washington Roebling’s determination as the primary force keeping the dig going. Roebling, who was spending ample time at the bottom of the pit, eventually made the decision to halt excavation a staggering 106 feet below the surface, mere feet from the bedrock. He, too, became gravely ill with what had become known as “caisson disease” and would never fully recover from then on, leading the project without straying far from his bed.

Despite the setbacks, the plan worked. With the bedrock now uncovered, the caisson chambers that laborers had toiled away in for months were filled with concrete. That robust foundation, adhered to the very earth itself and submerged far below the surface of the river for a century and a half, continues to provide the support for the bridge towers. 

The completion of this foundation represented a major milestone in construction, though there was still little visible evidence of a bridge above the surface to show for it. As the project burned through budget and timeframe projections, an opposition movement began to form, citing the high cost and blockage of ships as major concerns with the project. This put the project's proponents under further pressure.

Masons began to stack the granite slabs that would make up the bridge's middle towers and anchorages on each side of the river. Quarried in Maine, the granite was shipped in schooners and lifted into place with steam-powered cranes. During this phase, several workers who were stacking stone blocks hundreds of feet above the water fell to their deaths; more still were killed by falling chunks of stone and debris. As the death toll rose, so too did the height of the towers, slowly growing to proportions never before seen by most Americans. As the towers’ neo-Gothic arches began to take shape, passersby and curious residents would stop to marvel at their intricate beauty. The towers would ultimately rise to 278 feet tall, dwarfing the rest of the city's skyscape.

The next step was installing the miles and miles of steel cable that would be strung between the towers and their anchorages. Not long before, many bridges had been built with hemp and henequen rope which had a tendency to deteriorate after only a few years of stress and exposure to the elements. Even with steel cable, the sheer scale of Roebling’s plan would require more support than any bridge before it.

The hybrid support system designed by John Roebling years before called for four large main cables that would be run between the tops of the towers to the banks on either side. From these main cables, a series of smaller ones would run vertically to the deck in a classic suspension-bridge pattern. Still, another series of cables, originating from the top of each tower, would run diagonally to the decking below. The result would be a monumental network of webbed steel able to withstand incredible strain.

By 1877, the first of the cables were hung, with millions more feet of wire to follow. Steel wires - 278 of them, each an eighth of an inch thick - were spun together to create a single strand. The main cables that ran the entire length of the bridge were made up of 19 of these strands bound together to form a whopping 16-inch diameter supercable. The project’s trustees had signed a contract for a massive order of steel wire from a manufacturer of wire rope named J. Lloyd Haigh. After miles of cable had been installed and a length had snapped and killed two people, Roebling began to suspect that the cable submitted to the board for quality assurance testing was not of the same type as was being delivered to his workers. An investigation proved him right; all the cables that had been installed up to that point had been of inferior quality. Replacement being unfeasible that far along into the project, the installed cable was reinforced with an overlay of additional wire. Haigh was found to have intentionally defrauded the board for his own financial gain and was made to pay for the replacement wire, proven to be of good quality. This episode was another blow to the project image and cost the city more precious time.

Another hurdle overcome, the team continued to hang wire. The four main cables now hanging above the river were anchored on either side of it, to metal plates each weighing 19 tons and embedded in the masonry of the approach structures. From there, builders could begin to assemble the decking for both pedestrian and carriage traffic. The deck sat midway up the towers around 127 feet above the water giving good clearance for most ships passing below. The final length of the Brooklyn Bridge from end to end was over 6,000 feet, with a span of 1595 feet, putting its proportions well beyond those of any bridge before it. 

In 1883, nearly 14 years and $15.5 million later ($436,232,000 in today’s dollars), the bridge was finally complete. The project had taken the lives of 27 people, including the lead engineer, and had left his successor decrepit. The cost and years required to build it shattered expectations but so too did its splendor. The remarkable expense had paid off in even more remarkable rewards. The Brooklyn Bridge acted as a reference point from which people could revel in human greatness, similar to the reverence with which the moon landing is regarded today. The celebration that ensued was legendary, complete with fireworks and cannon fire that lit up the bay. The animosity that had built towards Washington Roebling and the project in general fell away, replaced by excitement and a shared sense of achievement.

The first person to cross the historic bridge was Emily Roebling. Washington, bedridden since his near-fatal case of decompression sickness, had relied on his wife to act as his stand-in on the jobsite. She had become an essential and valued part of the team as a supervisor of construction and, by the time of completion, was herself regarded as an expert engineer. Her crossing would mark the first of millions more who would follow.

Today, the Brooklyn Bridge remains a cultural icon referenced in songs, paintings and countless other works of art. The familiar arches can be seen in the backdrops of popular TV shows and in thousands of tourist photos every year. For most though, the bridge is simply a means to conveniently cross the East River as it dutifully serves its original function. The masonry, now nearly 150 years old, is still young for stone and, with any luck, will last many hundreds of years into the future, likely outliving many of the modern skyscrapers that now fill the New York skyline. As the architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler observed:

"It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge." 

It is telling that one of America's greatest treasures is the physical embodiment of unity and connection.

In time, modern bridges and buildings would surpass the Brooklyn Bridge’s world records. Yet it retains its prominence as a cherished landmark because of what it represents; an amazing feat of human achievement giving hope for the future to each new generation. America’s cultural connection to the Brooklyn Bridge is as strong as the masonry from which it was built, a connection that will persevere as long as the fortified towers stand as one of our most iconic monuments.

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