Building Begins on Brooklyn Bridge on This Day in 1870
As Manhattan sees continued growth in iconic New Developments, I thought it would be dynamic to reflect on the development and construction of an historic and iconic symbol of New York City: the Brooklyn Bridge.
When building began on January 3rd, 1870, the project had already been underway for almost a year, and New Yorkers had long desired a bridge directly linking Manhattan and Brooklyn, which were by 1860 the country’s first and third largest cities, respectively.
John A. Roebling’s first plan for an East River bridge, conceived in the 1850s, was a precursor to the New York Bridge Company that eventually hired him as chief engineer to develop the project.
Roebling planned his Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge (its most official name at the time) to be made with newly available steel wire, which allowed it to be stronger, larger, and longer then any bridge yet built.
The entire concept was his own: he also invented and patented the steel wire or, "wire rope," that was used for suspending the Brooklyn Bridge.
Although the Brooklyn Bridge is technically a suspension bridge, it can more accurately be described as a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge design that gives the bridge its unique and mesmerizing crisscross pattern, and was perhaps Roebling's most ingenious and influential breakthrough on the Brooklyn Bridge: a web truss made of steel, added to either side of the bridge roadway. This would add to the strength of his design, which made the bridge six times stronger than necessary, because he was not precisely sure how much his materials could handle, and he did not know how strong the bridge's future weightload required.
In other words, Roebling had to anticipate the future needs of New York City and Brooklyn, and that they would grow beyond carrying the heaviest of loads in the late 1800s. Which makes sense, because Roebling began designing suspension bridges through his earlier work on canals. Yet, at the time, he was completely transfixed on their reliance of dangerously breakable hemp rope.
Roebling was so troubled that, sometime around 1839, he instead focused his efforts toward the manufacture of strong but flexible wire rope as an alternative, and soon he received a patent for his “new and Improved Mode of Manufacturing Wire Ropes” in 1842.
Obviously, Roebling quickly found additional uses for his invention and soon began designing and constructing wire cable suspension bridges. In pursuing these projects, Roebling developed a viable method of spinning the heavy wrought iron wire cables, and a simple yet secure way to anchor them—both of which made the construction of long suspension bridges feasible. He also received patents for this method of fabricating the cables on-site.
Until this point, the idea of putting a bridge across the East River was deemed all but impossible, because, at 1,600 feet across, it would be the longest span of bridge in the world at that time. Plans were discussed, made, and scrapped regularly with strident opposition on virtually every issue, but other bridges that Roebling designed were admired for their technical innovation as well as their expressive design, and the project soon met with full approval, receiving New York state funding as well as Congressional authorization by 1869.
Now, even though construction technically began when they broke ground on January 3, 1870, the land was being surveyed for the future development site well in advance, and on June 28, 1869, as Roebling was measuring possible locations for the towers of the bridge near the Fulton Ferry, a boat hit his foot and crushed his toes. Within a month, he died of tetanus and never saw building begin on his final and most miraculous project.
Almost immediately, Roebling’s 32-year-old son and partner, Washington A. Roebling, was named chief engineer in his place, taking over at a critical time and implementing many of his own innovations, including the use of pressurized pneumatic caissons that made it possible to construct the foundations for the bridge's two towers and provided dry underwater space for workers to dig the bridge’s foundations down to solid rock.
But working in the caissons often brought on “the bends”— a serious medical condition caused by moving too quickly out of a high-pressure atmosphere, and even Washington Roebling himself was among the many workers permanently impaired, suffering a paralyzing injury as a result of what we now know as decompression sickness shortly after ground was broken for the Brooklyn tower foundation on January 3, 1870. As a result of his disability, after 1872, Washington Roebling’s wife, Emily, became actively involved in supervising construction—carrying messages and instructions back and forth between the bed-ridden chief engineer and his staff.
“Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance. There was a confused sensation in the head, like the rush of many waters. The pulse was at first accelerated, then sometimes fell below the normal rate. The voice sounded faint, unnatural, and it became a great effort to speak. What with the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, if of a poetic temperament, get a realizing sense of Dante’s inferno. One thing to me was noticeable, time passed quickly in the caisson.”
– E.F. Farrington, master mechanic for Washington Roebling.
Roebling's debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand, but as Chief Engineer, Roebling supervised the entire project using a telescope at his bedside from his apartment window where he had a view of the work from Brooklyn. From there, he continued designing and redesigning caissons and other equipment. He was continually aided by his wife, Emily Warren Roebling who provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on site. Under her husband's guidance, Emily studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction.
Emily spent the next 11 years assisting Washington Roebling, helping to supervise the bridge's construction, chronicled in detail in the 1972 book The Great Bridge by David McCullough, who credits Emily with saving the project, and Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the first PBS documentary film by Ken Burns. Burns drew heavily on McCullough's book for the film and used him as narrator. It is also described in Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, a BBC docudrama series with accompanying book.
As the saga of its construction and its slow rise out of the East River marked watershed moments in the lives of a generation of New Yorkers and Brooklynites, thousands gathered on the shoreline to watch landmark stages of the construction unfold. One of the most enlivening parts of McCullough’s book is the description of the first wire strung across the East River between the bridge’s gargantuan stone towers in 1876, and Emily's ride alongside president Chester Arthur during the ceremonial opening of the bridge, in May 1883.
The Brooklyn Bridge has, over the years, carried PT Barnum's elephants, light-rail, and six lanes of automotive traffic, as well as the thousands of pedestrians who left lower Manhattan after the attacks of September 11, 2001.