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April 2, 2010 / howardmestas

The Great Bridge

The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

When you gaze upon the magnificent Manhattan skyline, it’s hard to imagine that less than 150 years ago the city’s tallest structure was a support column for a bridge.  Such was the greatness of the colossus that would connect the first and third largest cities in America.  The Brooklyn Bridge, or the “Great East River Bridge” as it was known in its early years was over a mile long and would be the world’s longest suspension bridge for 20 years following its completion in 1883.  In his book, “The Great Bridge,” bestselling author and historian David McCullough chronicles the structure from a conceptual idea through its completion; examining the staggering odds of the project ever being completed. 

The years following the Civil War were times of healing in America and according to some, the Age of Optimism.  It was a period when it seemed that all things were possible and great achievements were seen as monuments to the nations healing.  A bridge was a “particularly appealing symbol,” McCullough writes, “and seemed such a magnificent example of man’s capacity to master the forces of nature, and that, according to the preponderant wisdom, was what the whole thing was about.  Building a bridge seemed such a clean, heroic thing for a man to do.”  And spanning the East River was just as heroic as any plan could be.  There had been other suspension bridges in the world, but none across such an expanse was ever considered.  According to McCullough, “The chief problem always was the East River, which is no river at all technically speaking, but a tidal strait and one of the most turbulent and in that day, especially, one of the busiest stretches of navigable salt water anywhere on earth.”

The project, however, was not a whim; it was a necessity.  At the time the structure was being considered, Brooklyn was no longer a sleepy sea port on the western end of Long Island, instead it was a prosperous manufacturing center with a population of 400,000 and it was growing faster than New York.  It could not be ignored that the bridge would be a safe alternative to the countless ferries that crossed the channel, especially in the winter months when the passage was frozen or blocked by ice.  At least 13 boats went across the river both day and night.  “New York and Brooklyn must be united,” Horace Greeley declared in the Tribune in 1849.  The construction would commence in 1867.

Perhaps the most daunting challenges to Chief Engineer Washington A. Roebling were in constructing the foundations on which the stone suspension towers would rest.  New York Harbor is one of the deepest in the world and the tidal currents were treacherous.  The method was to use caissons, or underwater chambers that would allow men to dig out the riverbed (in search of bedrock) while actually under the river.  This method had been used in Europe but never in water as deep as this.  Caissons when lowered into the water were like inverted cups that created air chambers where workers could breath.  The trouble was that the air pressure increased as you went deeper causing “caisson sickness” which unknown to them was a form of the “bends” that divers experience when they surface too quickly.  Many workers died or became ill for life because of this ailment, including Roebling who frequented the sites as Chief Engineer.  He would later become disabled and dependent upon his faithful wife to serve as official secretary and diplomatic emissary as his illness forced his confinement throughout the project.  Before his affliction, Roebling was a familiar visitor to the caissons always seeking ways to speed up the project.  The biggest concerns were things that were unforeseen at the beginning such as the giant boulders that needed to be leveled on the New York side.  Workers were moving at a sluggish pace until Roebling made a bold decision to use explosives in the caissons.  This would improve the descent of the caissons to twelve to eighteen inches a week instead of six.  Over the years Roebling would develop many innovations that were breakthroughs in bridge technology such whitewashing the insides of the caissons to improve visibility and creating a mechanical signaling system so that workers could easily communicate with those on top.  Eventually the towers would be completed and the new challenge of creating the suspension cables was presented.  Again Roebling was an innovator by using zinc to galvanize individual wires which were spun into place creating cables.  The coating would prevent the wire from corrosion from the salt air; every step was calculated to make a lasting structure.  McCullough notes that, “The wire was to have a tested strength of not less than 160,000 pounds per square inch.”  This meant that the new bridge would have nearly double the strength of other bridges in use in the day.

After fourteen long years and numerous barriers along the way, the bridge was completed on May 24, 1883 and celebrated to extraordinary fanfare.  The accolades from politicians to editorialists were heard across the land.  On opening day Chester A. Arthur led a procession while the band played Hail to the Chief.  The New York Sun reported, “the climax of fourteen years’ suspense seemed to have been reached, since the President of the United States of America had walked dry shod to Brooklyn from New York.”  On the first full day over 150,000 crossed on foot and thousands more in carriages.  A New York policeman stated that “bridge craze” was in the air as admirers proclaimed it to be, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”  People who were critics only a decade earlier were now broadcasting to all who could read or listen that the bridge was, “a wonder of science,” and a monument to “public spirit,” “the moral qualities of the human soul, “ and a great, everlasting symbol of “Peace.”  But more than a thing of beauty, it was an engineering marvel of practicality.  The trains began running in September, and within a year 37,000 people a day were using the bridge.  By 1888, the trains were running twenty-four hours a day and handling more than thirty million passengers a year.  Today, with a few modifications for automobile traffic, the structure is still the main junction between Brooklyn and Manhattan.  It was built for beauty and for purpose; it was built to last.  It is truly The Great Bridge. 

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