Not The Brooklyn Bridge

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IN THE SPRING of 1869 a party of engineers, politicians, and businessmen left Brooklyn and headed west in a special train. With them was John Augustus Roebling, the sixtytwo-year-old German-born engineer who had completed his plans for a massive bridge over New York’s East River.

Roebling’s wire-rope business had long since made him a fortune; he had started making metal cables merely to haul canal boats uphill but had gone on to pioneer their use in bridge building. By the 186Os he knew more than any man alive about suspension bridges. But this new project was so ambitious that he thought it would be best if his backers saw firsthand what he had accomplished. So the party steamed west to Pittsburgh, where Roebling had put up his first bridge a quarter of a century earlier, and to Niagara Falls, where he had spanned the cataract with a wistful, frail-looking web that astounded the visitors by effortlessly bearing the weight of moving trains. But the structure that most clearly prefigured Roebling’s new work was the suspension bridge that crossed the Ohio at Cincinnati.

He had finished it just three years before. The job had taken twenty years from the time he submitted his first proposal, and during those two decades he had been beset by every possible frustration and setback. Even in the light of what he hoped to undertake now, the Cincinnati bridge was an impressive achievement. His party certainly thought so: “It … broke upon us all at once,” wrote one of them, “the stateliest and most splendid evidence of genius, enterprise and skill it has ever been my lot to see.”

The idea for the bridge was almost as old as Cincinnati itself. As early as 1815 a promoter wrote that “some enthusiastic persons already speak of a bridge across the Ohio at Cincinnati” but conceded that “the period when this great nroiect can be executed is certainly remote.”

It seemed less remote in the 184Os. By then, an engineer named Charles Eilet had thrown the first important suspension bridge in the country across the Schuylkill. Eilet was the only man in America who approached Roebling in bridge-building ability. Nervous, intuitive, and largely self-educated, he was a folk engineer of sorts, and a gifted one. He had returned from a year of study at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris committed to building suspension bridges and was busy proposing to put one across the Ohio at Louisville, Maysville, Marietta, or Wheeling. Thus goaded, the city fathers of Covington, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, passed a resolution calling for a bridge of their own, and early in 1846 the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company came into being. Roebling and Eilet were invited to submit proposals. Only Roebling replied. He put forward a couple of possibilities, one of them a suspension bridge whose single twelve-hundred-foot span would arc over the Ohio a hundred feet above the water.

The bold scheme provoked a frenzy among ferryboat owners and steamboat men. They were against it, of course, but so too, it seemed for a while, was everyone else: the bridge piers, opponents claimed, would make the river flood; steamboats would not be able to pass; factories would rush across the river to cheaper sites, leaving Cincinnati a ghost town.

 
Suspension bridges fell apart, the sponsors knew.

Roebling came west in May, did some surveying, and calmly answered his critics. The river wouldn’t flood, Cincinnati wouldn’t fall into decay. The center of the span would be higher than the tallest steamboat stacks, and even if it weren’t, he said, tall stacks were useless anyway. “If,” he concluded, allowing himself a rare flick of irony, “they could be forced from our rivers by some low bridge, it would be the greatest service which would be rendered to the navigation of our western waters.”

Despite Roebling’s trenchant refutation, the project had lost momentum. It was not until Eilet actually began work on an Ohio River bridge at Wheeling, Virginia, that the Cincinnati leaders stirred. Eilet’s new bridge would have a record-breaking span of over a thousand feet, and the Cincinnatians, impressed, asked him in 1849 for his views on a bridge for their city. A single-arch suspension bridge was the answer, he said: “Spanning the Ohio like a rainbow, it cannot fail to become an object of admiration to the country, a most striking monument to the enterprise of the day, and a worthy ornament to your beautiful and flourishing cities.”

The sponsors liked the sound of this, but the bridge company found it hard to raise money: railroads were sopping up most of the spare capital. Seeking a practical example by way of advertisement, the sponsors suggested that a small suspension bridge be built over the nearby Licking River. Local engineers finished the job in January of 1854. The bridge had been open to traffic for two weeks when it collapsed under a herd of cattle.

Five months after that, news came from Wheeling: “A giant lies prostrate in the Ohio, and against his huge and broken ribs and iron sinews, snapped asunder, the waves are dashing scornfully, sending up a sound the most doleful that ever fell upon the ears of our citizens.” Eilet’s bridge had failed.