Not The Brooklyn Bridge

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Although six years had passed since work ceased on the towers, the engineer found that not a single joint had washed away: the seasons of flood and neglect had left them untouched. Roebling went back to work. As usual there were difficulties. Labor was scarce and expensive; he was infuriated that his “Cincinnati wharf rats” were dissatisfied with their wages of $1.25 a day. Worse, the war had made American wire unavailable. He had to order the material for the bridge cables from England, even though it was fearfully expensive and had to be paid for in gold. But all in all, things went well. Summer of 1864 saw the completion of the anchorages, in whose limestone depths were embedded the immense eleven-ton anchor plates to which the ends of the cables would be fixed.

THE NEXT SPRING Roebling was joined by his son Washington, just released from the Union Army. The younger Roebling knew all about the project, of course, but actually seeing it was something else again. “The size and magnitude of this work,” he wrote, “far surpasses any expectations I had formed of it. It is the highest thing in this country; the towers are so high that a person’s neck aches looking up at them. It will take me a week to get used to the dimensions of everything around here. ” Himself a supremely able engineer, Washington came on the job as his father’s chief assistant. By the end of the summer the towers were finished; they stood 230 feet above the river, a little over a thousand feet apart.

On September 10 a flatboat put off from the Ohio shore playing out behind it a two-and-a-half-inch cable that dipped down to the craft’s stern from the top of the Cincinnati tower. As thousands of spectators watched, the rope was hoisted over the Covington tower. “A powerful tackle purchase … was attached to it,” Roebling’s master carpenter, E. F. Earrington, wrote, “and at a time when there was little passing of steamers, it was drawn out of the water, and up to its proper position, and made fast to each anchor pier. Number two [cable] was served in the same manner. After this the foot bridge was built, and there was communication established FOREVER!” This foot bridge, only twenty-seven inches wide, was a severe disappointment to one confused onlooker, who grumbled that “after all the talk about a fine bridge, it’s a very flimsy affair.”

It took 10,360 crossings to make the cables.

With the flimsy affair in place, the cables could be spun. Powered by driving machinery on the Cincinnati anchorage, the light carrier wheels shuttled back and forth across the river from tower to tower, all day long, month after month, running out wire behind them. It took 10,360 crossings before the two cables were done. Each was over a foot in diameter, a powerful bundle of 5,180 one-eighth-inch parallel wires clamped into a circle and bound with a final wrapping of galvanized iron wire. Each weighed over a million pounds.

From these the riggers strung the suspenders, 303 pairs of them spaced five feet apart, and in September the wrought-iron floor beams were attached to them.

With the crucial stiffeners in place, the oak floor nearly finished, and track being laid for the horsecars that were just beginning to come into use, Amos Shinkle, who was now the president of the company, chose the first of December, 1866, for the opening. The day dawned mild and fair, and as the sun rose it was greeted by two brass twelve-pounders in the Newport Barracks rattling out a hundred-gun salute. Despite a local newspaper’s maternal caution to “go very warmly clad, as it is very cold out there, over the water, with a keenly cutting wintry wind whistling along the river,” 46,000 people swarmed over the bridge. The following day 120,000 crossed.

The official opening to traffic took place on New Year’s Day, 1867. This was a far more formal affair, with a regular parade made up of bands and prominent citizens and fine carriages and led by Amos Shinkle and John Roebling.

By that time the engineer was deeply absorbed in his East River bridge. It would be grander in all respects than its Midwestern prototype—its river span half again as long, twice as long overall. But Roebling would die with it barely under way, and the Cincinnati Bridge was the closest he ever came to seeing how his greatest design would turn out.

It was no comtemptible substitute. The largest suspension bridge in the world, and the finest, it was, as Shinkle said, “the wonder and admiration of all who cross it.”

It had cost $1,800,000, twice the original estimate, but Shinkle was delighted with it. When Roebling came with his bridge party three years later, and one of the members asked the coal merchant if the structure paid, Shinkle answered happily, “Yes, sir, handsomely. ” He went on to praise the man who built it and then offered the Eastern visitors some advice: “He is an extraordinary man and if you people in Brooklyn are wise you will interfere with his views just as little as possible. Give the old man his way and trust him.”