- Historic Sites
When They Built The Big Bridge
John Roebling lost his life and his son lost his health, but after sixteen years the incredible Brooklyn Bridge was finished
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
People living in Brooklyn in the 1870’s were able to boast that their home town was the third largest, fastest growing city in the United States, but they had one major daily headache—getting to work in New York. For, they were dependent upon the terries; and the ferries, delightful though they could be, were in turn dependent upon the weather, fee, log, and wind played merry hob with their schedules, and exasperated commuters talked longingly of the time when completion of the Fast River Bridge would bring their troubles to an end.
Throughout the sixteen years from its conception in 1867 to its completion in 1883 the bridge was a favorite source of argument, for it was opposed by many persons on both sides of the river. Probably all our huge modern bridges and tunnels combined have not aroused a quarter of the interest which attended this one lone span’s construction. In part this was because a long suspension bridge—endangering the ferries’ entrenched interests—was a revolutionary project in those days, but in part too it was because of the dramatic saga of the Roeblings, the father and son who designed and built the bridge, and in doing so sacrificed the life of one and the health of the other.
John Roebling’s interest in this formidable project began long before 1867, when his plans for connecting New York with Long Island at last were approved by the legislature and he was commissioned to execute them. As America’s most illustrious bridge builder, with great spans at Niagara Falls, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and elsewhere to his credit, he had been intrigued for years by the challenge which the East River presented. Back in 1857 he had submitted a plan for a suspension bridge between New York and Brooklyn, inspired perhaps by his memories of a harrowing occasion in 1852 when he had been marooned for hours on a ferryboat in an East River ice jam.
One of the chief reasons for the opposition to the building of a bridge was that New York looked upon its harbor as its greatest asset, and it was unthinkable that any part of that harbor should be blocked by bridge piers or that a great ship’s altitude should be limited by an overhead roadway. The obvious solution to this problem was a high suspension bridge, but it was not without reason that people were afraid of suspension bridges, for the comparatively short history of such spans was all too liberally sprinkled with disaster. These doomed structures were all the work of other engineers, however; not a single one of John Roebline’s had ever failed.
It was not until 1867 that an exceptionally frigid winter, which disrupted the terry service, finally persuaded the legislature to approve Roebling’s plan. During his two years of waiting for congressional sanction, which did not come till 1869, Roebling perfected his plans and saw to it that his son and chief assistant, Colonel Washington Roebling, acquired complete familiarity with them. The younger Roebling was only 32 in 1869, but he had eleven years of bridge-building experience behind him. including the improvising of a number of river crossings for the Union Army during the Civil War. Only recently he had returned from a year in Europe, where he had been sent by his father to study the new technique of building underwater foundations by means of pneumatic caissons. This was important because the bridge’s stone towers, rising 271 feet above water level, would have to have their bases too far beneath the river to make any other type of foundation practicable, John Roebling was determined that every detail of his masterwork must be perfect, and he was taking all possible precautions.
All possible precautions, that is, except the most important one of all—the preserving of his own invaluable life. On July 6, 1869, he was making a final routine survey of the bridge’s route just before starting actual construction. Eyes glued to his surveyor’s transit, he was standing atop the piling on the Fulton Ferry’s Brooklyn side. Single-minded absorption in his work was one of the secrets of his greatness, but it was also the cause of his death, for he failed to notice an incoming ferryboat. The ferry, as if resenting the obsolescence to which Roebling’s projected bridge might relegate it, rammed into the piling, crushing the engineer’s foot beneath an overhanging plank.
Regrettable though the accident was, it seemed fairly trivial at the time. Only Roebling’s toes were damaged, and they were promptly amputated. But in 1869, as for many years thereafter, tetanus was still a deadly foe. After exacting its horrible agonies for a fortnight, it brought to his death the only man who, most people believed, was capable of building the East River Bridge.
Seldom, if ever, has the death of an engineer aroused such consternation. Stunned by their loss, the bridge’s trustees suspended all work on the project for a time. Then it was decided to go ahead, with Washington Roebling in his father’s place as chief engineer.
Young Colonel Roebling was confronted not only by the ticklish assignment of laying massive foundations under water by an almost untried method, but also by the even more ticklish assignment of convincing a. doubtful public that he was capable of filling his father’s shoes. The first of these assignments nearly killed him; the second was to be his scourge for years.