When They Built The Big Bridge

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In more formal parlance the bends is known as “caisson disease,” but under any name it was still a mystery in 1870. Word came from St. Louis that it was wreaking havoc among the sand hogs who were digging foundations for the bridge across the Mississippi, but at the Brooklyn end of the East River Bridge its inroads were comparatively light, for there the caisson came to rest in its final bed only 44½ feet below the river’s high-tide level. Hence the air pressure under which the men worked was not far enough above normal to cause any very serious results. When it came time to dig the New York tower’s foundations, however, there was a very different story to tell.

The unfavorable condition of the river bottom on the New York side made it necessary to sink the foundations almost twice as far below the water’s surface as had been done on the Brooklyn shore. This meant that the men had to labor under far greater pressure, and were in greater danger from those insidious nitrogen bubbles in the blood which can be disastrous when normal pressure is restored. Safety precautions were taken, to be sure, in the form of an air lock, an attending physician, a rest room, and strict health rules; even so the dread caisson disease began to take its toll. As pressure increased, man after man was stricken with dizziness. headaches, vomiting, sweating, excruciating pains, and disabling cramps. Some lost their voices, some were temporarily paralyzed. some fell unconscious.

Altogether 110 of the sand hogs suffered from the bends in varying degrees of seriousness during the winter and spring of 1872 as the New York caisson sank deeper and deeper. Some of these recovered within a few days: others were ill for weeks; three died.

These casualties were all that was needed to stir up fresh waves of criticism of the whole bridge project. Colonel Roebling. already overburdened with his efforts to complete the foundations and save his men’s lives, was kept even busier by the necessity for answering charges of criminal negligence preferred in the press and elsewhere. Accused of neglecting his men’s safety, he neglected his own far more, spending longer hours in the caisson’s depths than anyone else.

A month or so before the digging was completed he collapsed while at work, and this time the collapse was far more serious than it had been during the fire. Carried out unconscious and apparently close to death, he somehow managed after a short rest to return to the caisson and stay there day after day till the work was almost completed. Then his illness became so acute he had to take to his bed.

Haunted by the thought that he, like his lather, might not live Lo see the bridge completed. Roebling realized that much absolutely essential information was stored in his own head and nowhere else. He knew he must transfer all this data onto paper for the use of the engineers who would have to finish his job. While his doctors insisted that he go abroad for a cure he remained in Brooklyn and wrote, wrote, wrote—for his vocal cords were so badly affected by the disease that dictating was out of the question.

By the time he finally did sail for a six-month stay abroad his eyes and nervous system were nearly wrecked by the strain of his effort, but at least he had everything written down so that his assistants could carry on. The devotion of these men to their work and to Roebling was such that every one of them stuck with the project, despite the storms of criticism through all the long years to its completion.

The criticism continued unabated. To watchers who did not realize all the difficulties involved, work seemed to advance at a snail-like pace. By the end of 1874. Eads’ St. Louis bridge, which had been begun in 1867, had been triumphantly completed, but the East River project had nothing visible to show but two unfinished granite towers and a partially-built anchorage in Brooklyn.

Those mammoth and seemingly purposeless towers at the water’s edge became a favorite target for jokesters and critics. There were dark whispers of scandals involving the Tweed Ring, of political machinations, of outrageous profits on sale of land condemned for bridge approaches, of murderous and wasteful mismanagement. The perspective of time seems to indicate beyond doubt that all these whispered charges were baseless, but in their day they furnished a rich mine of gossip.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and disillusionment the bridge’s builders plugged ahead steadily at their task except during several periods (one of them lasting as long as six months) when they had to suspend work for lack of funds. This fundless state was due to the reluctance of trend-sensitive politicians to appropriate any more money for an apparently endless project which was costing far more than John Roebling had anticipated when he had submitted his estimates so many years before. The massive cable-anchorage buildings, which were completed during this period of general apathy, were an important part of the bridge structure, but few people ever saw them or understood them so they did little to dispel the growing belief that the Roebling dream was a nightmare.