When They Built The Big Bridge

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The curious thing about Washington Roebling’s physical catastrophe is that if it had not occurred he probably never would have become the legendary hero that he is. A conscientious, on-the-job chief engineer is one thing, but a badly disabled chief engineer who for ten years does all his supervising by remote control is quite another. Shortly after his return from his European cure, quite uncured, in the fall of 1873, it became generally known that at almost any hour of the day Brooklyn’s distinguished invalid might be found sitting at the third-story back window of his home at no Columbia Heights, peering through field glasses at whatever phase of work on the bridge was currently visible. This caught the popular imagination, and it soon became a favorite pastime of Brooklyn’s small boys to post themselves at strategic spots along the water front in the hope of catching a glimpse of the prisoner of Columbia Heights.

 

Equally intriguing was the news that the chief engineer’s wife, Emily Warren Roebling, had been studying engineering and higher mathematics under her husband’s tutelage so as to be able to serve as a knowledgeable liason officer between him and his assistants. And even more unorthodox than Mrs. Roebling’s participation in a field of work reserved exclusively for men was her willingness to appear in public to plead her husband’s cause, and plead it successfully, when efforts were made to remove him from his post because of his long illness. Her role as the almost invisible engineer’s visible representative made her almost as legendary as the man with the binoculars himself.

What Roebling could see through those famous field glasses of his must have been extremely limited for the first few years of his illness. But the summer of 1876 brought a spectacle quite as exciting as any of the wonders which were being displayed that same summer to awed visitors at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition. The star actor in this heightening drama of the East River, so happily visible from the Roebling windows, was a quiet, middle-aged man named Frank Farrington.

Farrington, a master mechanic, was a veteran of bridge-building by the suspension method. Having worked for John Roebling on the Niagara Falls and Cincinnati spans, he viewed as a matter of course the ticklish steps which now needed to be taken in order to connect the New York and Brooklyn towers by their first sky-high strands. The men who were scheduled to work under him, however, felt very different. Most of them were terrified at the thought of having to hang in mid-air a couple of hundred feet above the water with nothing but a few slender wires to support them. Consequently there was some reluctance on the part of qualified men to apply for cable-riggers’ jobs, just as there had been a dearth of applicants for sand hogs’ berths six years before.

To meet this situation Frank Farrington took a ride —a ride designed to give heart to his colleagues by demonstrating what a safe and joyous experience it was to be a cable-spinner. The mechanism for his ride was a tiny bosun’s chair slung to an endless three-quarter-inch “traveler” rope from anchorage to anchorage, which had been towed across the river by tugs several days before and hoisted over grooved saddles on the tower-tops. This wire cable, upon being actuated by an engine in the Brooklyn anchorage, was capable of furnishing history’s first above-water transportation between New York and Brooklyn.

Word of Farrington’s projected journey had gotten into the newspapers, and on the afternoon of August 25, 1876, every available housetop, window, street, and boat along the two cities’ water fronts was jammed with spectators—hundreds of thousands of people. These assembled crowds got the thrill of their lives (plus a fine crop of stiff necks) as they watched the beautifully staged performance. Cannon boomed below as Farrington’s little wooden swing sailed out into space from atop the Brooklyn anchorage, descending first low over the housetops and then climbing dizzily high to the top of the tower. There several of his fellow workers, quite as excited as the throngs below, carried the full-bearded aerial voyager over the great stone platform and launched him on the next leg of his westward course across nearly sixteen hundred feet of open water—or, to be more precise, across water crowded with all manner of boats and their gawking passengers.

Down, down, down he swooped, and then up again toward the New York tower, waving his handkerchief at the roaring audience, clapping his hands, and in general making it apparent that nothing could be more fun than being carried by wire across the East River. What made his spectacular journey especially uncanny to the hordes below was the fact that the wire ropes which supported him were, from that distance, practically invisible, so that he seemed to be hurtling up, down, and forward solely through some mysterious self-propulsive force. When he reached the tower and was lifted across it to start on his final lap toward the New York anchorage the general excitement reached an almost unbearable pitch, and the saluting cannon and steam whistles were hard pressed to outdo the swelling chorus of cheers.