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When They Built The Big Bridge

May 2024
16min read

John Roebling lost his life and his son lost his health, but after sixteen years the incredible Brooklyn Bridge was finished

Brooklyn bridge
An artist's rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872. Library of Congress

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.

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.

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.

To the people of 1870 a caisson was a new and mystifying device. When six tugboats pooled their efforts to tow a 3,000-ton inverted wooden crate five miles downstream to Brooklyn from the Greenpoint shipyard where it had been built, the strange sight was a nine-day wonder. While the caisson was sunk into place on the river’s bottom and emptied by forced air compression, the newspapers printed full accounts of the principles that made it possible and comparatively safe for men to work under water in this upside-down box which covered nearly half an acre. The men were to work in special chambers of controlled air pressure, digging the stone and sand of the river bed out from beneath the four cutting edges of the great boxes until these boxes sank, at a rate of about three inches a day, to positions considered solid by the engineers. Then they were to be filled with concrete and the towers erected on top of them.

It was not easy to persuade laborers to take jobs as sand hogs, even at the alluring wages of $2 a day. After only a brief spell of wielding picks and shovels on the river bottom by the dim light of sputtering gas jets, the sand hogs went out on strike, demanding a raise to $2.25.

This was an unheard-of amount for ordinary laborers, but the work had to go on, so they got it. Oddly enough they never struck again, despite the triple hazards which soon made themselves apparent. Perhaps this docility was partly due to the fact that in the great business depression which extended roughly from 1869 to 1878, jobs were hard to find, particularly in a region where immigrant labor was abundant. But there was another factor too which must have borne weight, and that was that Colonel Roebling himself was spending more time down in the caisson than anyone else; and if the big boss could endure conditions there, why should the sand hogs revolt?

The triple hazards were blowouts, fire, and bends. Blowouts were caused primarily by the unevenness of the river bottom. It often happened that two sides of the caisson’s cutting edge would be resting on solid rock while the other two sides were in mud. In such a situation, despite all the engineers’ efforts to keep the caisson on an even keel, slight openings occasionally developed at the base. Usually the workmen’s first inkling that such an opening existed came when, with a thunderous roar, the submerged chamber’s air supply escaped through the hole and shot geyser-like to the surface.

Startling as these submarine volcanoes were to the sand hogs, they were even more startling to the masons who were working on top of the caisson to build the great stone tower which it supported. The dodging of waterspouts replete with mud, stones, and fish provided an unscheduled and sometimes terrifying break in the monotony of their labors.

The surprising thing is that these blowouts caused no more damage than they did. The worst one fortunately happened on a Sunday morning, when no one was at work. It erupted with a deafening roar, causing a stampede for blocks around and showering Brooklyn’s entire Fulton Ferry neighborhood with water and debris. If there had been workmen in the caisson they almost inevitably would have been sucked out and hurled up with the waterspout, which rose to 500 feet.


bridge construction
The Bridge under construction in 1872. Library of Congress

No sooner had people’s nerves calmed down alter this demonstration of subaqueous forces than there entered the second menace—fire. Here too the amazing thing is not that it happened, but that it did not happen oftener. The caisson’s principal illumination came from calcium lights and gas burners, but for close work candles often had to be used, too. In the potent compressed air all of these flames were even more dangerous than they would have been under normal conditions. Many a time a candle’s blaze returned alter it had been blown out, and the gas lights flared crazily high at the slightest shock.

In December of 1870, an unguarded candle’s flame ignited the roof timbers of the caisson and, driven by the potent compressed air, worked its way far into their hidden recesses. The fire resisted all efforts to stop its progress until, through the combined efforts of three fireboats and the Brooklyn Fire Department, the entire caisson was pumped full of water and left flooded for several days.

During this stubborn blaze, which carried a grave threat of destroying all the work which had been done on the Brooklyn tower, Colonel Roebling stayed down in the caisson for so many hours at a stretch that eventually he had to be carried out in a state of collapse. This disregard of personal danger was doubtless invaluable in saving the submarine work chamber, but in the long run it was a costly display of zeal for it undermined his health and increased his susceptibility to the third of the caisson’s triple hazards—the bends.

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 father, might not live to 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.

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.

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.

Altogether it was a truly stupendous show. During the nearly seven years which remained before the bridge’s completion, the only thing that could touch it was the opening of the catwalk.

This four-foot-wide wooden footbridge for the use of workmen stringing wires and handling suspenders swooped in steep and graceful arcs like those which the finished bridge’s cables were to follow. That it was safe is proved by the fact that in all the course of the spiderwork’s spinning no workman ever fell from it. But if the stroll across it was safe it was also more than a little terrifying to the uninitiated, for except for handhold cables it was wide open at the sides, it swayed and swung, and the wind whistled through its planks. The workmen took all this in their stride and often did not even bother to grasp the handropes, but visitors who were granted permits to walk across all too often gave way to spells of paralyzing hysteria. That ended the experiment, and the public was forced to forgo the ecstasy of walking between the two cities until such time as the bridge proper should be completed.

Now that workmen were daily visible scampering over the catwalk, and the traveling wheel which spun the cables was making its ceaseless journeys back and forth, the general attitude toward the span had changed from one of derisive apathy to one of lively interest. But the work could not be hurried, and after the cities’ first linking by footway the deliberate processes of construction dragged on for six more years.

A view of the Bridge in 1899. Library of Congress

The cable-spinning alone required a year and a half, partly because of the chicaneries of the manufacturer who had underbid the Roebling family’s own plant for the steel wire contract. Next came the attaching of suspenders—steel ropes hanging from the cables to hold the floor beams—which in due course were put in place and covered with flooring. Every step was essential, but every step took time: the adding of girders and stays, trusses and braces; the painting; the building of lengthy approaches; the installation of tracks and terminals for cable cars; and the provision of a lighting system (yes, electric lights, no less!). During these six tedious years, while the revenues of the East River’s twenty ferry lines were rising to a new high, there were not only several disheartening work stop-pages caused by lack of funds or lack of steel, but there were also fresh attempts to oust the invalid Washington Roebling from his post, and, worst of all, there was a major accident.

This disaster, last of the series which beset the bridge’s builders, occurred in 1878 when one of the ponderous cable strands, breaking loose as it was being fastened into place at the New York anchorage, careened like a whip through the air, knocking two workmen to their death, injuring others, and grazing housetops, streets, and crowded ferryboats before plunging at last into the water.

The memory of this tragedy was still harbored in many minds five years later when at last the time came for that event of events, the bridge’s opening, scheduled for May 24, 1883. Amid all the panegyrics which greeted that greatest day in Brooklyn’s history there were to be heard here and there the jeremiads of those who warned that the completed span, solid and impressive though it looked, was after all merely hanging from strands of wire which might at any moment break loose and plunge the bridge, with all its occupants, to destruction.

Indeed these misgivings were so deep-rooted that six days after the bridge’s opening, despite the fact that 100,000 people had safely walked across it during the first 24 hours, a great panic occurred when someone suddenly screamed. People rushed madly for the two exits, spreading the cry that the bridge was falling, killing twelve and injuring forty in their frenzy to escape.

On the great day, however, optimists were much more plentiful than prophets of doom. Who could think of potential catastrophe when a general holiday was declared, when flags flew everywhere, and when the President of the United States himself blessed the occasion by his presence?

Even the haughtiest of New Yorkers were delighted to join with their Brooklyn neighbors in hailing their connecting link as the “eighth wonder of the world.”

It was a day of such sustained rejoicing as few communities have ever experienced. Brooklyn, having waited almost sixteen years for its celebration, was now making up for lost time. President Arthur, Governor Cleveland, parades, souvenirs, band concerts, warships’ salutes, fervid oratory, resplendent decorations, excursion boats, hordes of visitors, even the tons of fireworks which transformed the night into something out of a fairy tale—all of these were secondary to the main excitement, which was the bridge itself. Solid, majestic, beautiful, it opened to Brooklynites an alluring new vista of unity with the great world beyond the river.

Even the haughtiest of New Yorkers were delighted to join with their Brooklyn neighbors in hailing their connecting link as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Thousands strong, they lined up at the toll booths on both sides of the East River, waiting their chance to pay the pennies and dimes to walk or drive across that once-divisive strip of water.

Washington Roebling sat and watched the thundering horde from his window on Columbia Heights. His hour of vindication had been long in coming, but today it had arrived in full measure. He had been visited by the President, the Governor, mayors, ex-mayors, generals, admirals, editors, artists, architects, engineers, and other dignitaries beyond counting.

Afflicted as he was by the ravages of the disease he had contracted in the caissons, he was exhausted by the time the day was over, but not too exhausted to gaze in full contentment at the throngs advancing over what once had been mere lines at the point of his father’s pencil. Beneath its surging load, the bridge was holding firm.

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