It’s May 24, 1883, and a joyous crowd is gathering for a momentous occasion: the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. At last New York and Brooklyn, separate cities at the time, will have a physical link across the East River. A band plays, fireworks pop and ships fire off cannons – but this gleeful celebration ignores some grim truths about the bridge’s construction.
The building of the Brooklyn Bridge had pushed the technologies of the day to their limits. But this had meant that there had been considerable danger for the workers who toiled to erect this monumental structure. Sadly, tragedy had been a constant companion during the 13 years it took to build the bridge.
Workers on the most dangerous part of the construction, the building of the two massive towers that hold the web of wire supports which secure the bridge, were well paid. Their rate was $2.25 per day, which was an excellent wage at the time. Regardless, the discomfort and genuine danger of the work meant that around a third of the tower-builders quit every week.
But before we explore the trials and tribulations faced by the workers, let’s examine the history of the Brooklyn Bridge. The idea for such a structure, built between New York Island and Brooklyn, dates as far back as 1800. And you could forgive today’s New Yorkers, who have no fewer than four bridges crossing the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan, for struggling to imagine life with none.
Back in the 19th century the only way to cross the East River was by ferry. So it’s hardly a surprise that there were early calls for the building of a bridge. Plans came and went, rejected either as impractical or too expensive. Some also mooted plans for a tunnel but this was deemed as too costly – it would be 1908 before the first one, which carries subway lines, was dug between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The first feasible bridge proposal came from John Augustus Roebling, a German who had arrived in the United States in 1831 at the age of 25. Although he had studied in Germany as an engineer, he spent his first five years in the U.S. as a farmer. However, the appeal of this career was limited and he returned to engineering in 1837.
It seems Roebling was fascinated by suspension bridges from early on, and in 1841 he began manufacturing wire rope, an essential component for them. In 1845 he built a suspension bridge across Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River. And other such structures followed, including an 825-foot railroad crossing over the Niagara which opened in 1855 after four years of construction.
Roebling proposed a suspension bridge across the East River in 1852, and then spent the next 15 years promoting the idea. Finally, in 1867 the local State Senate approved plans to build a crossing between the cities, and the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company was formed, with Roebling appointed as the project’s chief engineer.
The Brooklyn Bridge would likely have been the crowning moment of Roebling’s career. But it was not an achievement he would be able to savor. As he was surveying the location of the future bridge in 1869, Roebling had a tragic mishap. A ferry thumped into the Brooklyn jetty he was standing on, crushing the toes on his right foot.
Sadly, Roebling’s toes were so mangled that two had to be amputated. The engineer now refused to accept any orthodox medical treatment, opting instead to use hydrotherapy to treat his injury. This process involved repeatedly pouring water on to his wounded foot – but the water that Roebling chose came straight from a local well, unsterilized.
Sadly, three weeks after his accident, Roebling was struck down by tetanus and died at the age of 63. However, this was far from the end of the Roebling interest in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. His son Washington and daughter-in-law Emily were to be closely involved in the construction of the crossing.
However much Roebling senior’s death impacted the project, survey and design work for the bridge continued apace. But we’ll break off from the bridge itself for a moment to meet William “Boss” Tweed. New York State senator, massive landowner, businessman and property developer, Tweed has become a byword over the years for his greed and corruption. And his affairs became inextricably linked with the Brooklyn Bridge.
Tweed liked the idea of a bridge linking Manhattan and Brooklyn a lot. He owned much of the land on the Manhattan side of the bridge and rightly believed that a crossing would increase its value. So to ensure the project went ahead, Tweed arranged bribes of $60,000 – which was stashed in a carpet bag and delivered to various New York politicians to make sure they backed the bridge.
Tweed then became a major stockholder in the project – and therefore grabbed control of the bridge. This was despite the fact that the cash to build it had come from Brooklyn and New York city coffers. However, as it turned out, Tweed was never able to fully benefit from his crooked dealing.
The forces of law and order finally caught up with Tweed and he was charged with corruption in 1871. Although he served just one year in prison after his 1873 trial and conviction, New York State subsequently dragged him through the civil courts. Tweed couldn’t post his $3 million bail and was locked up in the Ludlow Street Jail.
Tweed now took advantage of his privilege of home visits by absconding during one of them, and he made his way to Spain where he worked as a sailor. But in 1876 the long arm of the American authorities caught up with him and returned him to the U.S. aboard a battleship. Once again he was imprisoned in Ludlow Street, where he remained until he died in 1878.
So, there were, to put it mildly, some colorful politics behind the approval of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, that’s no reason to admire any less the engineering feat required to build what would be the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. As we’ve seen, the chief engineer John Roebling died after an unfortunate accident in 1869.
But Roebling senior was succeeded by his son Washington, who carried on the work with help from his wife Emily. The latter was born in 1837 in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, a town which his father and an uncle had actually founded. Roebling studied engineering and his thesis, “Design for a Suspension Aqueduct,” probably proved helpful in his later work on the Brooklyn Bridge.
After graduating as a civil engineer in 1857, Roebling went to work with his father. He assisted him in the construction of a suspension bridge over the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then the Civil War broke out in 1861 and Roebling joined the Republican forces as a private in the New Jersey Militia.
Roebling rose through the ranks to become a colonel and fought in some of the most bitterly contested battles of the war, including at Antietam and Gettysburg. After the conflict, Roebling went back to working with his father, and also spent some time in Europe researching everything to do with suspension bridges and their workings. He then took over from his late father as chief engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project in 1869.
On January 2, 1870, six months after Roebling Senior’s untimely death, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge finally began. Workers started on the first job, the building of two structures called caissons. One was built on the Brooklyn side of the East River, the other on the Manhattan side.
These caissons would be used to place the two main towers of the bridge in the river. They were huge, watertight boxes constructed from steel and timber. Once tipped into the East River men could enter from the top and dig into the riverbed from the bottom. As they dug down, the boxes could sit lower in the water.
The purpose of the caissons was to excavate to the bedrock beneath the river. Once the laborers reached it, building of the towers could commence within the protection provided by the caissons. Of necessity, the chambers where the workers toiled were pumped full of compressed air to keep the water out – but as we’ll see, this introduced a whole new level of danger.
But the conditions for the workers in the caissons was atrocious – ventilation was rudimentary and the only light came from flickering gas lamps. And there was the constant danger that if the caisson’s structure failed, the East River would flood into the working chamber. Nevertheless, the Brooklyn caisson was the first to be launched and put in place in March 1870.
Work inside the Brooklyn caisson was especially arduous because of the large boulders littering the riverbed there. The boulders caused delay, as did a fire in the wooden roof of the caisson in December 1870. However, by March 1871 the excavations within the caisson were complete and the workers were able to pour concrete for the foundations of the tower.
Some 264 men had labored in the Brooklyn caisson each day, although the high turnover of workers meant that a total of around 2,500 were involved over the course of that one operation. Nevertheless, after the Brooklyn caisson’s completion, construction began on the Manhattan one, which was launched on May 11, 1871.
After the fire that had struck the Brooklyn caisson, the roof of the Manhattan one was fitted with incombustible iron plates. As the bedrock on the Manhattan side was deeper beneath the river than on the Brooklyn side, the caisson there had to go a correspondingly greater depth. But that also meant that the compressed air pressure was also higher.
And it was this high pressure that put the workers in great peril. The danger was akin to that faced by deep sea divers who can suffer from decompression sickness, known as the bends, if they ascend from the depths too quickly. And the illness, which is caused by too much nitrogen in the bloodstream, can be extremely debilitating and even fatal.
The illness that now affected those Brooklyn Bridge workers was known as caisson disease at the time. In fact, it was during its construction that the term was coined by the project’s medical officer, Andrew Smith. Some of the workers in the Brooklyn caisson suffered from the illness and had been paralyzed by it, but many more were stricken in the deeper Manhattan caisson.
One of the people who succumbed to the ill-effects of caisson disease was Washington Roebling. He was so badly stricken that he could no longer take his place at the construction site, although he continued to supervise the operation from his sick bed. Thankfully, however, there was someone ready to take his place at the site – his wife Emily.
Even today, engineering is a profession dominated by men – so we can assume that this was even more so back in the 19th century. Yet Emily proved that she was more than equal to this challenge. She had been born in Cold Spring, New York in 1843, one of 12 children, and had married Roebling in 1865.
Emily did not come entirely untutored to the Brooklyn Bridge project, however. On their honeymoon in Europe she and Washington had spent much of their time studying the use of caissons. It may not have been particularly romantic, but it became useful when she had to become chief engineer.
Since she was the only person who habitually visited Roebling on his sick bed, Emily was his principal messenger. But she was much more than that, because she also performed a wide range of duties. She took on routine project management; handled politicians; and fiercely defended her husband’s right to maintain his role on the project despite his ill health. And this went on for a full 11 years until the bridge was finally completed.
But as the Brooklyn Bridge began to take shape, a gruesome shadow glowered over the construction. Workers were maimed, mangled and killed throughout the project. The first fatality, John Roebling’s, had of course come before construction had even started. But many more would be killed in a variety of ways during building work – and this became the dark side of the Brooklyn Bridge’s legacy.
Caisson disease, of course, was one cause of death. A German worker, John Myers, was the first to die from decompression sickness in April 1872. He had only worked in one of the caissons for two days. Patrick McKay, an Irishman, died from the same cause just eight days afterwards, while a second Irish worker, Daniel Reardon succumbed to caisson disease just a week later.
Another common way to die on the Brooklyn Bridge project was falling from a height. After all, men were working at heights of as much as 275 feet above the East River. Falling building materials such as blocks of granite, meanwhile, also caused deaths. Sadly, ways to die while building the bridge were varied and unpredictable.
In 1873 one Peter Cope’s leg was caught in a winding mechanism, and the German laborer’s horrible injuries resulted in his death. Irishman Neil Mullen died three days from Christmas 1877 when an archway collapsed because the cement had not dried. The coroner stated that widower and father-of-six Mullen died due to “a lack of proper caution.”
Another hideous accident came in June 1878, when a cable snapped, striking two men, Henry Supple and Thomas Blake. The snaking wire threw the two men from the bridge, killing both of them. Tragically, these accidental deaths continued throughout the construction of the bridge. By the time of its grand opening in 1883, the official death toll of workers was 24, a high price to pay even for so magnificent a crossing.
And even after the bridge was opened, with Emily Roebling the first to cross it, the mayhem continued. A few days after the inauguration, a woman slipped down some stairs on the bridge and let out a scream. This was enough to panic others nearby, causing a stampede which would lead to 12 deaths in the ensuing chaos.
Today Brooklyn Bridge stands as a monument to the ambition and skills of 19th century engineers, in particular the Roebling family. The structure is an instantly recognizable New York icon built with the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary New Yorkers. But if you happen to be crossing the bridge, spare a thought for those who lost their lives to create this splendid structure.