1st Thursday [2]: David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge”

The building of the Brooklyn Bridge cost at least 20 lives, including that of its architect. By contrast, construction of the new One World Trade Center in Manhattan, currently the world’s fourth tallest building, saw zero fatalities.

This fact is tribute to the progress of civilization, and serves as preparation for a journey back in time…

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I have yet to start my presidential biography list, but it was suggested as an introduction to David McCullough, who has written several of them, that I read this book: The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.


The story contains pages of engineering explanations, written in plain language but at times over my head, nonetheless. But it is also an intimate biography, of the bridge’s chief engineer, his father, and his wife, and looks closely into the affairs of many other prominent characters at the time. Mostly it is about the bridge itself, but you cannot truly appreciate it without knowing the circumstances surrounding it and understanding those who made it happen.

What makes the story “epic” is many things. Its locations, the growing city of New York, and at the time the separate and independent city of Brooklyn; the East River, a wide and treacherous body of water that held the two cities apart and was as yet unbridged; the people that involved themselves in the management of the job, and the scandals that surrounded many of them; the variety of people who protested the bridge, either not wanting such a link to the corruption of life on the other side, or fearing it would put an end to their business; the time it took to complete it from beginning to end, 14 years, due in no small part to many of those scandals, protests, and investigations. As late as December 1877, as the suspension cables were being strung, there was an effort to stop the whole thing.

Here is a Melbourne girl’s photo experience on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Inga often posts some colorful images of the bridge, too.

Also adding to its grandeur is that, because it began in 1869, it was going up as the nation celebrated its 100th birthday. Born of the industrial revolution, it helped usher in a whole new century and the age of electricity.

john The Great Bridge begins with the story of John A. Roebling, the mastermind of the endeavor. He had developed a world-known reputation for bridge building, having crossed the Ohio River and Niagara Falls, among other difficult channels. His approach to all obstacles made it hard for many to accept his death, after a surveying accident and weeks of trying to heal himself:

Talk of Roebling dead was one thing, but the idea of him laid out in a black suit of clothes like any other man, those pale eyes shut forever, was something else. Somehow, it was felt, he would figure a way.

John had several sons who would learn his wire-making trade and take over the family business of that nature. His oldest son, Washington, would take over the role as chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge. He was quite selfless in taking on the project, and to his death as a very old man, people continued to give his father credit for building the bridge. McCullough suggests that he was not concerned that the success of the structure would belong to his father, but that any failures would do so. Washington had his own reputation for bridge-building, as he built for the Union during the Civil War. He was most proud of a suspension bridge at Harpers Ferry, washingwhich General Lee later cut the cables on, dropping the floor of it into the river. Washington would rebuild the bridge only to have it destroyed completely a year later by General Jubal Early. Despite his successes, Washington recognized he would never reach his father’s level of fame.

Among those who feared what the bridge would mean to their business were the ferry owners who to that point offered the only means of transportation across the river. As it turned out, the last Brooklyn ferry didn’t stop running until 1942, some sixty years later. The bustling city saw crowds of people pressing onto these ferries, desperate to get to the other side as quickly as possible. One English visitor wrote, “The impatient Yankees press—each to be the first to jump ashore.” Life in New York would only get faster. Visitors there in the mid-nineteenth century had much the same experience that I myself did in 1999. While riding in a cab, looking up out the window at the giant offices, for most of which I could not see the tops, I thought “This is what money looks like,” and said it aloud to my friends. McCullough several times in the book refers to Mark Twain, who on his observations wrote:

Every man seems to feel he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable—never has time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.

Hard to imagine to someone strolling lower Manhattan today is that when the first bridge tower was completed, it was the tallest structure on the skyline.


Circa 1913. This photo from Brooklyn obtained via Library of Congress.


Circa 2014. This photo of Manhattan Skyline is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

The supposed ringleader of the major early scandal was William (Boss) Tweed, leader of the Tammany Hall democrats, whose political clout and off-the-record dealings would put the entire future of the project’s integrity into question. But things later became more volatile inside Boss Tweed’s ring of corruption than in the caissons, where men worked in compressed air, terrible lighting, excruciating heat, and many were getting inexplicably sick.

A caisson is the shell of the foundation upon which the towers of a bridge are often built. Think of it as a bowl turned upside-down, lowered slowly into a sink full of water. Initially, air is trapped between the surface of the water and the bottom of the inverted bowl. As the bowl is pushed down, if it is kept level, the air stays trapped until it reaches the bottom of the sink. In the case of a riverbed, however, the bowl (the caisson) must go down further still, into the earth, until it finds the hardest bottom or bedrock. That means people are working inside the trapped air, digging their way down, down, down. Because of the size of the caisson and the weight of the water outside it, the air inside must be compressed for it to withstand the forces trying to push it out. Once the caisson was finally fixed into position, the air inside was replaced by concrete.

The first noted deaths were linked to the man-made disease known as caisson’s sickness, or “the bends,” because it sometimes caused men to walk bent-over. Washington would suffer from effects of this disease, too, much of his life, and once the two caissons were in place, he managed the rest of the project mostly confined to his home. The cause and cure for the illness were not figured out until much later, but Roebling lost fewer men to it than his counterpart James B. Eads, who was at about the same time building a bridge of a different nature in St. Louis. Because I am from St. Louis, I was surprised to learn from McCullough’s book very much about that city’s oldest bridge, too. A terrific blog on Eads can be found here.

Because of Washington’s debilitating condition, his wife, Emily became very prominent in the project. It was she who would scribe his communications, see visitors, and go the the bridge site when needed. She developed quite an understanding of engineeringemily over the years, and many suspected that she was secretly running the operation and that Washington was, in fact, completely paralyzed. That was not the case, however, and while he was restricted for most of the time it took to complete the bridge, he did eventually recover almost completely, and in fact outlived most of the other people in the story. Because of her important role in the building of the bridge, Emily was later the first person to cross it by carriage.

In the summer of 1876 the two towers had been completed and in August ropes were strung from one tower to the other, officially joining the two cities for the first time. The symbolic first person across the span was master mechanic E.F. Farrington, who traversed the rope on a sort of mechanized swing. The cable-stringing took more years again, due to financial difficulties, material fraud, more investigations, and supplier delays, but was completed by 1879.

The entire bridge was finally completed in May of 1883, and the celebrations that marked the occasion must have rivaled those of the Centennial. The shores, rooftops, and ferries below were packed with people. Every shop and house was decorated in red, white, and blue. American flags were raised on each tower. President Chester Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland were on-hand. Fireworks exploded overhead for an hour. When they ended, the full moon rose to cast a ray of light upon the scene. It was suggested that the fanfare for this event was greater even than that in 1969, when men first walked on that very same moon.

The number of deaths mentioned at first is an estimate, as no official records were kept on the subject. Claims of the actual number ranged from less than a dozen to more than 40, the latter by Farrington. McCullogh himself accounted for about 18. A week after the opening of the bridge, that number of fatalities would be nearly matched by a great tragedy among the public while it continued celebrations.

At the end of this book I was heartbroken, as the man I had been reading about for a month (partly because I have been blogging so much) finally passed away. He was 89 when he died, surviving his wife, two brothers, all of the assistant bridge engineers, Presidents Arthur and Cleveland, and many others. All historic biographies must end this way, so I suppose I should prepare myself for more of the same as I take on the US Presidents.

Here is a link to other little-known facts on the Brooklyn Bridge, from history.com.

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