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Long IslandHistory

Gateway to a century

The magnificent Brooklyn Bridge becomes the last great work of an age.

The base of the center span of the

The base of the center span of the Brooklyn Bridge as it appeared in 1881; the view across the East River is toward Manhattan. Photo Credit: National Archives

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

On the sunny afternoon of May 24, 1883, an ironmaker and political reformer named Abram Hewitt stepped to a podium to formally present the great new bridge over the East River to the mayors of New York City and Brooklyn.

The multitude that had assembled to celebrate the bridge's opening stretched far beyond the reach of Hewitt's voice. It filled adjacent neighborhoods to the rooftops, filled the decks of steamboats that almost carpeted the river, filled the deck of the bridge itself.

Hewitt, who had been been a government watchdog on the project, and who became New York's mayor in 1887, compared the structure to the pyramids. "The cities of New York and Brooklyn have constructed, and today rejoice in the possession of, the crowning glory of an age memorable for great industrial achievements." 

In a sense, Hewitt missed the Brooklyn Bridge's significance: The splendid, soaring structure was less the crowning glory of his age than the cornerstone of the next, of the half-century in which America would become the most powerful nation on the planet and the envy of the world.

Still, Hewitt had every right to be impressed. He was describing what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world, a bridge whose stone towers were taller than every building in New York City except for the slender steeple of Trinity Church. Its four great cables each contained enough wire to stretch from New York to London. The project had taken more than 15 years to complete, had cost several lives and $15 million, had killed its designer and crippled his son.

And the bridge was, as Hewitt said, the last great work of an age. Willard Glazer, in his 1886 book "Peculiarities of American Cities," noted, "With the completion of this bridge the continent is entirely spanned, and one may visit, dry shod and without the use of ferry-boats, every city from the Atlantic to the Golden Gate."

Except for the swift and turbulent East River, all of the waters that flowed between the oceans had been spanned before John Roebling and his son, Washington Roebling, began work on the bridge. For Long Island, the bridge was a stimulant for growth - allowing easy access to the great marketplace of New York City and the nation beyond.

But the Brooklyn Bridge was more than a mere link in a transportation system. It was also a catalyst for change. When it opened, a correspondent from Harper's Magazine wrote: "The wise man will not cross the bridge in five minutes, nor in twenty. He will linger to get the good of the splendid sweep of the view about him."

Among the sights, he wrote, were "the marshes, rivers and cities of New Jersey stretching to Orange Mountain and the farther heights; the Palisades walling the mighty Hudson . . . And when he takes his walks about New York he can scarcely lose sight of what is now the great landmark which characterizes and dominates the city . . . "

Within a few years, the long vista stretching miles into New Jersey would be blocked by the great metropolis that replaced the threeand four-story City of New York, and the bridge would stand in the shadow of immense buildings. The modern world that it had helped to create would come to view the Brooklyn Bridge as an esthetic rather than an engineering triumph.

The idea of an East River bridge had been around long before there was technology to build one; legislation authorizing such a link was introduced in Albany in 1802.

Nine years later, an eccentric visionary named Thomas Pope offered to span the East River between Brooklyn and New York with what he called his Flying Pendant Lever Bridge, a timber rainbow that would soar 223 feet above the swift-running water.

Pope - whose business card identified him as an "architect and landscape gardener" - said the bridge could be built of wood alone to keep costs low.

Doubters he dismissed as being "under the influence of one of two things: namely, a total ignorance of the invention, or a contemptible opposition to its success." His confidence was not matched by any public enthusiasm. He left town to try his sales pitch - again unsuccessfully - in Philadelphia.

It was not that New Yorkers and their Long Island neighbors didn't want an East River bridge. Everyone was acutely aware of the dangers and incoveniences of crossing the river by ferry.

Commerce between the city and the Island had long before made the ferry service a lucrative, government-regulated business. The problem was that population had quickly outstripped technology: When Pope arrived, people were crossing just as they had in 1679, when the Dutch missionary Jasper Dankaerts made the trip "in a row-boat, as it happened, which, in good weather and tide, carries a sail."

Nathaniel S. Prime, in his 1845 "History of Long Island," recalled a time, early in his century, when the ferries offered "oar-barges for foot-passengers and sprit-sail boats for horses and carriages." Prime recalled times when he "waited from morning to night on the Brooklyn side, in a northeast storm, before any boat ventured to cross to the city." Ice and storms claimed boats, goods and lives with depressing regularity.

But no one quite believed that Pope could deliver the graceful cantilever bridge - with revenue-producing warehouses, stores and houses built into its stone abutments - for the $144,000 he said it would take. They instead put their faith in new horse-powered paddle-wheel boats that made their appearance in 1814, and the steam-powered marvels that followed almost immediately.

Steamboats made matters worse, in a manner now familiar to road planners: They encouraged the growth of Brooklyn, which quickly became the first suburb of New York as well as a prospering city in its own right.

In the 50 years after Pope proposed his bridge, the population of Kings County increased from about 8,000 to nearly 300,000. The ferry boats were crowded, carrying 32.8 million passengers in 1860 and 41.4 million in 1865. And the boats were still liable to be delayed by wind, fog or ice.

They could be dangerous, too. During the morning rush of Nov. 14, 1868, the ferry Hamilton collided with the Union as the latter was about to leave its slip on the Manhattan side. A news report spoke of "the crashing of timbers and the shrieks of the people . . . Among the shouts of men who were endeavoring to preserve order were the shrieks of the injured who were under the timbers." The accident injured 20 and killed a boy.

Yet when the bridge project first stirred, it attracted scant attention. The Jan. 7, 1867, edition of the Brooklyn Eagle noted, halfway through a column of Albany political doings, that State Sen. Henry C. Murphy of Brooklyn had introduced a bill "to construct a bridge over the East River . . . sufficiently high over the river to enable the largest ships to pass under. The entire length to be somewhere in the neighborhood of three thousand feet; the work to be undertaken by a private company, and then the two cities to have the option of buying at the actual cost. The measure meets with general favor."

The Eagle, which Murphy had founded in 1841, moved on quickly to legislation concerning a proposed parade ground in Flatbush.

But the harsh winter of 1866-67 spurred public support for the bridge. "There were days in that season when passengers from New York to Albany arrived earlier than those who set out the same morning from their breakfast-tables in Brooklyn for their desks in New York," Harper's Magazine noted. The river at times was so blocked with ice that intrepid souls could only cross it on foot.

By the end of May, Murphy's bill was law, the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Co. held its first board meeting, the Eagle was openly enthusiastic and John Roebling had been selected to design and build the bridge for an estimated $7 million, not including the cost of land for the approaches.

Roebling, 60, had considerable experience in building bridges. In 1866, he finished the Cincinnati suspension bridge, with a 1,057-foot main span, over the Ohio River, and in 1855 completed an 821-foot suspension bridge over the Niagara River gorge. He had also been consulted, in 1856, by a group that hoped to build an East River bridge to Queens over Blackwells - now Roosevelt - Island.

Experience was an excellent qualification then in bridge-building, which was a far from fully developed art. Throughout the 19th Century, and well into this one, many bridges fell down. In 1854, winds blew down the Wheeling Bridge, a 6-year-old, 1,010-foot suspension bridge over the Ohio River. Roebling had been an unsuccessful candidate for the Wheeling job.

He had been studying the possibility of building an East River bridge for more than a decade: One account suggests he thought of the idea in 1852, on the deck of an ice-bound Brooklyn ferry.

Now he had his chance. He first examined three possible routes for the bridge. Even then, Roebling foresaw other bridges over the river - the next, he thought, would probably go to Williamsburg, and the third would cross to Long Island City over Blackwells Island. History would prove him correct.

Chatham Square and Canal Street were examined, but Roebling chose a site next to City Hall as the landing place for the Manhattan end of the bridge - it was, he reasoned, far enough downtown to be little affected when the future Williamsburg bridge was built.

The Brooklyn end was sited in deference to geography, on the low ground where Brooklyn Heights abruptly fell away. The span would be 1,595.5 feet, suspended between masonry towers 276 feet, 8 inches tall. The suspension cables would be set in huge stone anchorages, each 102 feet by 132 feet, each rising about 90 feet - which made them taller than most buildings in New York City at the time. The Manhattan anchorage covers the spot on Cherry Street where George and Martha Washington lived in 1789 and 1790, when he was president and New York was the capital.

John Roebling never saw any of this built: On June 28, 1869, he was looking over the Brooklyn tower site from the adjacent wooden ferry slip. The pilings shifted as a boat nudged its way into the slip. Roebling's right foot was caught between two beams and partially crushed. Tetanus developed and he was dead within a month. His son, Washington Roebling, 32, took over the project.

The towers would stand in the river, which dictated the way they would be built. The river bed was filled with loose mud, silt and stones, which would have to be removed so that the tower foundations would stand on firm ground or bedrock.

To reach this foundation level, the towers were built on caissons, which are basically wooden boxes, open at the bottom. As the towers rose atop the caissons, laborers removed the muck from within. The caissons thus sank lower and lower until they found a firm foundation.

Caissons had been used since about 1850 - indeed, as Washington Roebling assumed command, they were being used to construct bridges over the Mississippi River at St. Louis and the Missouri at Omaha.

But nothing of the scale of the Brooklyn Bridge caissons had ever been attempted. The top of the Brooklyn caisson was 102 feet by 168 feet - almost three times the size of an original Levittown building lot. The Manhattan caisson was 172 feet by 102 feet. Its top was 22 feet thick, built of huge timbers of dense southern pitch pine. The walls were 8 to 9 feet thick at the tops and tapered to 8 inches at the iron-shod bottom edge. The bolts and metal bracings alone weighed 250 tons. They were three times the size of the caissons being used in the Mississippi bridge project. Each was divided into six sections by sturdy bulkheads. Headroom within them was 14 feet.

These massive structures were built at the Webb & Bell shipyard in Greenpoint, towed four miles downriver, and positioned between carefully placed pilings. The great stone blocks of the towers were placed on their backs, and they began their journey toward bedrock.

The caissons functioned like diving bells. Compressed air was pumped into them to keep them from simply sinking into the muck. As depth increased, so too did the air pressure. Workers entered and left through an air lock.

Conditions in the caissons were hellish and dangerous. Compression made the air hot and extremely humid, so there was always a haze and the temperature never fell below 80 degrees. Illumination came from calcium lights - the famous "limelights" of the theater. Every object quickly acquired a slimy coating of mud.

A Harper's Magazine journalist wrote of a visit to the caissons, describing the air lock as "an iron can or jar of large size, sufficient for a dozen men to stand in erect . . . like meats for preservation." When compressed air was let into the lock, "the compression of the common air . . . in the chamber develops an oppressive heat, like that of an oven, while the increasing density of the air begins to be painfully felt in pressure upon the organs of respiration, and particularly in the ears."

One visitor "was so much overcome by the heat . . . that he insisted on being let out before the lock was filled." The relatively cooler air of the caisson came as a relief.

Inside the caisson, pulses speeded up, then slowed to as few as 15 beats per minute. It was difficult to speak and impossible to whistle because the muscles of respiration were unequal to the task. The tongue felt slow and cumbersome, the skin itched, noses bled easily. Deep voices became shrill trebles, a powder blast - used to pulverize boulders - had the sharp crack of a pistol shot.

But all of that was merely discomfort. A far more dangerous foe lurked in the gloomy recesses of the caissons: Under pressure, the bloodstream dissolved enormous quantities of gases. When a worker returned to normal pressure through the airlock, this overload of gases came out of solution and formed bubbles in the bloodstream, causing excruciating pain and damage to the joints.

It was called caisson disease or "the bends," but it wasn't understood. It was supposed that pressure merely drove the blood deeper inside the body, leading to congestion in the spinal cord and brain. Medical opinion of the day could only suggest that workers should eat and rest well.

Caisson disease crippled even Washington Roebling, who thereafter had to direct construction from his home in Brooklyn Heights, with the considerable assistance of his wife, Emily Warren Roebling.

The Brooklyn caisson was filled with concrete in March, 1871, after a fire damaged it at a depth of about 43 feet in the river bed, in ground that was considered firm enough to support the tower. The Manhattan caisson was built, and moved into place in November. Work continued there until May, 1872, when the caisson reached a depth of 78.5 feet. Caisson disease by that time was so severe that several workers died. Roebling stopped digging, concluding that the sand below would support the tower.

By July, 1876, both towers were finished. By then, the project had survived a bad national financial panic in 1873, and the strong scent of scandal from having powerful politicians - including the notorious Tammany leader William M. (Boss) Tweed - as major shareholders in a venture that was mostly financed with public money. Brooklyn had subscribed to $3 million worth of bridge stock and New York had agreed, rather grudgingly, to put in half that amount. The cities would later take over the whole project, and their respective outlays would more than triple.

But scandal and the slow pace of construction had hardly dampened public enthusiasm for the bridge. On Aug. 25, 1876, shortly after a loop of three-quarter-inch-diameter rope had been run around pulleys in the anchorages and over the two towers, E.F. Farrington, the bridge's master mechanic, became the first person to cross the river dry-shod.

He did so in a boatswain's chair, a board seat suspended by ropes at its corners. As he rose from the Brooklyn anchorage, Harper's Magazine reported, "his surprise was great, on looking down . . . to see the house-tops beneath him black with spectators, the streets far below paved, as it were, with upturned faces . . . With the rushing rope hissing and undulating like a flying serpent through the air, the boom of cannon far below announced to Farrington that his intended private trip was a public triumph."

As he neared the end of his 22-minute journey, "the cannon roared, and the myriads of spectators swung their hats and cheered with wild excitement, while all the steamwhistles on land and sea shrieked their uttermost discordance."

Years of work followed, spinning the four giant cables (each made up of 5,434 small steel wires), building the river and side spans and approaches to a total length of 5,989 feet. In all, the bridge cost $15,099,263.56, according to a book-balancing done shortly after it was completed. Of that sum, about $3.8 million went to acquire land, so the construction cost was about $4.3 million over the original estimate of $7 million.

The labor of the men who built the bridge was cheaper than the stone that went into the structure: Labor costs were $2.4 million, while $2.1 million went for granite and $668,000 for limestone. Daily wages ranged from $1.75 for a laborer to $4 for a blacksmith or mason. The cost in workers lives isn't known - no records were kept - but estimates range from 20 killed to 40.

When it opened - on May 24, 1883, under a great shower of fireworks and a similarly extravagant outpouring of oratory - it cost a penny to walk across the pedestrian promenade and 10 cents to drive a one-horse wagon on the roadway. The original toll structure reflects a very different time: It cost 5 cents for a cow or horse to cross, 2 cents for a hog or a sheep.

Cable-driven railway cars started service in September, 1883; within two years, ridership had more than doubled, from 16,500 to 36,500 riders, and the cars were running 24 hours a day.

The cities grew and changed. In 1869 Brooklyn, with 400,000 inhabitants, had less than half the population of Manhattan. When the bridge opened, Brooklyn had 580,000 inhabitants; by 1898, this had grown to nearly 1 million. By 1930, Brooklynites outnumbered Manhattanites.

By then, other bridges spanned the East River - the Williamsburg in 1903, the Manhattan and Queensboro in 1909 - and the number of people who crossed the Brooklyn Bridge diminished, despite elimination of pedestrian tolls in 1891 and vehicle tolls in 1911. The peak year was 1907, when 426,298 crossed; by 1930, this number had dwindled to 171,110.

But its importance as a symbol never faltered. It became the subject of poetry, of song, of painting and photography. Its Gothic towers came to be as revered as those of the great medieval cathedrals.

Which proves that Hewitt was not wrong in all of his pronouncements on the day the bridge opened. He noted that it was "more than an embodiment of the scientific knowledge of physical laws." It was, he said - recalling the genius that had imagined and designed it, and the suffering that had been the human cost of its construction - "a monument to the moral qualities of the human soul."

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