The Brooklyn Bridge was once a peerless structure; it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and the only one to span the turbulent East River of New York. But now it is crowded out by the many other bridges and tunnels which extend over the East. The Brooklyn Bridge is not even in the conversation of the world's longest bridges anymore. Yet it is a sign of the enduring appeal of the great bridge that since its position of supremacy and superlatives has been usurped by modern bridges with spans four times as long, it has assumed the role of a cultural and historical artifact and a notable piece of architectural art. It is a bridge that has been in almost constant use since 1883, and one that today's engineers expect to live as long as it continues to be maintained. It might continue its vigil over the East River forever. It could at least outlast humankind.
The bridge came in an era of hope and optimism. Growth was the rule in New York as immigrants poured in from Europe. With this new era of progress, old beliefs about the limitations of man's hand were being shattered all over the world. The Suez Canal was linking the Red and Mediterranean Seas in Egypt, a tunnel was being blasted through Mont Cenis between France and Italy, great rivers the world over were spanned (and when so many of them kept falling down, they were put up again, stronger than before) and the United States itself was being bridged by a transcontinental railroad. Almost anything seemed possible. Coming just after the incredibly bloody American Civil War, the men who grabbed imaginations were not destroyers or conquerors, but builders and creators.
Just after the American Civil War, around the time the Brooklyn Bridge was just a twinkle in the collective eye, New York City was essentially contained to the isle of Manhattan. For centuries, the island had been sufficient to contain the metropolis, but around the time of the Civil War, it was spilling over rivers and bays into the surrounding lands. Brooklyn (which is incorporated into the city as one of its five boroughs) was an independent city, resting on the western end of Long Island, separated from Manhattan by the East River. New York and Brooklyn were both immense cities, weighing in as the first and third largest cities in the United States, respectively (with Philadelphia wedged in between). However, in their civic characters, New York and Brooklyn were about as different as two cities could be.
The mental trip towards postbellum New York is like a diminishing exhalation - the shoulders drooping, the future caving into the past. Mid-19th century New York was not the modern version of the city whose sky is so gashed and scraped that Heaven might have fallen off a bicycle. Rather, the world was at eye level. The highest point on Manhattan island was actually reached by a church steeple. Yet despite such high steeples, New York had a reputation as a place where sin bred and virtue was threatened. The awful smell of garbage and horse droppings which ran throughout so many of the streets only confirmed this sentiment. Gang violence ruled the day and organized crime was beginning to gain a foothold. Corruption reigned in City Hall, as a man named Boss Tweed robbed the taxpayers of millions and ruled New York State from his throne on Tammany Hall. Yet for all its faults, New York City was the most populous city in America and a thriving commercial centre. The harbor was constantly filled with eager ships; they clogged the piers, brought in goods and materials and then emptied the warehouses of the productive city. Sail and steam, iron and wood, mingled together in the harbor, like age and youth themselves.
Brooklyn was a fingernail on western side of slender Long Island. With the East River in between them, the twin cities were perhaps on speaking terms, but not the sort of twins who dressed alike and finished each others'...1. The East River was one of the most important trade waterways in America, infested with shipping vessels which flitted in and out of the piers lining the northern end of Brooklyn. In a single generation, it had grown from a village puffing with friendly chimney smoke to an outright metropolis, though it was still seen by some as merely a bedroom community for New York. In fact, somewhere between half and one third of Brooklynites did their work across the East.
Most of the travel and commerce between the two cities passed through the extensive ferry system. When a Brooklynite wanted to eat at a decent restaurant or see a Broadway show (amenities decidedly lacking in their town) or simply go to work he or she would pay a small fee, board a ferry (sometimes with a considerable wait, depending on the time of day) and they would eventually find themselves on the New York side of the East River. Huge numbers of people used the ferries twice a day in order to get to work, and so they could be crowded and uncomfortable. Yet some Brooklynites cherished their separation from the New York. Brooklyn was a town of morals and family living - its many houses of worship earned it the epithet, 'The City of Churches'. Their politicians were corrupt, but seemed saints compared to the New York leaders' legendary feats in crookedness. Brooklyn was home to the best one of the most famous men in America, the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, whose Plymouth Church so swelled the incoming ranks on the ferries each Sunday morning that they came to be known as 'Beecher Boats'. Some residents imagined that Brooklyn's association with Beecher made it something of a contemporary American Vatican.
Brooklyn was a nice place to live - the same sort of community today called a suburb that today exists outside of a bustling city and its hated minority group du jour. Yet Brooklyn could not maintain its small-town atmosphere forever; it was considered to be the fastest-growing city in the country. The sounds of hammering and sawing pervaded the neighborhoods; 3,000 new buildings were built in 1868 alone in Brooklyn.
However, let us begin our story years before in the winter of 1853. In the wintertime, the East River ferries could be trapped for hours or longer if ice became an obstruction - which it frequently did. On those occasions, people trapped on ferries would simply be forced to wait. Aboard one of those unhappy vessels was a firey engineer named John A Roebling. Roebling had just shut down work for the winter on a bridge he had been in the process of building across the Niagara Gorge. He was a man with no temper for delays and no patience for any misuse of his time - which he considered to be very valuable. He must have cursed the ferries and froward ice with the frustration peculiar to engineers who find themselves powerless against God's little obstructions. Roebling's companion was his 15 year old son Washington, a bright young boy who had thankfully not inherited his father's stern, stony looks. Washington's part in the story will come just a bit later. Poor Wash must have felt helpless and alone as his father yelled and vented. Perhaps, with a mind for solving problems, he tried to figure out how to advance the shivering craft. But if he had been listening (he might not have been, for with John Roebling, another person's participation in conversation was optional) he might have heard something interesting from his ambitious father. A bridge would be preferable, even if it was impossible.
The Impossible Bridge
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me !
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Walt Whitman, the famous poet from Brooklyn, immortalized the East River ferries in a work entitled 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry'. But while Whitman saw 'scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening', many of the ferry-riders saw polluted waters and a dark, unwelcoming tinge to the shoreline. While Whitman wrote, 'the men and women I saw were all near to me' in a metaphorical sense, the close proximity of the crowds in the ferries could create a complex, unpleasant mingling of smells - especially on the way back to Brooklyn after a long hot workday. For many of its riders, the Brooklyn ferries were unpleasant, and necessary. But the newspapers which riders left on the ferry seats brimmed with pictures and stories of tunnels bored through mountains and great bridges willed across canyons, and even the mighty Mississippi River. And one day, when someone editorialized that a bridge ought to be built between Manhattan and Brooklyn, printed just next to those pictures and stories of engineering deeds, the idea was taken seriously.
The most prominent man to submit a design for an East River bridge was John Roebling, whom we last saw cursing the inadequacy of the winter ferries. He was a German immigrant who had come over to the United States in 1831 with an engineering degree in hand. He had built notable bridges in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Niagara, and had started a successful wire company in Trenton. He was one of America's most famous engineers, and Trenton's foremost citizen. His eldest son Washington, who had patiently waited out his father's frustration aboard that ferry, by now also had a degree in engineering, and a record as a war hero to boot. Washington had been working alongside his father for a few years. John trusted Washington's judgment - a rare thing for the self-reliant immigrant. In return, Washington was actually able to tolerate his father's often abrasive behavior - a rarer thing still. John Roebling was a difficult man, sometimes. After his son Charles ran away from home and spent some time in jail, Charles revealed that his time in prison had been the happiest hours of his life - because he had been away from his father. But, as is so often the case, John Roebling could get away with his bullying and abrasiveness, because he was a genius. Though there were many bridgebuilders who were more popular in America, none matched Roebling's talent for engineering. By involving himself with every detail of his work, he saw to it that each of his bridges remained standing - no small feat in an era when about a quarter of the bridges put up came tumbling down, often with great loss of life.
So when Roebling submitted his design to the company chartered to explore the idea of an East River Bridge, there was little in the way of competition. The New York Bridge Company (the company was mostly made up of Brooklyn residents, so naturally they thought of the bridge as a connection to New York, rather than the other way around, hence the name) named Roebling as Chief Engineer, with Washington as an assistant. But there was still much convincing to do.
Some people seriously opposed the idea of a bridge. Many Brooklyn residents saw New York as an evil place, with some justification. Bringing the two cities closer together would only threaten Brooklyn's comparatively quaint way of life. Merchants and shipping interests worried that the bridge would restrict shipping on the East River - especially for the high-mast sailboats. Some newspapers did not so much object to the idea of a bridge as to Roebling's particular design, which they claimed was impossible. Yet there were also voices of approval. Businessmen in Brooklyn believed that it would stimulate their city, and New Yorkers thought that it would help to alleviate overcrowding by encouraging people to commute from the much-larger city of Brooklyn. Crooked City Hall types loved the idea, seeing an opportunity for graft and swindling.
Eventually permits were granted (or bought), the public was convinced of its practicability, and the great project began. The design was simple and elegant. It was to be a suspension bridge with steel cables, spanning 5,862 feet, with two huge granite towers rising from the river on either side. The towers would be 268 feet high, and would each weigh 72,603 tons. All this, they believed they could accomplish in about four years, for five million dollars.
Before the muscular work could commence, the brain work would be completed. John Roebling made several adjustments to his design, and with his son Washington, began to survey and mark the land which the bridge would one day tower over. But on 28 June, 1869, John Roebling had an accident.
While working with his son and other subordinate engineers on the Brooklyn side of the river, he had been standing on the far end of one of the ferry slips in order to get the best view possible of the river. When one of the ferries arrived, Roebling tried to move out of the way, but found that his right foot was snagged, and was hanging just over the edge. When the ferry came to dock against the pier, his toes were crushed against the boat's sides.
Remarkably, Roebling continued to shout out orders and admonitions to his engineers for several minutes before he admitted that he was hurt (by collapsing). It must have been an excruciatingly painful injury. When he went to the doctor's office, he redoubled his pain when he demanded that the amputation of his toes be done without anesthetic. After the surgery, the engineer was stoic and insisted that it was only a minor setback. Perhaps in an effort to resume his duties as quickly as possible, he ignored his doctors' demands, and fired one after another. He was a man who believed that sheer force of will could conquer one's physical ailments. Family members recalled a story from the time of a deadly cholera epidemic which was sweeping through the Niagara area when he was there, building his bridge. 'The great secret is to keep off fear,' wrote John at the time. He paced his room for one whole sleepless night, concentrating on not thinking about cholera. He never did contract the disease.
However, all of the concentration he could summon did not prevent his foot from showing signs of tetanus. Taken back to his home in Brooklyn Heights, the dreaded lockjaw set in. He was in terrible pain, but with his mouth shut tightly by the disease, he could only communicate through written notes (mostly directing his family members in how to treat him). Seizures afflicted him at the slightest provocation - a rustling of the window shade or the opening of the door. Every muscle in his body would clench and he would be thrust into the air - totally silent. Washington Roebling thought that the sight of his father so helpless, his eyes pooling unwiped tears, was a worse sight than anything he had seen during the gruesome Civil War. John slipped into a coma, and by 22 July, he was dead.
John Roebling might be called the first fatality of the Brooklyn Bridge. Eventually he would be joined in sacrifice by about 20 laborers, though obviously none of them were as crucial to the overall project as Roebling. When the Bridge Company's directors met to choose a new Chief Engineer, they were left with only one clear option - the only man alive who knew the plans and intentions of John Roebling as well as the deceased himself. The new Chief Engineer would be 32-year-old Washington Roebling.
The word 'caisson' is a French one, meaning 'chest'. During the Civil War, the term had been applied to the ammunition containers used by artillery units. But in an age when engineers, and not generals, were the heroes of the day, 'caisson' took on a new meaning to the public.
A caisson was a construction tool used to help lay the foundations of a structure underwater. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as extremely shallow, wide, rectangular bells. Made primarily of lumber, the caissons at the East River had airtight walls and ceiling, but a completely open bottom. Once one had been placed in the river, underwater, machines on top pumped compressed air into the belly of the caisson, forcing the water out and creating a gigantic air pocket. Works then placed a tremendous amount of weight on top of the caisson, forcing the structure - air pocket and all - down to the river bed. This created a rather remarkable environment, used to dig the foundations of the bridge. Hundreds of workers would go down into the air pocket of the caisson every morning to remove the dirt, sand, boulders and debris, and the structure would sink ever deeper.
There would be two of these monster contraptions in the course of construction. The engineers started on the Brooklyn side of the river, where heavy rock was just below the surface of the riverbed. Work began on 3 January, 1870 (the same year Jules Verne's classic '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' was published). It was hard work, but the princely two-dollars-a-day wage ensured that there was always a ready supply of job-seeking immigrant workers. About 100 men would work at once inside the caisson, (three shifts meant that work went on around the clock) using brute force to crush and dislodge the enormous boulders and rocks which lay underneath the river. It was challenging work, and the conditions were terrible. Men developed nagging headaches and colds and would spit black for years.
Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance. There was a confused sensation in the head, like "the rush of many waters." The pulse was at first accelerated, then sometimes fell below the normal rate. The voice sounded faint unnatural, and it became a great effort to speak. What with the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, if of a poetic temperament, get a realizing sense of Dante's inferno. One thing to me was noticeable - time passed quickly in the caisson.
-Master Mechanic EF Farrington
The inside of the caisson was an almost otherworldly environment. Comparisons to hell are almost unavoidable. One almost imagines a menacing red tint to the wooden walls, but in fact they would have been shrouded in a blue-white aura generated by the calcium lamps which occasionally broke the darkness. Everything was coated in a layer of warm mud. Temperatures hovered around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the shirtless workers dripped with sweat (it wouldn't evaporate in those conditions). There was a churning, mechanical tendency to the work, like a prison work detail.
New workers were slow to adjust to the alarming atmosphere. Fear was not unjustified. There were blocks of granite weighing tens of thousands of tons directly overhead of the workers at all times. A bad calculation might have seen them all crushed to death. A passing wave or changing tide frequently tipped up one side of the caisson, and air would race outwards with a deafening boom like a volcanic eruption. One bad tide (the East River, sitting between New York Harbor and the Long Island Sound, was notorious for its unpredictable tides) could conceivably create an imbalance causing the entire river to flood into the caisson, drowning everyone2. But even in the best conditions, work went slowly. One day's work would sometimes see the caisson descend only 3 inches. In the worst of times, the structure would only descend a few inches after a week. At one point, a fire broke burned through a huge chunk of the wooden caisson, causing a 3 month delay in the work when the wood had to be removed and replaced3.
Accidents continued, and workers came and went, but the Brooklyn foundation was eventually near completion. The granite blocks placed atop the caisson as counterweights poked out of the water and formed the lower portion of the bridge's southern tower. Even well before it reached its full height, the tower seemed majestic and enormous to Brooklyn residents. Ferry riders could watch the men aboveground moving the huge stones, and wonder vaguely about the unseen work of the mysterious caisson workers. It took nearly a year before Washington Roebling was satisfied with the depth of the Brooklyn caisson, and work shifted to the other side of the river. One stockholder announced, 'We are now on foreign soil!'
Soil, indeed. The ground beneath the New York caisson was not nearly as hard as at the Brooklyn site. This made work much easier for the diggers (once they had made their way through the foul layer of garbage and filth which had collected by the shore) but it also meant that the New York caisson would have to descend much farther down than its Brooklyn twin before it reached a stable geologic layer. And for every bit the caisson descended, the air pressure had to be correspondingly increased, or else water would begin to leak into the caisson. Because the New York caisson had to reach such depths, the air pressure would have to be incredibly high near the end of the work.
As the caisson was sunk past the depths of the Brooklyn foundation, many of the workmen began to get sick. There was no regularity in their symptoms, but there were whispers of something called 'caisson sickness'. Roebling had begun to notice it in the men in the closing stages of the digging of the Brooklyn caisson, but it was much more pronounced in the work on the New York foundations, where the air pressure was greater. Today the sickness is called decompression sickness or 'the bends'. It is caused when someone suddenly leaves a high pressure area. Dissolved gases (chiefly nitrogen) in the body are excited by the sudden loss of pressure and form into bubbles, which can cause problems in the body depending on where they are released. A bubble in the spinal cord can paralyze someone for life. Bubbles in the joints can cause a deep pain like ripping all the muscles off the affected body part at once. Bubbles in the brain can cause blindness, headaches, seizures and other symptoms. Day after day, workmen in the New York caisson reported such symptoms, but doctors had little knowledge of the caisson sickness, and could only make tepid recommendations.
The way that the workers came and left the caisson was through an airlock situated at the structure's ceiling. After a long day, most of the workers left the airlock as soon as possible, and went home (despite a doctor's sensible recommendation that they wait a while before reentering the normal-pressure atmosphere). This was about the worst possible thing they could have done, and before long people started dying from the disease. Others were paralyzed or were put through truly horrible pain. Workers began a strike in May, 1872, demanding a wage increase to compensate for the dangerous conditions (they were successful, and wages rose from $2.25 per day to $2.75).
Washington Roebling was like his father. He preferred to supervise his bridge-building in person - seeing to every last detail. Fourteen hour days were not unusual. As a consequence, he spent more time down in the caissons than just about any man, and went back and forth through the treacherous airlocks more than anyone else. Not surprisingly, he had suffered the horrible pain of the bends, like many of his men. But it was only as the New York tower foundations were finished, the caisson being filled up with concrete, when Roebling had a major attack. He collapsed outside of the caisson, and was taken by the Brooklyn ferry to his home. His attendants expected him to die at any time, but the ol' Roebling focus asserted itself, and he survived the worst of it. He went back to work, but kept being hit by fierce attacks. By the time work stopped for the winter, he was a very sick man. Recognizing that he might not last until spring, that he might not live to see the bridge completed, Roebling wrote out detailed instructions for the future Chief Engineer to follow in constructing the bridge. By spring, Washington and his wife Emily went off to Europe for rest and treatment at the health baths in Wiesbaden, Germany.
A Two Ring Circus
With its princes of the lofty wire the Brooklyn Bridge is now the cheapest, the most entertaining, and the best-attended circus in the world.
-The New York Tribune
In 1875, the Western Union Telegraph Building was completed in New York City. It provided space for around 100 telegraph operators to dispatch communications in a busy city, 24 hours a day. The innovation of the elevator had made its ten stories practical, and it was the tallest office building in America. Yet its height of 230 feet, imposing from the street and unnerving from the top floor, was significantly surpassed by the other great structure completed in 1875 - the great bridge's Brooklyn tower.
No sir, no man can be a bridge-builder who must educate his nerves. It must be a constitutional gift. He cannot when 200 feet in the air, use his brain to keep his hand steady. He needs it all to make his delicate and difficult work secure.
-Master Mechanic EF Farrington
But while telegraph operators may have stood away from open windows for unfamiliarity with such heights, it was said that bridge-builders were of a different stock. They scurried around fearlessly, to the delight of the daily shore crowds and ferry throng, for whom they were like acrobats or circus performers - a temporary, harmless diversion, like watching a gull surf the clouds. Work began on the arches above where the roadway would eventually run across. Each tower had two adjacent high Gothic arches, and while still incomplete, the arches resembled a 'w' or three dark fingers pointing heavenward.
The masonry work atop the towers seemed mundane compared to the dangerous, strenuous work in the caissons. But it was unmistakably dangerous work. Derricks collapsed, ropes snapped, communication failed and sometimes men just lost their balance and fell. One man named Frank Harris, perhaps with some circus blood in him, fell off the top of the Brooklyn tower into the hollow gap inside of the arches - but amazingly survived when he landed in a neglected barrel which had filled with rainwater. There was not much that could be done to stop this sort of accident - and anyway, it was said that a bridge that had not taken any lives was doomed to fall. By July, 1876 (while the country was busy celebrating 100 years of independence) the New York tower's masonry was completed. Work had also been completed on both of the anchorages behind the towers4.
The two towers stared blankly at one another for about a month before the Bridge Company was ready to connect them. On Monday, 14 August, to the delight of a huge crowd, the first wire was strung across between the towers, and newspaper headlines said that the two cities were linked. An even bigger spectacle awaited them on 25 August, when a grey-bearded 59-year-old man made his way to the Brooklyn anchorage. He was EF Farrington, the project's master mechanic. With a new straw hat and linen suit, he tightened himself into a boatswain's chair which was attached to the great wire overhead. At about one-thirty in the afternoon, the engine controlling the wire (equipped to pull the line in an endless loop around the river) was switched on, and Farrington was pulled away.
The enormous crowd of people cheered as Farrington stood up and waved his hat at them. He suddenly shot up to a great height, cruising above the land between the Brooklyn anchorage and its tower. He could look down onto the rooftops of the neighborhood - one of Brooklyn's worst - and at the adoring witnesses who had massed all along his route. As he climbed higher, they seemed like scribblings of a dark ink, their words spelling a plea which compelled him to stand and wave in acknowledgment. The wind beat fast against his face, and Farrington the acrobat approached the Brooklyn tower, landed briefly atop it, and continued in his journey high across the river. The tugboats honked their cheers up at him.
He was flying - this is what it felt like to fly, the rush of air massaging the pores of his parched skin, the waves below like wrinkles in a soft blanket. Any one of us might have embarrassingly extended our arms at our sides like a bird, but Farrington retained his composure. As he approached the New York shore, the crowd on that side swelled in greeting - how much they envied him! - and he again graciously acknowledged them. After he glanced off top of the New York tower, he was zipping over the New York roofs, the bigger buildings and bigger crowds. Dapper men had taken off their top hats to incline their heads at him. As they saw it, the thin wire supporting Farrington disappeared into nothing against the sky and the man seemed to levitate down at a precise angle.
22 minutes after he had begun his journey, it was over when his feet skidded against the granite at the New York anchorage. Farrington was the first man to cross the East River by means of the Brooklyn Bridge. And as far as some of the spectators were concerned, he was also the first man to fly.
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather�d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Washington Roebling sighed and slackened his wrist so that it fell below his chin. No longer looking through his eyeglass, the wide and unrefracting window was a portrait of his accomplishment. He spent much of his time these days looking through the rear window of his bare second-floor bedroom in Brooklyn Heights, past the sweep of the fashionable neighborhood, towards the East River, where he was building his bridge through correspondence. Brooklyn Heights, sitting as the name suggests on a higher elevation in Brooklyn, had the best view of the bridge of any neighborhood in either city. His telescope was powerful enough that he could see the faces of men who had not seen his in years. He didn't need the telescope to see the great buildings of New York, which had grown like an uncut lawn in the decade he had been working on the bridge. And yet the creeping Manhattan background could do nothing to diminish the two great granite towers of his bridge.
He could see the great wires now, dangling and shaking down to the river like one taunts a kitten. The wire work had gone well enough. The thinner wires were used to successively tote larger ones through the loop between towers and anchorages. There were always setbacks. Temperature fluctuation made it very difficult to get the proper lengths of wires cut in a business demanding exactitude, and so work slowed on sunny, warm days. Another setback came when a contractor fooled the Bridge Company's inspectors and allowed miles of faulty wire to be installed in the structure's main cables. The bridge's trustees had voted that the cable wire should be made of crucible steel rather than Bessemer steel (responding to public pressure demanding that only the best materials be used in the bridge, though he had assured them that Bessemer steel was more than sufficient) and had awarded the contract to that Brooklyn-based fraudster as a result, rather than the Roeblings' family-run wireworks based in Trenton.
It was all very wearying. Even when things went smoothly, the workload was impossible for a man in his condition. Washington had beaten the caisson sickness, but his nervous system had taken a serious beating, leaving him very weak. It was a good thing that he had such an able apprentice.
Emily Roebling was a woman with a keen intellect - something which the ever-critical John Roebling had noticed years before, even while refusing to see such qualities in some of his more immediate family members. In another age, she might have been an engineer herself. She was quick and impressive, and apparently beautiful, though Washington claimed that no picture did justice to the subtlety and gentleness of her features.
For many months, Washington had been unable to write, but was required to spend much of his time communicating with his superiors. Emily had served as his patient secretary, taking dictation and reading it back to him for errors. Sometime along the way, he began to explain the bridge business to her - about truss stiffness and the proper arrangement of wire bundles and the intricacies of cable-making. Everything which he had learned over four years at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and several years as an apprentice to John Roebling, she learned in a few months. She became his eyes and his ears, and frequently went down to the bridge site to inspect the progress. At some point, in addition to serving as his senses, she took over a load of the brainwork as well. Subordinate engineers consulted directly with her and newspapers began to publish rumors that the Chief Engineer was paralyzed and that Emily was some sort of malevolent Rasputin figure5. In fact, while Washington was gaining strength slowly, he trusted his wife's judgment in these matters, and anyway couldn't stand to be around other people for very long. Emily proved to be invaluable, and more than worthy of his faith. She supervised construction near the end - probably the only woman to be directly involved in the creation of the great bridge.
Avenue Between the Cities
It took Cheops twenty years to build his pyramid, but if he had had a lot of Trustees, contractors, and newspaper reporters to worry him, he might not have finished it by that time. The advantages of modern engineering are in many ways over balanced by the disadvantages of modern civilization.
The odd thing was, most New Yorkers would seldom need to venture into provincial Brooklyn. For Brooklynites, sure, the bridge would be a major convenience and even a lifestyle change. But more New Yorkers might make the trip to Long Island simply to try the new bridge out than for any practical reason. Nevertheless, the first day that the bridge was open to the public, it seemed that all of New York and Brooklyn (and a good chunk of New Jersey besides) was waiting to board the structure. Downtown was all but empty. Businesses took the day off. City Hall was closed. The only occupants of the courthouse were a dozen deadlocked jurors.
The bridge had been finished up rather smoothly, though with some delays when funds ran out (the bridge having cost almost three times as much as had been expected). By 24 May, 1883, it had taken 14 years.
Hundreds of thousands of people (the two cities had grown by almost half a million people from the day the first work had begun on the bridge) watched from rooftops, tugboats, windows and the road as dignitaries and politicians were given the first chance to walk across the bridge. Emily Roebling was given the honor of the first trip across in a carriage - her husband still at home. It became dark, and there was an hour-long fireworks display. Electric lighting had gained popularity, and when it turned dark, the view through the arches towards the city showed Edison's glowing constellations framed in granite6. The bridge was lit as night advanced and when midnight came, the roadway was opened to the people - the Gothic arches finally inviting gateways for the citizens who had followed the saga of the bridge's construction for more than a decade. There were children and adolescents who walked across that night who had never known New York harbor without those tremendous pillars peeking out of the water like a titan buoy. The design had been modified over its construction so that there were two double-laned roads for carriages, with a promenade for pedestrians and a passenger train line through the center. The one-cent toll for each of the crossers was a start on paying down the 15 million dollars which the bridge had consumed by then.
Washington Roebling skipped the formal ceremonies and had a private reception at his home in the afternoon. There he met President Arthur and Governor Cleveland7, though Emily did all the hosting work. When the President left, poor Washington (who had avoided being drawn into the party) was exhausted, and withdrew to his bedroom. From his window, he could see the bridge to which he had devoted almost a third of his life, its galaxy of lights bouncing from the East River's uneven surface. Roebling could hear the celebrations lasting through the night; the crowds' delight continued for hours, even as their ringmaster passively lay down in bed and closed his eyes.
Washington Roebling would build no more bridges8, and afterwards did not show much more interest in visiting the Brooklyn Bridge than any other resident of the city. However, for Washington and Emily Roebling, the great bridge would always be a prideful sight. Together, they had supervised the construction of the greatest bridge in the world, and their decision making had been faultless throughout.
The Brooklyn Bridge was truly a magnificent structure, one of the great spectacles of the age. Today our overcultivated faculties are hindered from understanding its grandeur through exposure to greater, more impressive structures. In modern New York City, where Brooklyn is but a borough, the Bridge is an elegant toadstool next to the Empire State Building and the Manhattan skyline. But the wonder of the Brooklyn Bridge is in its context - of a day when the Roeblings' bridge made all who saw it prouder to be humans.