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The Brooklyn Bridge, a span of architectural iconography in the country’s most populous city, is both a testament to American will and ingenuity as well as a symbol of infrastructure expansion following the direst period in American history. The true measure of the Brooklyn Bridge extends far beyond the length of its roadway and far taller than each of its skyward towers. The construction, an engineering feat unmatched at the time, is dotted with tales of giant builders, a family effort to see the project through, the emergence of a woman who embodied a movement, and a determined crew of workers who risked life and limb for a project greater than all of them.
To gather the complete history of The Brooklyn Bridge, consideration is due to the time in which its construction was approve, begun, and completed. Also important to understanding what the bridge meant and means to New York City and the country as a whole are the dynamics at play that surrounded principle figures and the political atmosphere in general. Since the bridge opened to the public, it has been the scene of countless spectacles both related to the bridge itself and the region it graces. Whether the builders ever pondered such an enduring legacy seems obvious; how could they? Then again, these were the people audacious enough to embark on building such an imponderable structure.
Bridging the East
The Brooklyn Bridge stretches across the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, then a separate city. In 1860s New York, Brooklyn was the more populous borough while Manhattan, like today, was the location of most of the businesses and cultural destinations the city had to offer. Travel to Manhattan from Brooklyn was made possible only by ferry. Ferry transport was inconvenient. The watercraft were cold in the winter, sweltering in the summer. The trip across the river was slow and ferries ran as infrequently as twice daily. Given it was the only way to Manhattan Island and given the paucity of daily trips, crowding added to the other inconvenience of the voyage. As many as 400 passengers piled into a single ferry for one of the trips to or from Manhattan. New Yorkers and tourists made do. There was no other way. There needed to be another way (Rojas, 2014).[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
Legislative approval for construction of the bridge was passed in 1857 though the American Civil War precluded the project from commencement. The problems that were to be solved by the bridge had been long lamented by residents and politicians. As early at the turn of the century talks of a means for bridging the East River periodically emerged in public discourse. Limited technological capabilities, cost, and the political will to approach both left any real plans of construction unwritten (Rojas, 2014).
Adding to the list of challenges of finally putting into motion an idea that had lasted over a half century was the fact that the East River was one of the busiest waterways in the world. Constructing a bridge would mean doing so while allowing passage to the ships that routinely traversed the river. It would also mean constructing the bridge so as to maintain the East River as a vital artery for commercial vessels which served as the life’s blood of the local economy. This particular challenge made it clear that a suspension bridge would be the only viable option and the preeminent suspension bridge builder in the country was just finishing projects in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (Rojas, 2014).
The Builder and His Crew
John Roebling, a German immigrant who created for himself the reputation as the country’s most prominent suspension bridge builder, was called upon to realize an unprecedented achievement in bridge-building. Upon earning the commission to create the bridge plans, Roebling drafted a sketch of his ideas that included impressively tall towers, so tall that they would be able to serve as support for the cables that would be necessary to withstand the weight of such an expansive bridge and passengers that would utilize the new avenue. The project would be the most daring accomplishment in Roebling’s career and the finished bridge would be the most impressive he would ever see. Tragically, Roebling would never set eyes on his crowning achievement. As construction commenced, the esteemed bridge engineer, at the height of his career and at the opening chapter of his most remarkable feat, suffered a crush injury to his foot. After undergoing amputation in an attempt to save his leg, tetanus ended his life before construction revealed even the skeleton of the bridge (Rojas, 2014).[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
Roebling’s son, Washington, fresh off service as a Union Officer in the Civil War, took stewardship of the project intent on carrying his father’s project to completion. One of the most common hazards of building the foundation of the bridge was found in the depths of the East River where the foundation was to be set. Crew members often succumbed to decompression sickness (or, the “bends”). Though the medical understanding of the affliction was little known, the effects of the bends were unmistakable. Those who suffered did so in debilitating fashion, unable to complete their tasks and generally bedridden as a result. Washington Roebling was one such casualty. While working to secure the caisson work necessary to set the foundations for the bridge, the young Roebling came down with a case of decompression sickness that would confine him to his home near the work site. It was at this site, in Brooklyn Heights, where Washington would oversee construction from afar, determined to helm the final construction of his father’s final work (Rojas, 2014).
In his stead, Washington’s wife, Emily, would serve as courier between the family’s home and the work site, bringing instructions from her husband to the foremen and other crew members. As a trained engineer, Emily would eventually serve as more than a runner for her husband and emerged as a principle supervisor for the project. This element to the story of The Brooklyn Bridge is important if not as widely heralded. Women’s rights were beginning to arise as a significant point of attention in American politics and society in general. Emily Roebling’s work was pioneering and her story is one of the most poignant details of women’s rights and the emergence of women in engineering science (Siemaszko, 2012).
There were two main aspects of the construction of The Brooklyn Bridge. Foremost was the enormity of scale necessary to follow the ambitious plans by John Roebling. The plans called for unrivaled pillars (towers) and support cables tasked with nearly unthinkable load burdens. For reference, the Golden Gate Bridge, the other suspension bridge that rivals The Brooklyn Bridge’s herald, was not completed until 60 years later. The Brooklyn Bridge had no equal, no standard to match. The other main aspect of the construction was the inherent danger that had to be understood and assumed by those charged with building every part of the bridge (Rojas, 2014).
19th century construction was often the scene of death-defying acts of professional bravery but the risk involved with building The Brooklyn Bridge was, in many ways, orders of magnitude more treacherous. 27 men lost their lives during construction, including Roebling, while countless others suffered injuries ranging from minor fractures to paralyzing falls (Rojas, 2014).
There is no record to support a claim that the size of The Brooklyn Bridge was an intentional attempt at grandstanding. By all accounts the gargantuan footprint was necessary to serve the purpose for which the bridge was commissioned. The length of the bridge is just shy of 6,000 feet. The width is 85 feet. The height of the tallest tower stands 276.5 feet above the mean high water level. The steel-wire cables that support the bridge, first used in construction of The Brooklyn Bridge, are as long as 1595.5 feet in length. The entire length of the bridge would mark the world’s longest stretch of road over water for over 20 years after opening (The Learning Network, 2012).
On May 24, 1883, after 14 years of hard labor, tragic loss of life and limb, and implementation of truly revolutionary techniques of engineering, the bridge opened. After being dubbed “Great East River Bridge” during the final stages of construction, the official title at the dedication was “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” The moniker “The Brooklyn Bridge,” first used in publications (including the New York Times) describing the project while it was being built, did not become the official name until after Brooklyn was made part of New York City in 1989. By Board of Alderman resolution in 1915, the name the bridge still bears to day was adopted (Benardo, & Weiss, 2006).
Through the years, The Brooklyn Bridge has been the scene of all manner of daredevil stunts, parades, and other notable public exhibitions. Shortly after opening, P.T. Barnum marched 21 elephants across the bridge as a showcase of its sturdiness. A feature little-known outside of New York, storage compartments – some for food and other rations, as well as wine – were built into the base of the main supports. Some of these compartments were repurposed and used as bomb shelters during the Cold War. Many of these hidden compartments have been rediscovered late into the 20th century during maintenance and inspections (The Learning Network, 2012).
The Brooklyn Bridge represents an enduring example of American inventiveness. It stands as a hallmark feature of New York landscape. In 1964, The bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark; a mere formality as New Yorkers and tourists from the world over have long regarded The Brooklyn Bridge as a peerless and revered structure.
Benardo, L., & Weiss, J. (2006). Brooklyn by name: How the neighborhoods, streets, parks, bridges, and more got their names. New York: New York University Press.
Rojas, C. (2014). The story of Roebling’s innovation in designing the Brooklyn Bridge comes alive at N.J. state museum. Times of Trenton.
Siemaszko, C. (2012). The woman who saved the Brooklyn Bridge. NY Daily News.
The Learning Network. (2012). Brooklyn Bridge Opens. New York Times.