Brain Pickings

The Great Bridge: An Essential History of the Brooklyn Bridge

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What wire-walkers and medical mysteries have to do with the world’s deepest pit and the secret female engineer behind an architectural icon.

On the afternoon of August 24, 1876, an announcement was made in the Brooklyn Eagle that a man would attempt to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. The next day, thousands of people lined the river on the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts to see the feat. Built over the past six years, the massive anchors of the bridge were the tallest structures in the city, twin cathedrals on the river. Between them was a negative space of huge potential, the largest suspension bridge in the world. For the moment, however, the bridge was nothing but a single string cable, impossibly thin and hard to see, twisting in the wind.

At half past one, E.F. Farrington, the sixty-year-old Master Mechanic of the massive architectural project, stepped onto a boatswain’s chair — essentially a two-foot plank of wood — and swung out over the river. Below, a traffic-jam of sailboats and ferries had stopped to watch as a man seemingly flew above them, reaching the other side in seven minutes to a huge shout from the Brooklyn side. The first crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge had been achieved.

The Great Bridge (public library), David McCullough’s phenomenal 1972 history of a bridge that has been an icon of the city for nearly 130 years, has been reissued this year for its 40th anniversary. The story that McCullough tells is a thrilling tale of engineering genius, bureaucratic hang-ups, medical breakthroughs, and an architectural ambition that transformed New York forever.

On August 24, 1876, E.F. Farrington, Master Mechanic of the Brooklyn Bridge, made the first crossing across the East River on a wire.

Like the vision of a man zip-lining across the East River, The Great Bridge tells many little-known facts about the bridge, including the daily toil of “caisson disease” — better known today as the bends — on the bridge workers. It was an illness that stupefied medical professionals and struck down the engineer of the bridge itself, Washington Roebling, who had taken over the project after the death of his father, J.A. Roebling.

After the single-wire crossing, bridge-workers, many of whom were former sailors, would start to attach the suspension cables. (Brooklyn Museum)

There were two phases of work for those who toiled on the bridge: the six-year project to dig out the bases for the two towers, and the stringing of the cables, which took nearly as long. The first workers were expected to work in shifts of five or six hours down in the “caisson,” the massive pit that anchored the structure to the earth. There was no deeper pit in the world, and the men who went down into it would travel through several airlocks.

Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance….With the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills, and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, with here and there a Sisyphus rolling his stone, one might, if of a poetic temperament, have a realizing sense of Dante’s inferno.

More than two hundred workers would descend into the caisson each day, and newspaper reporters would relate their stories of the slimy, hot, airless working conditions.

As the depth increased, so did the danger — and so did the pay. A man working in the pit could make in hours what a regular laborer might make in a month. But soon men started to come out of the hole dizzy and bleeding, and a doctor was called to investigate the illness that seemed to strike down everyone who went down below. The doctor then realized that the sickness only struck men who scrambled to get out of the hellish hole, rather than those who gradually came out over the course of an hour or so. It was one of the first diagnoses of the bends in human history.

A view of Brooklyn from the bridge, c. 1876 (Brooklyn Museum)

One of those to become very sick from the bends was chief engineer Washington Roebling, who had taken over the project when his father died. Halfway through the construction, Roebling became confined to his home in Brooklyn Heights, where he could watch the progress from a second-floor window. His wife, Emily, became the public face of the project. She would meet with his engineers, suppliers, and business partners in the parlor of their house, learning complex matters of physics about the strength of cable and the catenary curves necessary for a successful suspension.

After chief engineer became sick due to the bends while working on the Bridge, Emily Roebling would take over many of her husband's duties, teaching herself the essentials of physics, architecture, and engineering. (Brooklyn Museum)

Emily Roebling would also travel to the site to walk the temporary footbridge that became a dangerous but popular attraction for New Yorkers: “Safe for only 25 men at one time,” a sign read at the entrance. “Do not walk close together nor run, jump, or trot. Break step!”

The temporary footbridge that allowed workers to access the cable was also a popular tourist attraction. (Nationaal Archief)

When the bridge opened in 1883, it was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and rightly so. No project had combined such expertise in excavation, suspension, and architectural aesthetics in one of the busiest metropolises in the world. Much like New York Diaries and The Greatest Grid, The Great Bridge is a reminder that any enduring symbol is constructed from a constellation of stories.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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