Posted by: history591seventeen | March 27, 2010

The Great Bridge

            According to author David McCullough, the Brooklyn Bridge was a significant technological fate for many reasons.  The bridge was the first structure to use the technology of a caisson –a compressed-air foundation.  This technique was being used in Europe, which is where the engineer and designer of the bridge, John Roebling, sent his son, Washington to observe this technology, as well as their wire-making process, the latest developments in metallurgy and the Bessemer steel making procedure (167).  The plan for the bridge would also make it the longest bridge constructed in the world.  At the same time, the bridge had to be made in a way that it did not constrict the water traffic below.  Therefore, no pillars could be set into the water to hold the bridge; it had to be held up from above.  Certainly, John Roebling’s plan would be a challenge to complete; however, from the start, the difficulties of everyday life would challenge this project.  

            Because John Roebling understood that others would question his ideas for this bridge, he consulted with the most renowned engineers of his day prior to presenting his plan any further.  After answering all of this group’s questions, Roebling did present his idea to a select group from both New York and Brooklyn.  Finally, John Roebling was given approval to construct the Brooklyn Bridge.  However, soon after, John Roebling had an accident in which his toes of one of his feet had to be amputated, which actually led to John Roebling’s death.  This of course caused some to want to abandon the bridge project, for the chief engineer was dead.  Yet his son, Washington Roebling knew more about how to complete this project than his dad, because of the research Washington had done for his dad in Europe.  Therefore, Washington Roebling was allowed to continue this project of his father’s. Then politics got involved. 

            William Marcy Tweed, known as “Boss Tweed,” was a New York politician elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, who wanted his piece of the bridge profits; yet Tweed did not try to go in on this project until after the death of John Roebling.  Also many of the men involved in the committee were profiting from the project in the way contacts were being awarded to their own businesses; therefore, the public questioned this involvement.  Needless to say, many times the chief engineer and bridge committee were investigated because of public outcry, but they were always found to be following proper procedure and awarding contracts for the best materials. However, the controversies over money and politics were another hurdle that had to be overcome.

            The next problem Washington Roebling had to confront was a sickness that developed in his men who went down with the caisson.  It was called caisson disease, or “the bends”, and some men actually died as a result of it.  Therefore Roebling hired a Dr. Andrew Smith who came and did research on site; he was trying to figure out the best ways to treat this illness.  Smith actually understood that this illness was a result of being in compressed air and he understood that the men needed to be removed from this air in a much slower method.  However, Roebling did not agree and only adopted some of Smith’s ideas.  At the same time, this illness did slow down the descent of the caisson and therefore, slowed down the production of the bridge. 

            Because Washington Roebling was a very hands-on engineer, he went down into the caisson many times and finally came down with the caisson disease himself.  He became so ill that it was thought he would surely die.  Therefore, he began writing down all of his instruction for the bridge construction, including drawings, etc., to follow.  Clearly, his illness slowed down the project as well as created new problems for people to question; some thought Roebling should be replaced by another engineer, for Roebling was not on site anymore.  In fact in the fall of 1882, New York Mayor Low asked the Brooklyn committee to replace Roebling, because Low stated, “I am convinced, that at every possible point there is a weakness in the management of the Brooklyn Bridge.  The engineering part of the structure—the most important—is in the hands of a sick man” (491).  The board rejected Low’s claim and Washington Roebling stayed on as the chief engineer until the completion of the project.

            Additionally, laborers kept quitting, for the work was hazardous to their health (210), and the men who suffered the most from “the bends” were the new workers.  Therefore, this created another problem.  At one point, there was a fire inside one of the caissons and the charcoal had to be completely removed along with some cement before work could continue.  Then the panic of 1873 occurred, creating high unemployment in New York.  Many thought the bridge project should be stopped, for the cities were just pouring their money into a project that would create little benefit. Yet, the project continued.  There were also the deaths of some workers that occurred and when they happened, there were investigations into whether or not safety measures were being taken on site, which it was found they were.  Therefore, these deaths did cause a public stir, but the bridge company was not found at fault. 

            Lastly, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed by the spring of 1883; it had taken 14 years to complete and cost 15 million dollars.  As a result of its construction John Roebling lost his life, Washington Roebling lost his health, some men died and many men were crippled from “the bends” for the rest of their lives.  At the same time, there were many new technologies used for the first time in the United States used on the Brooklyn Bridge, which is said may last for ever.  Yet the bridge held another meaning to the people within the two communities of New York and Brooklyn.

            The Bridge was also important to the people, for the bridge joined two separate communities, it helped with overcrowding, property values in Brooklyn went up and people had another way to get back and forth to work in New York.  Prior to building the bridge, Brooklyn was the 3rd largest city in the country; it was also a major manufacturing center and its sea ports were bigger than that of New York (102). In addition, Brooklyn had lower gas rates and taxes, schools were better than in New York and the local government was considered to be honest; Brooklyn also had little crime (111).  The bridge therefore made Brooklyn more accessable. ”It was the great highway to New York, just as had been intended from the start” (513).    For almost fifty years it was thought of as, “. . .the most magnificent if not technically the largest, suspension bridge on earth” (543).  Some even called it “The Eighth Wonder of the World” 543).

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