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- The history of the Brooklyn Bridge is filled with death, disease, and controversy.
- The main architect died before the bridge was even built, and several workers died in the process.
- Tools and techniques used to build the bridge — then thought to be a “wild experiment” — are commonly used today.
The Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York City’s famous landmarks, turned 140 this year, and its history has been wrought with death, disease, and controversy.
During the bridge’s construction, over a dozen people died, while countless others were bedridden with a then mysterious illness, including the bridge’s architect Washington Roebling.
Most deaths involved with the Brooklyn Bridge happened during its construction, except for Roebling’s father, John Augustus Roebling, the man behind the bridge’s design who died from an illness weeks before construction was supposed to start.
The bridge was made to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan in place of regularly scheduled ferries. It is estimated that over 70 million crossings were made across the river separating the two cities yearly before the construction of the bridge.
But after a crash between two ferries in 1868 injured 20 people and killed a young boy, public support for the bridge to be built was on the rise, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Washington Roebling took up the task of completing what was the longest bridge in the world at the time, and he had to do it with only the notes left by his late father. If the bridge were a success, the world would remember the Roeblings’ ingenuity and engineering prowess. But if it failed, the sole responsibility would be put on him.
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Roebling noticed that the hemp rope companies used to move train cars was susceptible to frays and tears and had a better idea. Instead of using hemp rope, why not use more durable iron cables?
Roebling began working on prototypes of iron cables wound together that he would use on railways. He patented his invention in 1842.
Roebling would take on jobs and build suspension bridges in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He also worked on a bridge over the Niagara River, connecting New York to Ontario. In 1866, he built what was then the longest bridge in the world, the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge.
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Roebling began working on plans for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867. He had planned out the big stone structures and how the cables for the suspension of the bridge would be laid out and connected.
“The completed work, when constructed in accordance with my designs, will not only be the greatest bridge in existence, but it will be the greatest engineering work of the continent, and of the age,” Roebling said of his design.
Unfortunately, he would never get to see his dream come true. In June 1869, right after city and federal approval for the bridge passed, Roebling’s foot was crushed by a passing ferry while scouting the location for the bridge foundation.
He died of tetanus 24 days later and never saw construction start on the bridge.
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Washington studied engineering and went into business with his father, helping him build bridges across America.
After the bridge was completed, Washington Roebling joked that “many people think I died in 1869,” implying that he would often get confused for his father, as well as the credit he was due.
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It used two new technologies of the era: steel wires and pneumatic caissons.
The practice is widely used today, but the Brooklyn Bridge was the first to attempt it.
Before they built the Brooklyn Bridge, Roebling and his father would use iron wires for their suspension bridges. But because this bridge was significantly larger in size, the iron would make suspension cords too much of a hassle.
Using iron would “necessitate a cable of such weight and size that it would become unmanageable and involve the greatest difficulties in making it,” Roebling said.
The wires for the bridge were provided by a “corrupt manufacturer.” He submitted wire that passed initial inspection tests but later provided faulty wire for the rest of the bridge. The scheme went undiscovered for months, and the faulty wires are still a part of the bridge today.
Luckily, the Roeblings built the bridge to be eight times stronger than it needed to be — a nod to the importance and strength of using steel wires.
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Roebling’s steel wire innovation was used on famous bridges like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Caissons are big, watertight structures designed to be the precursor to the foundations of bridges, dams, and ships.
A bottomless structure is put into mud and sediment and then hammered down towards the bedrock. The caisson is pressurized to keep water out and allows construction workers, who were dubbed sandhogs, to shovel out mud, rocks, and sediment to later fill the caisson with concrete.
Using pneumatic caissons was essential to building the Brooklyn Bridge and allowed the workers to essentially work underwater. But using caissons came with a cost as workers started to get sick, including the head architect Washington Roebling.
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EF Farrington, Roebling’s master mechanic, described mysterious sounds, shapes, and shadows being seen and heard throughout the caissons.
The hot, compressed air caused workers to experience headaches, bloody noses, itchy skin, and even slowed heartbeats. Ultimately, it is estimated that 110 workers became ill while working in the caissons, and 14 workers died.
Workers would get into an airlock to descend below the water and into the caisson. As they made their descent, the airlock would fill with compressed air which allowed workers to breathe while keeping water out. However, the descent also filled workers’ blood with dangerous gasses.
Upon their ascent back to the surface, the blood of the workers would release dangerous gasses. This was the first use of the term caisson disease and the Grecian bend, also “the bends” both now known as decompression sickness.
The bends are characterized by excruciating joint pain, paralysis, convulsions, numbness, speech impediments, and in some cases, death.
As the construction went on Roebling would watch and supervise from his window looking out at the bridge.
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Source: Associated Press
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Roebling thought it was important that people were able to use the bridge and partake in the leisure afforded by it.
In the time since its construction, the Brooklyn Bridge promenade has been used for demonstrations, marches, and as a way to get between Manhattan and Brooklyn during emergencies or transit blackouts.
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The bridge has appeared in countless movies, books, and TV shows since its construction 140 years ago.