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On January 3, 1870, construction began on one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States – the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. It was the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge. With a main span of 1,595.5 feet (486.3 meters), it was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1903. The bridge spans the East River connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The construction of the bridge was the personal project of John Augustus Roebling, a German born American engineer, who on a cold winter day found the ferry that he took daily to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan unable to sail across due to the ice covering the East River. Roebling worked on the idea of building a suspension bridge that united both cities (then Brooklyn was not a district belonging to New York).
It took over 13 years, four months and three days, and $15.5 million to construct the bridge. At the time of completion of the construction of the bridge, the tallest building in New York was only 5 feet taller than the bridge’s 276.5-foot towers. Around 27 people died during its construction, including John Roebling.
In 1915, the city government formally named the bridge as the “Brooklyn Bridge” that was originally known as the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge” and as the “East River Bridge.”
Since its opening on May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1972 has become an icon of New York City. Though this landmark is 128-year-old, it still continues to serve the people of New York.
John Augustus Roebling (born Johann August Röbling), a German engineer, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge left Prussia with his brother Karl Roebling on May 22, 1831 and migrated to the United States since career advancement were difficult for engineers in the Prussian society.
On October 28, 1831, John and Karl purchased 1582 acres (6.4 km²) of land, in Butler County, Pennsylvania with the intent to establish a German farming settlement. They named their land Saxonburg. Instead of following an engineering profession Roebling took up farming. Five years later he got married to Johanna Herting, the daughter of a tailor.
The colony attracted few settlers and Roebling got fed up with farming. In 1837, after the death of his brother Carl and the birth of his first child, he returned to engineering.
At that time, canal boats transported from Philadelphia on railroad cars across the Allegheny Mountains enabled them to continue their journey to Pittsburgh. The expensive hemp rope up to 7 centimeters thick used to pull the railroad cars up and down the inclines had to be replaced frequently. In 1841, Roebling developed a 7-strand wire rope and started producing wire ropes at a ropewalk that he built on his farm at Saxonburg.
In 1844, he won a bid to replace the wooden canal aqueduct across the Allegheny River. In 1845, he built a suspension bridge over the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. In 1848, Roebling undertook the construction of four suspension aqueducts on the Delaware and Hudson Canal. During this period, he moved his successful bridge construction and iron wire rope business to Trenton, New Jersey. In Trenton, he built a large industrial complex for producing wires.
After several other constructions, the American Civil War fought from 1861 to 1865 brought a temporary halt to Roebling’s work. However, in 1863, he resumed building a bridge over the Ohio River at Cincinnati which he had started in 1856 and halted due to financing. He finished the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, later named the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in 1867 – the world’s longest suspension bridge at that time.
In 1867, as a highly respected engineer and prosperous businessman, Roebling started design work on the Brooklyn Bridge. One day in 1869, while standing at the edge of a dock, surveying the location of the Brooklyn tower for the Brooklyn Bridge a docking boat crushed his foot. Even after the amputation of his injured toes, Roebling refused further medical treatment and resorted to cure his foot by “Water Therapy” namely pouring water continuously over the wound.
As John Roebling’s health deteriorated as tetanus set in, he appointed his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling in command of the project. Washington who had assisted his father on other suspension projects was familiar with European experiences with caissons, which would be needed to complete the piers. In geotechnical engineering, a caisson is a watertight retaining structure used, such as, to work on the foundations of a bridge pier.
In the early-morning hours of July 22, 1869 in Brooklyn Heights, New York, 24 days after the accident John Roebling succumbed to tetanus.
John Augustus Roebling is buried in the Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey.
Shortly after the beginning of construction on January 3, 1870, Washington Roebling suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of decompression sickness (also known as divers’ disease, the bends or caisson disease). This condition, afflicted many of the workers working within the caissons.
Washington Roebling’s debilitating condition left him unable to supervise the construction in person. His wife Emily Warren Roebling came forward to help him. She acted as the link between her husband and the site engineers. Emily studied higher mathematics guided by her husband. Washington taught her the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, and bridge specifications. She learned the intricacies of cable construction. During the next 11 years, she assisted Washington Roebling by supervising the construction of the bridge.
On May 24, 1883, the day of the inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge, thousands of people attended the opening ceremony. Many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion.
President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Franklin Edson crossed the bridge first, and when they reached the Brooklyn-side tower, Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low Arthur greeted them. The next person to cross the bridge was Evelyn Warren Roebling. She got down from her carriage and ran from one end to the other. Behind her, 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
After the opening ceremony, President Arthur went to Roebling’s residence and shook hands with him. Though unable to attend the ceremony in person, Washington Roebling celebrated the day by holding a banquet at his house.
Pedestrians paid a 1 cent toll on opening day and 3 cents thereafter. The vehicle toll was 5 cents. A year after the bridge opened, every day 37,000 people used the Brooklyn Bridge to cross the East River.
On May 30, 1883, six days after the inauguration, a rumor that the Bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede that crushed 12 people to death.
A year later, on May 17, 1884, P. T. Barnum thwarted the doubts about the bridge’s stability by leading a parading 21 elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge.
- Brooklyn Bridge (en.wikipedia.org)
- John A. Roebling (en.wikipedia.org)
- First Steel-Wire Suspension Bridge (modernsteel.com)
- Algunos datos curiosos sobre el Puente de Brooklyn (blogs.20minutos.es)
- New York’s icon of courage: the Brooklyn Bridge (brimmings.com)
- Video: Building the Brooklyn Bridge (history.com)
- Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan (markd.typepad.com)