New York: Brooklyn Bridge Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Brooklyn Bridge is the first suspension bridge in history to use steel cables, thus heralding the use of steel as a building material and setting the stage for the development of the skyscraper in the twentieth century. It made possible and inevitable the consolidation of New York and Brooklyn–at that time separate cities–into the nation’s greatest metropolis. Signaling the shift from rural to urban society, it has served as the source of inspiration for many artists and writers and has become a cultural symbol of the American ideal of progress and industry.

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Though the history of the Brooklyn Bridge can be said to begin with the dream of its designer, German-born engineer John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), the idea of a bridge linking the separate cities of New York and Brooklyn was proposed before Roebling was born. As early as 1800, Jeremiah Johnson, later a general in the War of 1812, expressed an interest in seeing a bridge built on the East River. By 1811, the feasibility of such a structure was promoted by Thomas Pope. In his Treatise on Bridge Architecture (1811), the freelance builder proposed a kind of cantilevered arch that could be suspended over a large expanse of water. Pope was convinced that such a project was feasible based as it was on purely mathematical principles. The main problem with Pope’s idea was the use of the traditional building materials of the era: wood and iron.

As technology advanced in the nineteenth century, however, new materials became available. The era of wood was passing, and a technological revolution was beginning to replace the heavy, inflexible iron with stronger, more tensile steel. John Augustus Roebling came at the right time to take advantage of the change.

The Builder

Born in Muhlhausen, Germany, in 1806, Roebling studied engineering and graduated from the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Berlin in 1826. Influenced by the idealism of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his doctrine of self-realization and personal freedom, Roebling took a job as assistant engineer, hoping to build a new type of bridge he had been reading about. During the three years he worked in Westphalia, a German province, however, he was not given the freedom to pursue his interests. Too much bureaucracy and too many restrictions prompted him to immigrate to the United States in 1831. In America he felt he would be free to build what he wanted.

Ironically, his first enterprise in America was not as an engineer but as a farmer. He and a group of fellow immigrants bought land near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and established a farming community named Saxonburg. In 1837, however, Roebling became a naturalized citizen and returned to engineering. By now the civil engineer was becoming a favored professional as American society became dependent on more efficient transportation systems like canals and railroads. Private construction companies were proliferating to fill the need.

By 1840, Roebling was working as a civil engineer surveying portage railroads, which connected waterways when mountains blocked passage through canals. By this system, trains were hauled up a mountain or similar obstruction by means of a stationary engine at the top. Strong ropes attached to the engine pulled up the cars. The ropes, however, made of hemp, often frayed and broke. The system was thus expensive and often dangerous. Applying his idea of a new type of bridge to the system, Roebling designed cables made of twisted wire, which was stronger, lighter, and more durable than twisted hemp.

By the late 1840’s, Roebling had sold the farm and moved to Trenton, New Jersey, on the Delaware River, where he designed and manufactured his own cable on his own machines in his own factory. He was also building bridges.

His first great bridge–and the prototype of his masterpiece–was the Niagara River Bridge, completed in 1855. Spanning the river just below the falls, the bridge was a two-level suspension-type able to support a railroad. With it, Roebling became the most important and best-known master-builder of the suspension bridge. As an engineer, he was honest, demanding, and eminently practical. He had proven that such a bridge was both technologically and economically sound. It was large enough to allow great ships to pass beneath and, because it was anchored to both sides of the river, it kept the waterway clear.

With the completion of the Niagara River Bridge, John Augustus Roebling’s defining achievement as an engineer was about to be launched. The popular account suggests that the idea of building the Brooklyn Bridge came to him one winter day when he found himself stranded for a long time on a ferryboat on the East River clogged with ice. Such scenarios were not all that uncommon. Bad weather, especially in winter, often kept commuters–particularly those who lived in Brooklyn but worked in Manhattan–at home. Commerce between the two cities often came to a standstill. Since Brooklyn was situated on Long Island, it was commutable only by boat, and goods were more expensive on both sides of the river. Sensing a growing economic need and aware of the possibility of meeting it, Roebling wanted to construct a “parabolic truss,” a suspension bridge that would throw a steel wire span across the river. Supported by granite towers on each side of the river, the bridge would he able to carry pedestrians by means of a walkway and, more important, it could allow the passage of goods and people by means of a roadway and a railway system.

Throughout the late 1850’s, Roebling promoted his idea largely by letters to newspapers and influential businessmen and politicians. Though the idea gradually began to take hold, the advent of the Civil War in 1861 put a temporary halt to the plan. After the war, in 1865, the New York Bridge Company was formed and John Augustus Roebling, the bridge’s staunchest and ablest supporter, was made chief engineer of the project in 1867.

In the master plan that he submitted to the company board, Roebling emphasized the stability and safety of the bridge made possible by his introduction of a system of triangular stays, or trusses, supporting the steel cables that would hold up the sixteen hundred-foot span of roadway. The bridge would not fall, he predicted, even if the main cables snapped. The roadway, in turn, would be strong enough to bear high winds and the demands of commercial traffic, especially trolleys and a railroad. The entire span would weigh approximately five thousand tons.

The towers that anchored the span drew conflicting reactions from architects and critics. Some saw them as aesthetic failures because of the eclectic nature of the design: elongated gothic arches cut into the block of rough-textured granite. Others viewed the functional nature of the design as being softened by the arches. In this view, the arches incised into the masonry emphasized the traditional building style, while the steel wire span attached to the towers bespoke the style of the modern era. The bridge was seen as a synthesis of stone and steel, a kind of “cathedral of industry.”

The Builder’s Son

John Augustus Roebling was not to see his dream fulfilled. While surveying a site on the Brooklyn side of the river, he was struck by an oncoming ferryboat. His leg was pinned against the pilings and was shattered. Within a few weeks he contracted tetanus and suffered a slow, painful demise. He died on July 22, 1869.

His son, Washington Roebling, was now entrusted with bringing his father’s work to fruition. The young Roebling had graduated as an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1857 and immediately started working with his father. He was working closely with him on the practical design elements of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it was natural that he should take over the project.

Washington Roebling did more than merely carry out his father’s design. Certain practical problems had to be overcome during the day-to-day operations, and the younger Roebling designed some methods of preparing the site of the bridge itself. From the first day of actual digging, January 2, 1870, Roebling supervised the lighting and ventilation system of the caissons–huge, watertight chambers (about ten feet high by fifty feet square) into which air was pumped and within which the workers could dig the footing under the river. These pneumatic caissons were a relatively new innovation, and Roebling himself had gone down into the caissons, notably on the Brooklyn side where the first footings were to be.

It was while helping to put out a fire in one of the caissons in December, 1870, that Roebling first contracted “caisson disease,” commonly known as “the bends,” a condition characterized by intense muscular pain and respiratory problems. His attacks worsened over a period of three years as he spent many days and nights supervising the work in the caissons. By 1873, he was a virtual invalid. For the next ten years he supervised construction from his bedroom window in his house in Brooklyn. Looking through a telescope and binoculars he dictated orders to his assistants. He even trained his wife Emily who, besides acting as courier, became his on-site eyes and ears and his most valuable assistant.

From the first day when actual digging began to the opening day ceremonies, the Brooklyn Bridge took thirteen years and five months to build.

Places to Visit

Many of the cultural and historical areas of New York City can be seen on foot. Starting on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, one can walk to the section known as Brooklyn Heights, a fashionable part of the borough. Well-maintained brownstones and large, elegant homes and churches sit along quiet, tree-lined streets that remind one of what life must have been like in the late nineteenth century. Located in the borough are the homes of some great American writers, such as the poet Walt Whitman, who lived there while he was editor of the newspaper The Brooklyn Eagle, and twentieth century novelists such as Thomas Wolfe and Truman Capote.

Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the unique experiences of life in New York City. From the pedestrian walkway just above the traffic lanes, one can see the entire lower bay, including the Statue of Liberty, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, and the ships and private small boats that ply up and down the East River.

On the Manhattan side, City Hall sits at the foot of the bridge. From there one can explore the downtown area, including the financial district and such places as the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Near the beginning of Broadway is historic Trinity Church, built before the American Revolution and in whose churchyard rests the grave of Alexander Hamilton. Nearby is Federal Hall where George Washington took the oath as president. Down by the battery–the southern tip of Manhattan–is Fraunces Tavern where Washington bade farewell to his troops at the end of the Revolution.

Farther uptown, following Broadway, is a series of ethnic conclaves including Chinatown, the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Little Italy, on Mulberry and Mott Streets, lies adjacent to Chinatown, and beyond are blocks of iron-fronted buildings and former tenements characterizing the district known as the Lower East Side. Many of New York’s immigrants lived in this district during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

For Further Information
  • Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966. Chapter 29 provides an excellent discussion of the building of the bridge. Written in a very readable, popular style.
  • McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. The most comprehensive account of the building of the bridge. Highly detailed, replete with information from primary manuscript sources and contemporary newspaper accounts.
  • Mann, Elizabeth. Brooklyn Bridge: A Wonder of the World Book. New York: Mikaya Press, 1996. A monograph presenting a clear, concise account geared mainly toward younger readers.
  • Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Discusses the history of the bridge as a cultural symbol of American ideals.
  • Weigold, Marilyn E. Silent Builder: Emily Warren Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge. Port Washington, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1984. Deals mainly with Washington Roebling’s wife and her life before, during, and after the construction of the bridge.
Categories: History