Fixing A Problem With An Icon

It’s the middle of the 19th century and the population of New York City is exploding. While the borough of Manhattan is a hotbed of industry and jobs, space is limited on the island, making the price of housing tremendously expensive. Ferries do their best to take passengers across the East River to and from work to their homes in more affordable boroughs. Because of this, the East River becomes severely congested with boat traffic. What is a possible solution? A bridge, the first of it’s kind, suspended high above the East River, spanning from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In this piece, we’re going to take a brief look at the development and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Building a bridge of the magnitude of the Brooklyn Bridge in the mid-to-late 19th century, the construction project seemed completely out of grasp for many architects and construction firms. The challenge of building the seemingly unbuildable bridge drew the interest of German immigrant and designer, John Roebling. In order to make a bridge of such magnitude viable, a design for a bridge suspended from large towers by multiple steel trusses was the best option. Such an elaborate system of steel trusses would make the bridge six times stronger than was necessary. While the design seemed like a safe bet, the construction such a behemoth bridge would prove to be anything but safe.

brooklyn bridge plans

It wasn’t long after the beginning of construction of the bridge in 1869 that an infection attributed to worksite-related tetanus would take the life of designer John Roebling. In his stead, his son William would take over the construction process. In order to suspend the bridge over the length of the East River, special water-tight caisson towers made of granite would need to be built with foundations even lower than sea level. In order for workers to be able to breathe while digging deep to lay the proper foundation, compressed air would be pumped deep into the caissons. While this seemed like a viable solution to the pressure issue, many of the workers became incredibly ill with “the bends” — an ailment attributed to fast changes in air pressure. Even William Roebling became paralyzed by the compression sickness that was renamed “caissons disease” a local physician. His wife had to assist him on his work on the project from then on. Throughout the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the hazardous work conditions would go on to take the lives more than 24 more construction workers.

The Brooklyn Bridge cost $15,500,000 and 13 years to complete. All in told, 27 individuals lost their lives while working on the project. The ingenuity of the Roeblings and the fearlessness of the construction crews are memorialized in this epic structure that still serves New Yorkers to this very day — over 135 years after its completion.