Jumbo And An Unsung Hero
January 3, 1870: Construction Begins on Brooklyn Bridge
We have to remember this was 1870 and suspending tons of metal and concrete over a vast expanse of water had never been done at this level before. Completed in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1903.
Contemporaries marveled at what technology was capable of and the bridge became a symbol of the optimism of the time. John Perry Barlow wrote in the late 20th century of the “literal and genuinely religious leap of faith” embodied in the Brooklyn Bridge … “the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology.”
The bridge was initially designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges. While conducting surveys for the bridge project, Roebling sustained a crush injury to his foot when a ferry pinned it against a piling. After amputation of his crushed toes he developed a tetanus infection which left him incapacitated and he died soon afterward.
Before his death he placed his 32-year-old son Washington in charge of the project. Washington also suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of decompression sickness shortly after the beginning of construction. This condition, first called “caisson disease”, afflicted many of the workers that worked within the caissons. It was the same as decompression sickness divers experience sometimes called the bends.
Roebling’s debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand. He conducted the entire construction from his apartment overlooking the construction site aided by his wife Emily Warren Roebling who provided the critical link between her husband and the engineers on site.
Emily became the unsung hero in completing the bridge project. She studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting and helping to supervise the bridge’s construction.
The Brooklyn Bridge was opened for use on May 24, 1883, attended by several thousand people and teeming with ships in the East Bay. Washington was unable to attend the ceremony but Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross the bridge. That day a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
On May 30, 1883, six days after the opening, a rumor that the Bridge was going to collapse caused a stampede, which was responsible for at least twelve people being crushed and killed. P. T. Barnum helped to squelch doubts about the bridge’s stability – while publicizing his famous circus – when one of his most famous attractions, Jumbo, led a parade of 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The bridge’s main span over the East River is 1,595 feet 6 inches. The cost was $15.5 millionto build and an estimated 27 people died during its construction. Roebling designed a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as he thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished into history and been replaced.
Bowery Bugs: https://archive.org/details/BoweryBugs
References to “selling the Brooklyn Bridge” abound in American culture, sometimes as examples of rural gullibility but more often in connection with an idea that strains credulity, “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.” The 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon Bowery Bugs is a joking reference to Bugs “selling” a story of the Brooklyn Bridge to a naïve tourist.
Edison film, “New Brooklyn to New York Via Brooklyn Bridge”, 1899: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WA47Y6em8M