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Throwback Thursday – History of the Brooklyn Bridge

Throwback Thursday – History of the Brooklyn Bridge
By Bill Dickson November 5, 2015 8515 Views

It’s one of the greatest marvel’s that came out of the 19th century. At the time of its construction, many were unsure if it was even possible to build. When it was built, others thought it would only stand for a couple decades before being replaced. However, this monument to engineering and construction continues to stand and continues to be one of New York’s top tourist destinations.

This week, Throwback Thursday looks at the history of the Brooklyn Bridge from ToolPartsDirect.com!

Photo Courtesy of Booms Beat

The Large Divide

Photo Courtesy of Prints Old and Rare

The 1860s and 1870s were a time of change in America. Industrialization was well underway and immigrants from all over the globe were coming the United States seeking a better life. As more people started coming to New York City, so did pedestrian traffic in both New York and Brooklyn.

The East River is a major river between Manhattan and Brooklyn and it was inconvenient for pedestrians to cross every day. In fact, ferries were constantly going back and forth between the two Burroughs…however, it wasn’t enough. In the wintertime, the East River would freeze. The river would not be frozen enough for people to cross and the ice also made ferry travel impossible.

Both city officials and average, everyday citizens realized that something needed to be done.

The Man With A Vision

Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

New York city officials eventually turned to civil engineer John Augustus Roebling. Roebling was born in Germany in 1806 and studied engineering in Berlin during his youth. He eventually moved to Pennsylvania and went to work for the state’s capitol Harrisburg.

During his time there, Roebling was credited with a major breakthrough in suspension-bridge technology. His idea was to add a web truss to both sides of the bridge’s roadway and this greatly stabilized the structure. Thanks to this new idea, Roebling successfully bridged the Niagara Gorge in Niagara Falls, New York and the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Photo Courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration

In 1867, New York Legislators approved his plan for a suspension bridge crossing the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. It would be the very first steel suspension bridge and it would have the largest span in the world…1600 feet from tower to tower.

Before construction began in 1869, New Yorkers got some sad news. John Augustus Roebling was fatally injured while taking a few final compass readings across the East River. His foot was crushed between a boat and the dock, which forced his toes to be amputated. He was diagnosed with tetanus and died on July 22, 1869.

Before Roebling passed away, he named his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling as head of the Brooklyn Bridge project. Washington also helped his father design the bridge as well.

The Beginning of Construction

Photo Courtesy of Bowery Boy History

Construction began when mason workers began creating the pillars that would go into the river. The question remained, how do you insert these pillars into the river? Roebling and his workers decided to use caissons.

Graphic Courtesy of Blair History

Caissons are giant upside down pressurized airtight boxes that are made of southern yellow pine. These boxes would be lowered into the river and was pressurized to keep the water out. This would allow the workers or “sandhogs” to dig up the soil below and construct the towers below the surface. The weight of the bridge still sits on the yellow pine wood that is about 15 inches thick.

Health Problems and Progress

While the pressurized caisson was effective keeping the water out, many workers became ill with decompression sickness…which was an unknown illness until the late 19th century. Project physician Andrew Smith first dubbed the illness “Caisson Disease.” Many workers suffered, including Project Chief Washington Roebling.

Portrait Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Roebling himself suffered a paralyzing injury due to decompression sickness after construction began in 1870.

Emily Warren Roebling

Due to the sickness, he was unable to physically supervise construction and his wife Emily took over day-to-day duties. He also got an apartment with a view so he could see construction from his window. He also re-designed the caissons and other equipment to become more efficient.

Photo Courtesy of Brooklyn Bridge World Wonder

Working in a caisson was not comfortable and caused numerous problems for workers. The hot, dense air gave many workers blinding headaches, bloody noses and slowed heartbeats. As workers were lowered through an airlock, they chamber would fill with compressed air. While it made it possible to breath, the air would also build up gasses in the workers’ bodies. Once they resurfaced, that’s when decompression sickness would show its symptoms. Sometimes, workers would die if exposed too long.

Despite the troubles, workers continued to inch towards the earth. Once they reached the appropriate depth -- 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the Manhattan side – the workers started laying the granite and built their way back to the surface.

The Project Finishes and the Bridge Debuts

Print Courtesy of Pinterest

After 14 years of work, the bridge was finally completed. On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to much fanfare. President Chester A. Arthur, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, Emily Roebling and many others turned out to celebrate the completion of the bridge.

Emily Roebling was given the first ride across the bridge, along with a rooster in her lap…a symbol for victory. After a full 24 hours, over 250,000 people walked across the bridge. Fireworks and cannon fire filled the night sky to celebrate what was later dubbed as the “8th Wonder of the World.”

The Bridge’s Legacy Continues

Photo Courtesy of Travel 5758 Blog

The bridge cost $15.5 million in 1883 and if that project were built today, it would cost $379,661,000. The bridge is 85 feet wide and has six lanes of traffic today. When it first opened, horses and carriages traveled on across it, hosted an elevated pedestrian walkway as well as a trolley line. Today, cars drive across it every day.

The bridge weighs 14,680 tons and over 6600 tons is suspended. Each of the bridge’s four support cables is over 3500 feet long and 15.5 inches thick. It contains 21,000 wires that when combined have a total length of over 14,000 miles. It was one of the first of its kind and continues to inspire architects and engineers all over the globe.

And that does it for this edition of Throwback Thursday! Make sure you keep an eye out for other great content from all of us here at ToolPartsDirect.com!