The Curse of the Roeblings? The Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). Lower New York from foot of Manhattan Bridge. ca. 1930. museum of the City of New York. 88.1.5.12.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic symbols of New York. Try imagining the skyline without the looming Gothic towers. Now try to imagine no bridges over the East River to connect the separate cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan and having to rely on overcrowded, unreliable, and generally unsafe ferries. This was the reality of 1850s New York.  Yet the Brooklyn Bridge almost didn’t happen. Amid rumors of curses on the designer’s family, corruption, and death came amazing technological innovations and people doing incredible things.

The idea of putting a bridge across the East River wasn’t a new idea even in 1850. Plans were discussed, made, and scrapped regularly with strident opposition on basically every element, including the very big question of whether it was even possible to traverse the East River.  And, if it was, then at 1,600 feet across, it’d be the longest span of bridge in the world at that time.

To say that German immigrant John A. Roebling was born to meet this challenge would be a gross overstatement and cliche, but in this case it seems to work. He had created new forms of steel cables that aided his designs of technically brilliant bridges in Cincinnati and Niagara Falls.  In 1867, his plans for the “East River and Brooklyn Bridge” (its previous official name) were accepted by the Tammany Hall-controlled New York Bridge Company and he was named Chief Engineer.

John M. August Will (1834-1910). Sketch of View of Bridge from Sand St. Brooklyn. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1986.

But, on June 28, 1869, as John A. Roebling was measuring possible locations for the towers of the bridge near the Fulton Ferry, a boat hit his foot and crushed his toes. Within a month, he died of tetanus.  His son and partner, 32 year-old Washington Roebling, overcame his grief and took over his father’s position as the Chief Engineer, determined to finish what they had started. This would not be the last tragedy or death that would befall the Roebling family, or the construction of the bridge.

Under Washington Roebling’s supervision the construction began in earnest on January 2, 1870. The first step was building caissons, which are watertight structures with a series of airlocks to provide dry underwater space for workers to dig the foundation into solid rock.  Roebling and his men worked in conditions described by Master Mechanic E.F. Farrington: ” The temperature in the caissons was about 80 [degrees], and the workmen, with half-naked bodies, seen in dim, uncertain light brought vividly to life Dante’s ‘Inferno’.”  But beyond bringing to life poetic masterpieces, there were far more real problems to contend with – fires and explosions plagued the caissons as did the deadly “caisson disease” now known as “the bends” or more technically, decompression sickness.  During the construction of the bridge, over one hundred men contracted and were killed or severely debilitated by caisson disease, including Washington Roebling.

S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819 or 20-1886). New York Caisson nearly down. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. 57.15.4.

In early 1872,  after working 12 straight hours in the caisson, Roebling rose to the surface from the compressed air too quickly and according to some reports, promptly passed out. This began his lifelong battle with the disease that would cause him pain, partial paralysis, temporary loss of his voice and sight, and all sorts of other terrible symptoms that led him to be an invalid for rest of the construction of the bridge and most of his life, forcing him to become bedridden, threatening his position as Chief Engineer.

However, all was not lost.  Using a telescope from the bedroom window of his house on 106 Columbia Street in Brooklyn, Washington would give notes and directions to his wife Emily to take to the engineers on the bridge. Emily had taught herself the math and science to help her husband throughout the project, and now she was using her knowledge to oversee construction while also speaking to distributors, politicians, and all levels of workers, making so many important decisions that it was not long before some begin to think of her as the de facto Chief Engineer, going so far as to believe she was the true intelligence behind the bridge’s design and completion. Indeed, even the New York Times gave her credit right after the bridge opened (and keep in mind, this was at the height of the Gilded Age, when it was still debated if women could even actually learn).

But another 11 years passed as the bridge inched  slowly toward completion. There was fraud with sub par material, political and public outcry about the bridge being constantly delayed, and constant newspaper columns complaining about it going over budget. (For an 1878 article titled “Are We Wasting Money?”  that suggests that destroying the towers of the bridge would really be, in fact, the best way to proceed, click here.).  Adding to the drama was a last minute move by Mayor Seth Low to dismiss Washington Roebling from his position as Chief Engineer, due to his inability to personally oversee the construction. The motion came to down to narrow vote, 10-7, keeping Roebling as Chief Engineer.  The construction continued, under supervision of Roebling and his wife.

Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge under Construction. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8424.

C.W. Pach. 1878. Showing Foot Bridge [of East River Bridge] and Anchor Bars (in part). Museum of the City of the New York. 57.15.16.

Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge under construction. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8384

S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819 or 20-1886). New York and Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14280.

J. A. LeRoy. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8439.

Unknown. 1881. Men walking on cables during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8463.

Unknown. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8412

16 years after the first plans were drawn, 15 million dollars ($340,000,000 in today’s money) spent, and 27 lives lost, the Brooklyn Bridge finally and officially opened on May 24th, 1883. On the first day alone, over 50,000 people crossed the bridge on foot. Emily Roebling was the first person to cross the bridge in a carriage, carrying a rooster, symbolizing victory,  in her lap. Washington Roebling reportedly never set foot on the bridge he created.

View more images of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Museum’s collections by clicking here. These images are all available in various sizes as museum quality archival prints. If you see something you want to hang on your wall, email us at reproductions@mcny.org.

Bird’s-Eye View of the Great New York and Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Display of Fireworks on the Opening Night. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1752.

5 responses to “The Curse of the Roeblings? The Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

  1. Great story

  2. When I lived in NYC, I saw the Brooklyn Bridge everyday from my apartment building, but I had no idea how little I really knew about it until I read this excellent post about its construction. Thank you, Susannah Broyles, for filling in the history of its conception and birth and the role Emily Roebling played as the midwife!

  3. Great article!
    I thought I knew all this, but your blog was fresh and fascinating and inspiring.
    And perfect for the museum, with those great period photographs.
    Sounds like a movie to me!!

  4. Absolutely fascinating– great research,great writing!

  5. W. Hentz (70 years)

    Hi,
    I” living in Germany and more information about John, Washington and Emily Roebling can you read on my Homepage with 9 and 2 pages PDF :
    http://www.lifework-in-bridge-building.com/
    Best regards, Werner from Germany (near at Frankfurt/Main)

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