May 24, 1883
On May 24, 1883, a happy crowd gathered for a momentous occasion. The Brooklyn Bridge was opened, and finally, New York and Brooklyn could be connected across the East River. There was a huge celebration. A band was playing, there were fireworks, and ships were firing off cannons. It was a wonderful celebration, and everyone in attendance ignored the problems that occurred when the bridge was being built. The Brooklyn Bridge is the eighth wonder of the world, but its construction was plagued by tragedy.
The building of the bridge pushed past the technology that was available back then, which meant that the workers were in danger every day of the 13-years that it took to built the bridge. The most dangerous job was building the two massive towers that hold the web of wire supports that hold the bridge. The workers that handled this dangerous job were paid $2.25 per day. Back then, that was an excellent wage. Because of the danger involved, workers were quitting every week. It was just too much for too little pay.
The engineer who came up with the plans for the Brooklyn Bridge was a man named John Augustus Roebling. He was a German man who came to the United States in 1831. In Germany, he was an engineer. When he got to the U.S., he worked as a farmer. He returned to engineering in 1837. He had a fascination with suspension bridges, and he built one across Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River. Next, he developed an 825-foot railroad crossing over the Niagara. When he came up with the idea for the Brooklyn Bridge, the State Senate approved it, and he was going to be the chief engineer.
While John was out surveying the location for the bridge, he suffered a tragic accident. He was standing on the Brooklyn jetty when a ferry thumped into it. It crushed the toes on his right foot so severely that his toes had to be amputated. He refused orthodox medical treatment, which involved water therapy on the wound. This resulted in an infection. Three weeks after the accident, he died from tetanus at the age of 63. Fortunately, the Brooklyn Bridge project would go on. His son, Washington, and his daughter-in-law, Emily, were closely involved in the construction of the bridge, so they took over.
William “Boss’ Tweed owned plenty of property in Manhattan. He wanted the bridge to be built because he believed it would increase his land value. He was worried that the local politicians would drop out of the project because John had passed, so he arranged bribes of $60,000 that he stashed in a carpetbag and then delivered to various New York politicians. Then, he became a major stockholder in the project and took control of the bridge. In the end, he never benefited from his crooked dealings. The law caught up with him, and he was charged with corruption in 1871. He couldn’t afford to post his $3 million bail, so he remained in Ludlow Street Jail.
On January 2, 1870, six months after John’s death, construction of the bridge began, under the watch of Washington and Emily. The first part of the job was to build two structures, called caissons. One would be created on the Brooklyn side, the other on the Manhattan side. Making them was dangerous, and 264 men were working on them each day. Because the job was dangerous and there was so much turnover, a total of 2,500 men worked on the project. During the construction, there was a fire in the wooden roof of the caisson.
After the fire, the roof of the Manhattan side was deeper beneath the river than the Brooklyn side, so it had to be deeper. This meant that the compressed air pressure was higher. This put the workers in danger. The deep-sea divers who were working under the water were at risk of decompression sickness. This occurs if they come up from great depths too quickly. It can be debilitating and even fatal. Many workers suffered from this illness, and decompression sickness was dubbed caisson disease. Washington was one of the people who became very ill. He managed to supervise the operation from his sickbed, and his wife, Emily, was there to take his place onsite.
Back then, women were not engineers, but Emily had no choice. She was the only person who had regular contact with Washington, so she was his messenger. She handled many other duties such as project management, handling politician, and helping her husband complete the project. And she handled everything for 11 years.
Mangled and Maimed
As the Brooklyn Bridge took shape, workers were being mangled, maimed, and even killed. In April 1872, a worker named John Myers died from decompression sickness. Patrick McKay died from the same cause eight days later. A week later, Daniel Reardon died. Men were also dying from falls into the East River, and by being hit by building materials such as granite and steel. A man named Peter Cope got his leg caught in a wiring mechanism and died. Neil Mulled died three days after Christmas in 1877 when an archway collapsed because the cement wasn’t’ dried. Henry Supple and Thomas Blake died when a cable snapped and hit them. The official death toll during the bridge’s construction was 24.
When the bridge was complete, Emily was the first to cross it. A few days later, a woman slipped down some stairs and screamed. It caused a panic, and there was a stampede that killed 12 people. The next time you cross the Brooklyn Bridge, remember all those who died trying to make it possible for you to cross it.