Not all iconic New York City landmarks point toward the sky. One of the most recognizable-and remarkable-examples of innovative American engineering stretches across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge, once the world's longest suspension bridge, is more than just a way of crossing the water.
It was designed by John (Johann) Augustus Roebling, a Prussian immigrant who attended engineering school in Berlin (hence the German postage stamp in 2006 depicting the bridge). Roebling obviously had a sense of history and destiny, knowing that here was a chance to create something that defined a city rushing headlong into the future, a city that would spread its influence across the developing nation just like the elegant, intricate web of steel cables that is the bridge's signature.
Yes, steel cables. Previously, only iron cables had been used on suspension bridges. Back in 1867, when the New York Bridge Company was formed "for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a bridge across the East River" steel was still an illegal construction material in Britain, considered too weak for such heavy-duty applications. But Roebling knew that galvanized steel (calling it the metal of the future) would be able to withstand the corrosive effects of salt water and he designed the bridge to be six times stronger than it actually needed to be.
Ironically, Roebling's own blood was the first to be spilled in its construction. While surveying sites, a boating accident crushed one of his feet. The wound became infected and he died from tetanus soon after. The task of overseeing the project fell to Roebling's son, Washington.
Construction on what was originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge began on January 3, 1870. To dig out the foundations, 3000-ton pneumatic caissons were used. These were large airtight cylinders in which workers (mainly immigrants) were paid $2.25 an hour to clear away layers of silt in an atmosphere of compressed air beneath the riverbed-78.5 feet on the Manhattan side and 44.5 feet on the Brooklyn side. These conditions led to 'caissons disease,' otherwise known as the bends-in some cases causing death, but in the case of Washington Roebling (who was definitely a 'hands-on' type of engineer), it was paralysis. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, took over, learning engineering and passing on her husband's instructions to the workmen. Two years in, Washington had to watch construction from his home nearby, using a telescope.
Granite for the twin, neo-Gothic, 276-foot towers came from a quarry in Maine. The Manhattan tower actually sits on sand. The bedrock was too far down to reach. You might not want to think about that the next time you drive over it.
Although it has never been fully documented, the bridge claimed about 27 workers' lives, from fires, explosions and decompression sickness in the caissons, to a particularly grisly decapitation when one of the cables whipped out of control.
There was also the scandal of the steel wire contractor-J Lloyd Haigh-supplying sub-standard product. The pragmatic solution was to decide that this, with the addition of 250 more cables, now made the bridge just four times stronger than it needed to be. Incidentally, the weight of the suspended structure is 6620 tons and the main span is 1595.5 feet.
The bridge took 13 years to complete, with a grand opening held on May 24, 1883. Which automatically makes it worthy of icon status. After all, how many things in New York last for over 100 years? Emily Roebling was the first person to cross it that day. She was followed by 150,300 other pedestrians and 1800 vehicles. The first person to jump from the bridge was Robert E Odlum, on July 23, 1886. He survived the fall, but subsequently died from massive internal injuries.
PT Barnum once walked 21 elephants across it, to demonstrate the structure's safety. Nowadays, it sees somewhat heavier traffic-about 145,000 vehicle crossings a day. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is not just a way of getting to and from work. It's romantic. It provides a way to see one of the world's great cities in one panoramic sweep. Within its roughly 6000-foot length and 85-foot width lie 14,060 miles of steel wire, all arranged in a way that would make Spiderman proud.
On November 22, 2004, the Irish rock band U2 performed a free concert beneath it, in the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park. You can find Live From Under The Brooklyn Bridge in iTunes.
The whole thing cost $15.1 million, more than twice the original $7 million estimate. Bridges may come and bridges may go, but some things never change.