HISTORIC FEATS: The Brooklyn Bridge

The modern world didn’t just happen. It was built. Built by men and women who understood the value of hard work and overcoming the impossible to accomplish Historic Feats. Those are our kind of people. To celebrate them and their accomplishments, OXX is taking a closer look at some of the greatest feats of human ingenuity that America has ever seen. 

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the New York’s most iconic landmarks. Its construction was an engineering triumph as the cities of Brooklyn and New York City were united for the first time. But its many successes as a modern marvel were rivaled by the lives lost during construction, the curse of the family behind its inception, and the world’s acceptance of a bridge that seemed to dangle 227 feet above the East River.


Descending into Hell

The foundation for the bridge required concrete to be set on the bedrock buried below the waters of the East River—44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the Manhattan side. Descending to the river bottom was made possible by using caissons—large boxes made of southern yellow pine and steel that were sunk to the bottom of the river where the floor was then removed. When the floor was removed, the muddy riverbed was exposed and excavated by the crew, known as “sandhogs.” The caisson was filled with compressed air to keep the water out of the chamber. For the workers, the caissons were hell—the air hot and thick, filled with fumes from the gas burning lamps, with the muck of the riverbed creating a slosh that could leave a man standing mid-thigh in sludge. When workers were able to ascend, many were stricken with “caisson disease,” what we now call “the bends,” where the sudden change of pressure can result in joint pain, rashes, or headaches. In severe cases, the bends can cause paralysis, neurological issues, or death. Some 20 men were recorded to have died from caisson disease with many more likely undocumented.

Photo Courtesy of Esquire


A Cursed Family

The creator/designer for the Brooklyn Bridge was John Roebling, a German immigrant who was revolutionizing suspension bridge construction after using web trusses to better stabilize the structures. While the caisson projects were underway, Roebling had gone out to survey the East River when a boat crash broke his foot. Following surgery, Roebling contracted tetanus and died some 28 days later. After his death, John Roebling’s son Washington Roebling took over. His work on the bridge forced him to descend into the caissons to evaluate and on one occasion, fight a fire. During his return to the surface, Washington Roebling was severely affected by the bends, which caused him to be partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. With so much work left to do, Roebling was forced to watch over the construction of the bridge from his apartment window where he used a telescope to supervise progress, using his wife Emily to communicate with the crews and teams.

Photo Courtesy of Brooklynites in Florida



Bridge Crossing 101

When the bridge finally opened in 1883, it had been under construction for 14 years. The opening ceremony of the bridge was a huge celebration where people from both the Manhattan side and the Brooklyn side crowded to see Emily Roebling be the first person to cross carrying a rooster to symbolize the victory of completing the world’s longest suspension bridge. A week after the opening of the bridge, as some 20,000 people were crossing, the shrieking of a woman sent the crowds into panic as many thought the scream was because the bridge was failing. Within minutes, the panic-stricken crowd had killed some 12 people as they had flailed down a narrow stairway, injuring countless others. In 1884 to prove the strength of the bridge, P.T. Barnum took 21 elephants across, led by the elephant known as Jumbo.

Photo Courtesy of Barnum Museum Exhibitions
Photo Courtesy of Barnum Museum Exhibitions


It wasn’t long until the newly connected cities became the all-encompassing New York City we know today. Thanks to the men who risked their lives to build this modern marvel, the 19th century came to an end with a better understanding of the capabilities of the engineering world and a greater appreciation for the construction workers who made it a reality.