FOR ONCE the chauvinist trumpets of Brooklyn were right, when they blared a hundred years ago that their Brooklyn Bridge was the supreme man made work of this continent from the beginning of time.
There is no reason now, in this centennial year of the bridge, to nit-pick their old boast, except in one detail: they said it was the greatest feat of masonry since the Pyramids, and there is no reason (we see now) to rank the Pyramids with the Brooklyn Bridge as a marvel. The Pyramids were donkey work. The great bridge over the East River, on the contrary, is instinct with tension, movement, and may possibly be the most beautiful structure ever raised by man.
Maybe the Pont du Gard is in the same league? Maybe the Pantheon? But there are not many constructions to rival it.
The Capitol is, by contrast, a work to make a cow smile. In Washington, only the Monument to George Washington shares even to a slight degree the majesty of the bridge, and of course it was vastly simpler and easier to erect.
So it is not surprising that anniversary celebrations in Brooklyn began yesterday with a big show at the Brooklyn Museum. Many of the most beautiful engineering drawings are on display (discovered in a vault under the Williamsburg Bridge) along with paintings and drawings by Childe Hassam, George Luks, Joseph Stella, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, Saul Steinberg and so on. There are also famous photographs more than a century old, showing work on the bridge, Edward Steichen's romantic 1903 photograph and Walker Evans' illustrations for Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge," one of the handful of important American poems.
In May the Smithsonian Institution will open an important show on the bridge here and on the anniversary itself, May 24, New York will dazzle the universe with fireworks, planned to be the greatest display in the history of the town (at the dedication of the bridge 14,000 tons of stars and booms went off, and the sober old town of Brooklyn went quite mad with joy.)
In no later bridges were more hideous obstacles overcome. The toil, the pain, the faith of its construction have rarely been equalled, never surpassed, and never elsewhere rewarded with such a triumph to show for all the agony.
It wasn't all agony, of course. Some of it was a comedy of errors.
Since 1800 there had been hortatory thundering that New York and Brooklyn should be tied by a bridge. There was one supplier, once the bridge got near completion, who kept furnishing substandard wire for the cables and every time they caught him in one outrage he devised a way to commit another. Then amid the horror of the 20 to 40 deaths (there is no official list since the bridge company in 1870 was not thinking in those terms) there was the remarkable Frank Harris (not the lively writer of "My Life and Loves," but another fellow of the same name) who fell off the great tower during construction. The twin towers are 276.5 feet above high water. His sad friends descended to pick up the poor squashed bones and mangled flesh, but behold they heard Harris hollering with all his lungs. He had fallen into a concrete bucket which rested in three feet of water. He was back on the job within eight days.
How different the grim fate of another workman up in the heights whose wheelbarrow wheel veered off the tower into space. Instead of letting it fall, he held on for dear life or, in the event, ghastly death. Another workman, instead of making the full right-angle turn atop the bridge masonry, tried the diagonal (the hypotenuse is a shorter distance than the sum of the two sides, he was right about that) when something hit him during his little hop, and with nothing beneath his feet he fell to death.
Even more terrible were the pains of the men who worked in great caissons far beneath the surface of the river, scraping out mud, dead cats, boulders of gneiss, to give the bridge a durable foundation, for many of these men who worked in compressed-air chambers came up to the outer air too rapidly and got the bends, so that some men died immediately, some a few hours later, and far more men suffered such pains in various parts of their bodies as may be compared (for viciousness) only to a severe blow to the testicles. Some men suffered for years, some for the rest of their lives.
Of the thousands who labored on the bridge from 1857 to 1883, three names are greatest, John, Washington and Emily Roebling. Without them the bridge could not have been built, and the sufferings both physical and spiritual that they endured were so great that one can hardly believe, even with the finished bridge before one, that they could possibly have succeeded.
John Roebling was a middle-class man of some means, born and admirably educated in Germany, who came to America in 1831 to establish an ideal community. There were several "ideal" communities being established in America, but Roebling's new community in Pennsylvania, called Saxonburg, was not to be one of these socialist dreams. It was more or less understood, or else soon learned, that Roebling would dominate the place. His aim was not religious freedom or escape from poverty, but the uninhibited chance to become all a man might become. This was possible, he thought, in unfettered America, unshackled with centuries of custom and restriction.
He imported some 60 Germans and in relatively short time the town was prospering handsomely. The main trouble, as far as Roebling was concerned, is that evidently he became bored past endurance with so much success and so many wholesome vegetables. Having got everybody to move to Saxonburg, he himself moved off to Trenton, N.J.
He turned to surveying. He improvised an aqueduct on the suspension-bridge theory. He built several bridges, including famous ones at Niagara Falls and at Cincinnati.
By 1857 he had drawn plans for a bridge across the East River. People said it couldn't be done. The legislature at Albany granted a charter for a private company to build it, with the taxpayers of New York (a third the cost) and Brooklyn (two-thirds) footing the bill. There were a few private stockholders including such an unsavory character as Boss Tweed of New York. The Roeblings, who possibly thought that unlike Tweed they had a reputation for honor to keep up, never owned a share of stock.
John Roebling from the beginning counted on his son, Col. Washington (not named for George Washington but another man) Augustus Roebling, to be his right-hand man. Young Roebling had spent a year in Europe learning new techniques in building, especially the management of caissons.
The elder Roebling one day was poking about the East River to plot the exact site of the bridge when a ferry crushed his foot against wood. His toes were promptly amputated, after which he undertook his own recovery. He had various unorthodox notions (apart from building a bridge over the East River) including unbounded faith in clear running water. Treating himself, he died within a matter of days, a frightful death from lockjaw.
His son was left to carry on, following and improving on the elder Roebling's original plans. For years--and even today--people confused the two men. John was the original designer. Washington was the chief engineer from the start of construction 'til its completion. And, critically, he was the authority on caissons.
A caisson is a wooden box (the largest one for this bridge was a box almost half an acre in size) filled with compressed air. Sunk to the bottom of the river, and fitted with an air chamber through which laborers could enter and descend, once the air pressure was raised to the pressure existing in the caisson, it made possible the excavation of river mud, gravel, stone and detritus, since all these materials were sent to the surface via carefully designed tubes within the caisson.
Simple in theory, the caissons were heartbreakingly complex in execution. As the men dug deeper and deeper, the great wooden box sank, since the limestone foundation of the tower was set directly on the caisson roof. And atop that foundation the granite piers and the arches of the bridge itself were erected. All of this rested on the caisson roof, which was yellow pine.
The roof of the New York caisson was 22 feet of solid timber, logs a foot square in cross-section. Each layer of timbers was set at right angles to the one below and the one above, and the tight joints between individual timbers were filled with oakum.
A roof of wood 22 feet thick seems unbelievable to begin with, but even while the men were working in it, 28,000 tons of stone were resting on it. On Dec. 1, 1870, the end-all nightmare of an engineer occurred. Fire broke out in the Brooklyn caisson and was "put out." Washington Roebling was aware of the compressed air in the caisson beneath the roof, which was forcing high levels of oxygen into the smallest cavity. He took superhuman precautions, therefore, to be certain the fire was truly out. And it was not. Before he was done, he discovered the fire had eaten five feet into the wooden roof and had spread as much as 50 feet horizontally. The endless tons of stone were resting on several inches of charred ashes. If this roof gave way, the stone would fall, of course, crushing the caisson and the men in it and putting an end once and for all to the great tower that was to support the bridge.
Before the fire damage was fully corrected, 600 cubic feet of cement repairs had to be picked out, almost as a dentist works on a tooth cavity, and a team of expert workers took more than two months to replace the charred roof timbers, but the roof held and did not collapse.
Washington Roebling was building the most ambitious bridge ever erected in the long history of men. Nobody had ever tried caissons so large. The East River, moreover, is not a nice European river, but a tidal channel off the bay and the sea, not really a river at all, and subject to terrible winds, tides and currents.
Ideally the foundations for the two enormous towers (dwarfing everything else on the New York skyline and taller than the iron dome of the Capitol at Washington) would rest on bedrock.
But of course the deeper beneath the surface of the river that the men dug, the greater the air pressure had to be. Not much was known in the 1870s about the effect of air pressure on men working in compressed-air chambers, and not all that was known then in Europe was known in New York. Men began to get the bends. Roebling himself, who was in and out of the caisson as much as, or more than, any other man, was so severely stricken that one night it was feared he could not live until morning.
The villain is nitrogen, which under heavy pressure enters the blood stream and interferes with blood oxygen. If decompression is gradual enough (when the men return to the surface) the nitrogen bubbles do not build up and no harm is done. But decompression of the men was extremely quick, since it was not known how critical a gradual lessening of the pressure is.
In the New York caisson, as men began to die, Roebling had a harrowing choice to make. If the foundations were pressed ever downward to bedrock, he estimated 100 men, maybe more, would die. If work stopped where it was, the foundations would be resting not on rock but on compacted sand.
He thought the sand with its traprock was firm enough--at least as good as any concrete he could use--to hold the enormous weight of the granite towers with their cables pressing down on them.
For the past 100 years this foundation has proved adequate. But if Roebling had guessed wrong, the entire foundation would have shifted and the bridge would have collapsed.
Roebling's health seemed doomed, however. He had no single day without severe pain. He could not maintain a conversation even for a few minutes with anyone except his wife, Emily. He lost sight to the extent he could no longer sign his name. He was not paralyzed, however (as people speculated), nor had he died, though some said he had, since after December 1870 he was never again seen at the construction site.
Fearing death, he worked all the harder on every smallest detail. His wife, who had always been good at mathematics, became an expert on engineering details and relayed her husband's most minute instructions to the crew at the site. Fortunately for everybody, she was apparently the soul of tact and smoothed many a jagged edge better than her husband or her father-in-law had ever been able to do. (A well-deserved bronze plaque on the bridge memorializes her critical role in its building.)
The Roeblings had made their money in wire cables, since the day that John Roebling read of them in a European journal, and saw their inherent superiority to hemp. (In his first demonstration of his metal cable, it broke. This proved to be sabotage arranged by his hemp-cable competition, and he was given a second chance to prove his new product, and succeeded.)
A bridge costing millions, even in 1870 dollars, with a curious charter vesting great discretion among a mere handful of stockholders with public money bearing all the real risk, was an open invitation to political surveillance and interest, or, if you prefer, graft.
The sudden collapse of Boss Tweed's political machine occurred early enough in the bridge history that apparently no dollars to speak of went down unholy drains. There were investigations and a clean bill of health was given.
Washington Roebling, in terrible health for years as the bridge construction went on, lived in Brooklyn Heights (110 Columbia Heights, a house now demolished) from a window of which he had a superb view of work going on a few blocks away.
The exact nature of his sickness is not known. The bends did not account for everything. He himself spoke of nervous exhaustion. He used to say, and it was true, that the bridge was mainly in his head. The responsibility for such decisions as the depth of the foundations, the design of the caissons, and several thousand details small enough in themselves but critical to the stability of the final structure, may have done more damage than the nitrogen bubbles in his blood.
Amazingly enough, as the bridge neared completion, his health began to improve. Instead of dying on a cold night in 1870 as his wife and doctors expected, he in fact lived until 1926, and yet it seems impossible to exaggerate the sacrifices he made for this bridge, or the cold courage with which he persisted through the darkest days of its construction.
Along the way, a panoply of important but lesser characters pass. "Proceedings of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Committee from 1867 to 1884" is laconic, for all its 800 packed pages, full of interesting information; and more readable accounts are "The Great Bridge" by David McCullough, the best account of all in its 600-odd eminently readable pages, and the brief admirable book by Judith St. George, "The Brooklyn Bridge--They Said It Couldn't Be Built."
The bridge was almost ready to open, everyone thought, when Roebling decided on additional truss-work, adding another year. People had been waiting for decades for the bridge; it seemed to them that a semi-mythical and certainly unseen engineer kept delaying the opening and running up the cost, which by now was double John Roebling's estimate of $6.5 million (it had reached $13,377,000 by 1882, a year before completion). For 12 solid years construction had been going on without a single visit from the chief engineer. Few members of the Bridge Committee had ever even met him. It was hard, therefore, for some people to trust the bridge totally to this invisible engineer.
There actually was a move, which failed, to remove Washington Roebling as chief engineer, almost on the eve of his long-awaited triumph in successfully erecting the greatest bridge of the world thus far.
President Chester Arthur, New York Gov. Grover Cleveland, mayors and dignitaries turned out for the grand dedication--People's Day, it was called, possibly because the general public paid for it.
Roebling himself had never set foot on the bridge and was unable to turn out for the ceremonies. Several thousand invitations went out for positions on the bridge itself, across which the dignitaries marched from New York to Brooklyn, and several thousand more were sent for ceremonies within the station at the Brooklyn end of the bridge. Emily Roebling had ridden alone in a victoria across the bridge before its formal dedication, the first human to do so. She carried a live rooster in a cage with her. If she felt cocky, or if any other Roebling did, surely there was cause.
The president and everybody else packed into the Roebling house on Columbia Heights for a reception afterwards. The place was laden with flowers. Washington Roebling was able to remain downstairs until the president departed, then went up to bed, and as he ascended the stairs everyone applauded. It was the first open token of appreciation since he began his work decades before.
Novel then and novel now is the promenade of the bridge, a walk elevated 11 feet above the wheeled traffic and reserved for pedestrians. Roebling father and son, despite what some people thought was eccentricity or remoteness or worse, had curiously civilized notions that a bridge was for walking citizens peering about, now at the skyline, now at the towers, now at the ships sailing beneath, now at the sky itself.
Suspension bridges are almost invariably of iron or steel. Brooklyn, or The Great Bridge, is of granite. Its four Gothic arches, through which the roadways run, are gates into another world. Even if it's just Brooklyn (a resident of Manhattan might say). The cables, however, mark the first major use of steel in America in a structure of this importance.
As in so many ventures of great engineering, the bridge was instantly seen as far more than a paved roadway between two New York boroughs. From the beginning it was recognized as a nearly superhuman essay in American optimism, designed by immigrants and built largely with immigrant labor. It was monumental, and it was beautiful. Its steel suspender cables from the great overhead cables resting on the towers are crossed by diagonal steel stays, like celestial guy wires. The cables fall in a catenary curve (the idential curve of a loose clothesline) and the road of the bridge arches up as the cables arch down.
How could mere toil, as the poet Hart Crane once inquired, align those choiring strings? A good question. Either something more than engineering is involved, or else engineering is a far more sublime art than is thought.
The bridge is silver-paced, as the goddess Artemis is said to have been. No later exercise--the George Washington, the Bay or other bridges--has captured the imagination of people like the Great Bridge over the East River, possibly because they are nowhere near so beautiful, so wide-eyed and strong looking.
The Great Bridge, granite and steel (and yellow pine beneath the mud of the river) drops the cables down and soars them up and of this curveship lends (as again Crane observed marvelously) a myth to God.
At one point somebody suggested tearing the old bridge down. I think they just lynched him and good riddance.
A few years ago an exhaustive study was made of the bridge to see what needed to be done to it after all these years. Of course maintenance and replacement goes on as it does on every massive structure of the kind. But the verdict, after examination, was that the bridge did indeed need work: a coat of paint.