Weird History Building The Brooklyn Bridge Was An Unimaginably Complex And Brutal Undertaking  

Noelle Talmon
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The Brooklyn Bridge is not only one of the top attractions of New York City, but it is also one of the oldest suspension bridges in the world. It connects Manhattan to Brooklyn and crosses the East River. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. But building the bridge was a huge undertaking and fraught with tragedy. It took 14 years to complete and nearly 30 people died from various incidents during its construction.

After the bridge was completed in 1883, it supported horse-drawn carriages and rail traffic. A separate elevated walkway in the center was designated for pedestrians and bicycles. The bridge has carried six lanes of automobile traffic since 1950. After receiving a "poor" rating during a routine inspection, the bridge was renovated between 2010 and 2015 at a cost of $558 million. On an average weekday, an estimated 145,000 vehicles cross the bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge has been an invaluable method of transportation, particularly during the 1965, 1977, and 2003 New York City blackouts. In 2001, it famously transported thousands of pedestrians following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, when bus and subway services were suspended. To learn more about the disturbing and difficult task of building the Brooklyn Bridge, read on below. 

A German Immigrant Designed The Bridge, But He Died Before Construction Began


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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

John Augustus Roebling was a German immigrant who moved to Pennsylvania when he was 25 years old. He was born in 1806 and went to Berlin to study industrial engineering where he became known for designing suspension bridges. At that time, suspension bridges often failed in strong winds or when heavy loads were placed on them.

To stabilize these types of bridges, Roebling developed a web truss, which is placed on each end of the bridge roadway. He made sure the Brooklyn Bridge was six times stronger than he thought it needed to be. He built bridges with similar technology at the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls, New York, and the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge was slated to begin in 1869. However, while Roebling was taking some compass readings across the East River, a boat smashed some of his toes. He died of tetanus three weeks later. His son, Washington Roebling, stayed on as the project's chief engineer.

It Was The First Steel Suspension Bridge In The World


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Photo: Daniel Berry Austin/Wikimedia Commons

New York legislators were impressed with John Roebling’s credentials and, in 1867, they approved his ambitious plan to build a suspension bridge over the East River, linking Manhattan and Brooklyn. The suspension bridge would be the first one made out of steel and the longest in the world. The plans had the Brooklyn Bridge spanning 1,600 feet from tower to tower. It was 50% longer than its predecessors. 

Workers Earned $2 A Day And Worked In Wooden Boxes Under The Water


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Photo: The American Cyclopædia/Wikimedia Commons

Many of the people working on the bridge were immigrants. They earned $2 a day and were called "sandhogs." They cleared out the mud and boulders at the bottom of the river using shovels and dynamite in wooden boxes known as caissons. To be clear: the wooden boxes were underwater. Workers were transported to these highly pressurized boxes and tasked with excavating the riverbed and laying a granite foundation on the bedrock. 

Over 100 Laborers Suffered From "The Bends" And At Least Five Died From It


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Photo: Geo. P. Hall & Son/Wikimedia Commons

In order for the sandhogs to reach the caissons where they were excavating the foundation, they were forced to travel in small iron containers called airlocks. When the airlocks descended, they filled with compressed air to provide oxygen for workers. However, the airlocks also released a gas into the sandhogs' blood streams. When the workers came up from under the water, they suffered from "caisson disease," commonly known as "the bends," due to the gas in their blood streams being rapidly released upon their return to the surface. 

More than 100 laborers suffered from caisson disease in the course of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Five people even died. It is characterized by debilitating symptoms, including joint pain, paralysis, convulsions, numbness, and speech impediments.