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Brooklyn Bridge

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Brooklyn Bridge


In the late 18th century, the idea of a bridge spanning a length as great as New York City’s East river seemed unimaginable. Such a leap in structural engineering had not yet been made, and any such effort would surely prove to be monumentally challenging. Many said at the time that it could not be done, that it was a crazy idea. The task of connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan would require an engineer of great skill and confidence. John Augustus Roebling, a German born civil engineer, was up for the challenge. His ability to foresee the importance of such a bridge and the volume of its potential use was extraordinary. Not only was he able to create a functional bridge but a powerful and aesthetically bold masterpiece.


John Augustus Roebling

Immigrating to America in 1831, Roebling decided to become a civil engineer after failed attempts at becoming a farmer in America. He gained a reputation by developing his own method of stranding and weaving wire cables that resulted in an incredibly strong and durable product to be used in the engineering of canals and bridges. The success he achieved with his steel cable design resulted in a flourishing cable company. Not being particularly satisfied with being involved in the business aspect of engineering Roebling passed the business on to his son and went on to design and build suspension bridges. He built four suspension bridges prior to the Brooklyn Bridge; two in Pittsburgh, one at Niagara Falls, and another across the Ohio River. Having such experience and success with previous built bridges, it is easy to see why New York state chose Roebling’s design proposal for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and further appointed him chief engineer. (Britannica)

The Brooklyn Bridge is not only known for its great functionality, but also for its impressive architectural design. In his design and planning phase Roebling knew this would be a structure which would stand for many century’s to come, he needed to choose building materials that would be able to stand this test of time. Due to its strength, durability, and locality, Roebling was able to use one of the great popular stones of the time, granite. Along with the aforementioned qualities, granite is also a beautiful building stone. Taking advantage of the transcontinental railroad system he was able to utilize granite from the Beatties Quarry in Guilford, Connecticut. After 127 years, it is of no question that the stone has proved its structural integrity. Stony creek granite can be found making up the two towers of the Brooklyn Bridge as well as its foundation and abutments. Each of the towers has two gothic cathedral inspired arches in the center that point off at the top. The bridge, specifically its towers, have been referred to as a great source of great inspiration for many authors, poets, artists, and photographers. (Deford,2000)


Although the Brooklyn Bridge has proved to be one of the best architectural accomplishments of it’s time, and one of the most important bridges in New York’s history, it did not come without its hardships, setbacks, and losses. The first setback and loss experienced with its creation occurred before any initial construction had even begun. It was in July of 1869 when John Roebling suffered an injury that would later ultimately lead to his death. While recording compass readings at a ferry dock on the East River to decide placement of the bridge foundations his leg and foot were crushed when an unseen boat pulled up to the dock and caught his leg in between the dock pilings. His toes were so badly injured that doctors had to amputate them, but it was to late he had already developed tetanus and passed away three weeks later. His son, Washington Roebling, who had worked with his father on past bridges, took over his father’s role as chief engineer. (Britannica)

Washington Roebling

Loss of life would unfortunately not become uncommon during the course of bridge construction. Because the bridge foundation had to be laid below water level, the task of doing so was especially complicated. In order to create an area for workers to work in a dry environment at the bottom of the riverbed, pneumatic caissons made of timber were developed and used. A caisson is a large box with no bottom; using a tugboat the caissons are towed out to the proper location and dropped to riverbed floor weighted down by giant granite blocks. Through openings at the top of the pneumatic caissons, which had tunnels leading above water level, compressed air is forced inside the chamber preventing water from rushing in and filling it. Men called “sand hogs” worked in the caisson digging into the riverbed. Another access to the caisson is a “muck tube” which leads to a water pit at the bottom of the caisson. This is where the dirt, rock, and mud dug up by workers exited the caisson; it is sucked up the tube to the surface where a crane with a closing bucket can scoop the waste away. The men dug until they reached solid bedrock and once struck the caisson was then ready to be filled with rock foundation and cement. When digging for the foundation at the Brooklyn side, bedrock was struck at 44 feet below water level, the Manhattan side proved to be much deeper at 78 feet below water level. Working conditions in the caisson were dark, wet, and the air was always saturated with moisture. Atmospheric pressure inside the caissons was four times greater than above water level, creating unbearable inner ear pressure and headaches for workers. More seriously was the lack of understanding of the debilitating and deadly disease known as the decompression sickness or “the bends”. This is caused by rapid decrease of pressure in the body. Since nitrogen levels in the blood are much higher than normal at such depths, surfacing to normal atmospheric pressure quickly does not allow the nitrogen to be released from the body quickly enough. This results in nitrogen building up in the blood stream, causing a wide span of complications in the body. The mildest of symptoms can be a rash and joint pain caused by escaping nitrogen bubbles. The body pain experienced by victims causes them to bend over hence the name “the bends”.  More serious cases lead to paralysis and death. This occurs when symptoms affect the nervous system. (Pulley,2009)


Underwater pneumatic caisson

Over one hundred workers became sick with compression sickness during the construction of the bridge, some dying as a result. Unfortunately for Roebling in 1872 would be one of the more serious cases. After inspecting work in a caisson, he surfaced too quickly which lead to a bout of compression sickness leaving him paralyzed and bed ridden for the remainder of the bridge’s construction. Having the same determination and unrelenting will as his father, this did not exclude Washington Roebling entirely from overseeing the bridges construction. He moved to a city apartment where he could view the construction site with binoculars and a telescope. His wife Emily Roebling took charge of the bridges construction. She learned bridge engineering and advanced mathematics so she could better oversee construction of the bridge.

Emily Roebling

On May 24, 1883 fourteen years after the start of construction on the Brooklyn Bridge, and twenty-seven lost lives, the bridge was finally completed. At the time it was the longest suspension bridge in the world with a main span of 1, 600 feet. It was also the highest structure in New York City and considered “the 8th wonder of the world” by many. The bridge would change the course of the city’s history forever. Due to the ease of access between the two cities that the bridge allowed, it resulted in the direct expansion of New York. Fifteen years after its opening in 1883, Brooklyn merged with New York City, Staten Island, and other small farm towns to form Greater New York. As part of the opening celebrations and in an effort to put a weary public at rest, Barnum and Bailey circus marched across the bridge to prove its structural integrity, elephants and all. (NYC Roads)

After one glimpse of the New York City skyline, it becomes undeniably apparent why the Brooklyn Bridge is arguably one of the most influential structures in the western hemispheres history. Its tall towers stand powerfully against the city backdrop, accented by its steel suspension cables swooping down from either side of each tower. Not only has the bridge served as a crucial player in the growth and success of one of the greatest cities in the world, but is one of the greatest architectural accomplishments of its time. The Brooklyn Bridge has surely set precedents for future bridges built.









Deford , Deborah. (2000). Flesh and Stone. Stony Creek: Quarry Workers Celebration.

John Augustus Roebling. Britannica. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/506711/John-Augustus-Roebling

Brooklyn Bridge Opens. History.com. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/brooklyn-bridge-opens

Brooklyn Bridge Historical Overview . Nyc roads.com. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/brooklyn/

Pulley, Stephen . (2009, September 17). Decompression sickness . Retrieved from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/769717-overview





Last Updated on Monday, 29 November 2010 10:47  


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Flesh and Stone

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Uncirculated: Shrink wrapped in clear plastic from original Italian publisher, 1999. Ships with fresh samples of sparkling Stony Creek pink granite for historians, collectors, geologists and classrooms. Additional samples available upon request.