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The Story Behind the Brooklyn Bridge

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 29, 2022 3:04 am

The Story Behind the Brooklyn Bridge

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 29, 2022 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, we learn about the Brooklyn Bridge, with its unprecedented length and two stately towers, was dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” The connection it provided between the massive population centers of Brooklyn and Manhattan changed the course of New York City forever. Here's the History Guy with the story.

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To learn more, visit Bose.com. And we continue here with our American stories, and our next story comes to us from a man who is simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube. The History Guy is also heard here regularly on our American stories. The Brooklyn Bridge represented the growth and might of the Industrial Age and the coming of age of the United States and its largest city.

Here's the History Guy with the story. May 24th 1883, one of the great marvels of the Industrial Age was open to the public for the very first time. A procession of 24 coaches, first one of which carried US President Chester Arthur and New York City Mayor Franklin Edson, across the 6,016 foot suspension bridge, one and a half times longer than any suspension bridge that had been built to that time, across the East River between New York City on Manhattan Island and Brooklyn on Long Island. The headline of the New York Times that day read, Two Great Cities United, although the Times gave its relative opinion of those two great cities the next day when they mentioned that the residents of Brooklyn would be happy to avoid a sometimes difficult ferry ride, but the residents of New York City had no great cause for celebration, as not one in a thousand of them would ever find occasion to use the new structure. The carriage carrying President Arthur and Mayor Edson was not actually the first carriage to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

That event had occurred ten days earlier and the honor of being the first to cross the bridge in a carriage went to Emily Warren Roebling, wife of the chief engineer. In her lap she carried a white rooster which was supposed to represent victory. Mrs. Warren was said to be concerned that the bird might pecker or try to escape the carriage.

The bird itself was said to have crowed the whole way and did not seem to appreciate the role it had to play in the spectacle. The purpose of the crossing was not merely to give Mrs. Roebling and her rooster the honor of being the first to cross the bridge, which she had played such a significant role in building, but also to test whether the horses trotting would make the bridge wobble. The bridge didn't wobble but New York City residents might not have been convinced as to how strong the bridge was until the following year when Showman P.T.

Barham famously walked 21 elephants and 10 camels across it at the same time. But Mrs. Roebling's presence did represent some of the significant challenges that were associated with construction of the great buildings of the 19th century. Mrs. Roebling's involvement in fact began with an accident. While proposals for a bridge across the East River between New York City and Brooklyn were made at least as early as 1800, the design that would become the bridge that opened in 1883 was the brainchild of German board civil engineer John Augustus Roebling. Roebling had built important but smaller suspension bridges in the United States such as the 535 foot Delaware Aqueduct completed in 1849. Suspension bridges of this size were still relatively new especially in the United States and this project would be extraordinary, the New York Times noted.

The art of building these airy structures was then in its infancy here and Mr. John Roebling stood at the head of the engineers who made it a study. Roebling had made a proposal for a bridge between New York City and Brooklyn in 1852. In 1867, the same year that another of his projects, the 1,642 foot Cincinnati-Covington Bridge spanning the Ohio River was completed, the New York State Senate passed a bill that allowed the bridge to be built. A New York and Brooklyn bridge company was incorporated authorizing the sale of five million dollars in public bonds to fund the bridge.

By some accounts bribery was involved in the deal. Still Roebling was appointed chief engineer and began perfecting the plan for construction. Construction in that era was done by hand and as can still be true today included a measure of risk. In a sign of the nature of the risks of the era, on June 18th 1869 Roebling was surveying the location for the bridge when his foot was struck by a ferry. His foot was crushed and several toes had to be amputated. He died 24 days later of tetanus. His death, the first of more than two dozen associated with the construction of the bridge, represented the risks of the time. It wasn't until 1924 that an effective tetanus vaccine was produced.

It wasn't until 1928 that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first general-purpose antibiotic which could be used to treat tetanus. Roebling's death was a stark reminder that the Brooklyn Bridge was built at a time when virtually any injury could result in a likely life-threatening infection. After John Roebling's death his 32 year old son Washington Augustus Roebling was appointed chief engineer.

A Civil War veteran who had built suspension bridges for the Union Army and played a significant role securing the defense of Little Round Top during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Washington had been assistant chief engineer and after his father's death continued to improve the design. Among his designs were the two enormous caissons which would be used to create the foundation for the bridge's two towers. The caissons were massive airtight wooden boxes of some 17,000 square feet. They were constructed on land, floated to the necessary spot on the river and sunk to the floor of the river. They were then filled with compressed air and workers would sit down into them hand digging the riverbed until the caisson reached bedrock or on the New York side compacted sand.

The caisson would then be filled with concrete and become the foundation for the 900,000 ton suspension towers. It was cramped, uncomfortable and dangerous work. The risk showed in 1870 when the wooden structure within the Brooklyn caisson caught fire.

Roebling was eventually forced to flood the caisson to put the fire out and it delayed construction for several months. But there were more risks, among them a particularly risk called caisson disease. The Brooklyn Bridge was not the first example of caisson disease. Doctors as far back as the 18th century had noticed the deadly form of rheumatism that occurred with workers who worked in pressurized environments. The illness was more clearly noted in 1871 among the workers working in caissons building the St. Louis Eads Bridge. Twelve men died from the not well understood condition, whose characteristic painful symptoms resulted in the name The Bends. The cause was decompression sickness, a condition that is the result of dissolved gases coming out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurization. In 1873 the project physician Andrew Smith noted 112 cases of the illness among the caisson workers on the Brooklyn Bridge, eventually resulting in 14 fatalities. Smith coined the term caisson disease. Among those that contracted the condition was Washington Roebling, who frequently went into the caissons to supervise work.

The painful condition left him incapacitated and forced to supervise construction from his bed. His wife Emily became his intermediary, relating his instructions to his assistants and reporting on the construction to him. She became an expert on bridge construction and materials and navigated the political waters of contracts and the Board of Trustees. She would later write to her son that, I have more brains, common sense and know-how generally than have any two engineers, civil or uncivil. While she fought to maintain her husband's title as chief engineer she's generally recognized for being the de facto chief engineer of the project through its completion. Her experience represented the difficulty faced by women in the 19th century. At the bridge opening speaker Abraham Stevens Hewitt described the bridge as an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and her capacity for higher education from which she has been too long, disbarred. But the role that resulted in her carrying the rooster across the bridge in her carriage also underlined the plight of the 112 men whom Dr. Smith had diagnosed with caisson sickness.

The condition, today called decompression sickness, can be effectively prevented with careful decompression procedures. In 1890 an airlock was used during the construction of the Hudson River tunnel, an innovation that would eventually virtually eliminate the condition that afflicted Washington Roebling for the rest of his life. But the completion of construction did not end the peculiar risks of the bridge. The structure, a symbol of a modern city, also demonstrated the problems of urbanization. The crowds coming to see the monument to modernism were huge, even at a toll of one penny for pedestrians. More than a million people paid to cross the bridge in the first six months that it was open. Perhaps the strangest consequence of building the Brooklyn Bridge is that the bridge has become symbolic of a very strange fraud characterized in the line, if you believe that then I have a bridge to sell you, in Brooklyn. The line is not merely hyperbole, it refers to a notorious con man named George C. Parker. According to the website New York City Walks, Parker would create fake documents and fake sales offices and bilk people by selling New York City landmarks, including once masquerading as Ulysses Grant's grandson and selling Grant's tomb. The selling point was the possibility for collecting tolls.

While the bridge opened with tolls, the pedestrian tolls were repealed in 1891 and the vehicle tolls in 1911. Parker would purport to sell the right to operate tolls on the bridge. New York City Walks explains, his greatest con was selling the Brooklyn Bridge.

Legend claimed that he sold it at least twice a week but he did sell it at least several times, including at least once for $50,000. The new owner would discover that he was the victim of a con when the New York City police officers would stop the new owners from setting up toll booths in the middle of the bridge. While George Parker has sometimes been called the greatest con man that ever lived, he couldn't have been that great because he kept getting caught, on his third conviction the judge sent him to New York's Sing Sing prison for life. The Brooklyn Bridge has come to be a symbol of the city. In their obituary for Emily Roebling, who died in 1903 and was eulogized recently in their series on people who were overlooked at the time of their death, the New York Times wrote, the Brooklyn Bridge would go on to become, at least according to lore, the most photographed structure in the world. A gateway to that shining city, as Thomas Wilfwind described it, whose granite towers and thick steel cables have inspired countless artists, musicians, engineers and architects.

Still today, according to the Department of Transportation, more than a hundred thousand cars, four thousand cyclists and ten thousand pedestrians cross the bridge daily. And great job as always by Greg Hengler on the production, a special thanks also to the History Guy. If you want more stories of forgotten history, please subscribe to his YouTube channel.

The History Guy, history deserves to be remembered. A monument to modernism, the gateway to the city, a million people paid to cross that bridge in its first year, but you can cross it for free today. One of only a few bridges in the city you can cross for free, and by all means the next time you visit Manhattan and cross over to the borough of Brooklyn on foot, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. It's stunning. It's one of the most beautiful things you can do on your visit to one of the greatest cities in the world.

The story of the Brooklyn Bridge, here on Our American Stories. So you never became a soccer star, but you could still show out during the FIFA World Cup 2022 with cool soccer swag from Frito-Lay, the official USA snack of the FIFA World Cup 2022. Add your picture to the Golden World Soccer Ball, then pass the ball to fellow fans for a chance to score custom swag. Scan the QR code on specially marked bags of leis, cheetos, or Doritos, or visit fritolayscore.com to join the Pass the Ball Challenge. No purchase necessary.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-29 11:08:52 / 2022-11-29 11:14:45 / 6

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