This is historical reference material about the beginnings of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the post we explore various topics such as planning of the bridge, a fire that took place during the construction and much more. This information and material comes from the public domain Ebook “The New York and Brooklyn Bridge” by Alfred Barnes. If you enjoy the material below please feel free to read or download the complete book absolutely for FREE by going to the bottom of this post. Also be sure to check out our Brooklyn Bridge Poster prints from our online store at the bottom of this post.
The Great Bridge is done. Few realize the fact. Many amiable people have gradually formed the idea that this enterprise was a gift in benevolent preparation for
posterity, and often inquire, with Sir Boyle Roche, what posterity has done for us. There are even some who have looked upon the grim towers as useless monuments of an impracticable scheme. But through so many years of waiting, the work has crept slowly on. In all human probability, the van of the unending procession of passengers for whom it is designed will cross the completed structure in thirty days from the present time.
Twenty-five years ago the subject of a suspension bridge between New York and Brooklyn began to be agitated. Its earliest advocate, and probably original projector, was Colonel Julius W. Adams of this city. His first idea was to span the river from Brooklyn Heights, at Montague street, to Broadway in New York. But money and courage, practical science and population, to justify such a vast undertaking were wanting in that day. Nevertheless, Colonel Adams never lost itnerest in the subject, and finally fond an appreciative listener in the person of Mr. William C. Kingsley. Being accustomed to enterprises of great magnitude, and withal a public spirited citizen, Mr. Kingsley became convinced of the advisability and practicability of a suspension bridge. He interested a few other gentlemen, among whom were Senator Henry C. Murphy, and Hon. J.S.T. Stranahan, and steps were immediately taken to forward the project.
A new plan was then devised by Colonel Adams, which contemplated a bridge from Fulton Ferry, Brooklyn, to Chatham Square in New York. It was a light and comparatively inadequate structure, but the friends of the enterprise took the drawings to Albany, and so stoutly argued their case, that, in 1866, the legislature granted a charter to the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company. Privilege was thereby given to the company to expend five million dollars or which three million was to be appropriated by the City of Brooklyn as the greatest beneficiary, $1.5 Million by the city of New York, and $500,000 by private stock-holders. An Act of Congress was also obtained, giving the company permission, under certain restrictions for the protection of navigation, to bridge an arm of the sea.
The gentlemen composing the first board of directors were deeply impressed with the responsibility imposed upon them. An enterprise of such magnitude, and involving engineering problems of an unprecedented difficulty, required the most skilful professional
supervision. As soon as the sanction of the law and the favorable verdict of the two cities had been obtained, all eyes were turned toward John A. Roebling, the master bridge builder of the world. Mr. Roebling was then in the prime of his powers, and in possession
of the most valuable experience; at the time having just completed the great bridge at Cincinnati, which, excepting the subject of our present sketch, is the most remarkable structure of its kind.
Mr. Roebling’s services were engaged; he removed to Brooklyn, and the office of the bridge company was formally established in the building of the Daily Union. The newly appointed engineer-in-chief then devoted himself for months to close calculation, and finally produced the plans and specifications which have been substantially followed to the present day. Their wonderful accuracy was never doubtful; but the modest Mr. Roebling insisted upon a council of engineers to revise them. The bridge company accordingly summoned the best talen which the profession could afford.
A little scientific congress thereupon assembled in Brooklyn. In the hands of these experts Mr. Roebling’s papers were placed, and with great zeal and fidelity the entire work was reviewed and proved. The consulting engineers expressed their complete satisfaction.
Between the completion of the bridge on paper and the inauguration of construction, a distressing event took place. This was the death of Mr. Roebling, in 1869. It was difficult to believe that the loss would not prove irreparable, and yet in fact Providence had preserved
him to be the real builder of the bridge, although not a hammerhad been lifted when he died. His son, Colonel W.A. Roebling, who was already associated with the work, enjoyed the confidence and shared the ability of his father. The board of trustees appointed him chief engineer-the position which he has held during the entire progress of construction. Associated with him were, and still are, the following professional staff: Mr. C.C. Martin, principal assistant engineer; Colonel W.H. Payne, in charge of superstructure; Messrs. F. Collingwood and S. Probasco, in charge of the New York approach; Major G.W. Mcnulty, in charge of the Brooklyn approach.
All being now in readiness, the work of actual construction was commenced January 2nd, 1870. The huge caissions, or platforms of timber and iron on which the towers now rest, were built (that for Brooklyn at Greenpoint, and that for New York at the foot of Sixth street), and towed down the river like rafts. The Brooklyn caisson arrived first, and was securely anchored in its place. Upon its broad surface, 102×168 feet, an army of masons at once began to place granite blocks from Maine, slowly sinking the caisson; while an army of diggers in the interior removed the earth and boulders, seeking a solid foundation
for the prodigious weight that was to be imposed.
The romance of life in the caisson had a certain fascination for people above ground, but it was in fact a rather unpleasant reality to the laborers below. To resist the pressure of water it was necessary to force a condensed atmosphere into the great chamber. In the New York caisson the pressure of air at the last was equal to 35 pounds to the square inch. Breathing was a labor, and labor extremely exhausting. Yet brave men subject themselves to physical suffering of this day after day, that the great work might go, until many cases nervous diseases and paralysis would follow.
One afternoon word was brought to the upper world that the Brooklyn caisson was on fire! The engineers were at once notified, and set themselves resolutely to confront the unexpected and indeed appalling danger. Some workman’s candle had ignited the oakum with which the seams were caulked. Unnoticed at the time, the fire erupted upward and attacked the mass of timber, 15 feet thick, of which the roof of the caisson was composed. Here it was almost inaccesible, by reason of the superincumbent mass of granite, and the fact that the ceiling of the caisson was as yet unaffected. The workmen were not themselves aware of the fire, when they were quietly summoned to come up, and firemen took their place.
Streams of water were directed upon the fire through auger holes drilled for the purpose, but unsuccessfully. Then exhaust steam was used in the same manner, and, to the great relief of the anxious watchers, the flames disappeared. But the carpenters, who were directed to ascertain the extent of the damage, upon removing a portion of the ceiling, found that the fierce element was still raging with what appeared to be inextinguishable fury. If it could not be checked the whole tower, which was then pretty well advanced, would soon tumble in ruin through the smouldering caisson to the river’s bed. Colonel Roebling was summoned at midnight, and at once resolved to flood the work. The pressure of air was withdrawn; the water oozed through every seam, assisted by a deluge from above, and in a few hours the caisson was thoroughly saturated.
This occurred on a Thursday. On the following Monday the waters had been expelled, and an examination revealed the welcome fact that the damage was not irreparable. It is alarming to think what the result might have been if the presence of the fire had not been accidentally discovered before it was too late. To avoid a similar danger, the interior
of the New York caisson was lined with sheet iron.
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