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The Brooklyn Bridge – Eighth Wonder of the World


The Brooklyn Bridge IS New York City. More than the Statue of Liberty, which we have to share with those guys over in New Jersey; more than the Empire State Building, which we have to share with the rest of America; more than the United Nations, which we have to share with the rest of world C the Brooklyn Bridge IS New York City.

Currier and Ives, 1885

Actually, there is a New Jersey connection to the bridge.  John Augustus Roebling considered Trenton, the capital of New Jersey to be his hometown, and spent a great deal of time there during

The Brooklyn Bridge is a marvel of financing, engineering and beauty. When it opened in 1883, it was considered the eighth wonder of the world C and as far as I am concerned it still is. In 1883, it was the longest bridge ever to span a river C more than a mile long. It was the first bridge to be illuminated by electricity at night from its own power plant on the Brooklyn side. It was the first to use galvanized steel in its main cables. The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was considered to be on the magnitude of the building of the Suez Canal and the Trans-Continental Railroad. In fact, both were finished in shorter periods of time than the Brooklyn Bridge.

Part II: Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge:

John August Roebling, the Father


You may ask, why was the Brooklyn Bridge built? John Augustus Roebling was the financial, the artistic, and the engineering genius who constructed the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling was a man of action. With the help of his family, he transformed other people’s dreams into reality.

How did Roebling come to construct this huge marvel? One day in 1852, when the only way to cross the river was by boat, the ferry Roebling was riding got stuck in the ice. While others cursed, Roebling planned a solution. Roebling was the first engineer to propose a bridge across the waterway. The roadway would go through the heart of both cites and connect New York City Hall to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The walking  promenade would “allow people of leisureCold and youngCto stroll over the bridge on fine days.” Roebling sent his proposal to Abram Hewitt, a great business leader, and a future mayor of New York City. Hewitt publicized the plan. William Cruz Murphy, the former mayor of Brooklyn and the publisher of the Brooklyn Eagle championed the idea. The editor of the newspaper, Walt Whitman, had previously pleaded for a bridge across the East River.

Above all, Roebling loved a challenge. This bridge had to be the tallest, the strongest, the longest, and the finest in the world. The East River is a turbulent tidal strait connecting Upper New York Bay with Long Island Sound. The bridge would have to be so tall that only a few ships would have to trim their sails on one of the busiest waterways in the world. During the 13 years it took to build the bridge, maritime traffic was never interrupted.


Brooklyn Bridge Caisson

Finally, the New York politicians got their act together. In the harsh winter of 1867, when the East River was choked with ice, the New York State legislature chartered the Brooklyn Bridge Company, later renamed the New York Bridge Company, to build the bridge. William Murphy became the president of the Board of Trustees. On May 23, 1867, John Roebling was appointed chief engineer by the company he had created.

You may ask, who was John Augustus Roebling? He was born in Germany in 1806,  and from his early youth engineering and bridge-building animated his passions. At the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Berlin, his philosophy professor, Frederick Hegel, recommended that Roebling learn English. As tradition and bureaucracy would prevent Roebling from ever building bridges in Germany, the young man decided his future lay abroad, and in 1831 he departed for America.


Roebling, from the very beginning, advocated designs and materials to build strong bridges. Not one of the bridges he built ever fell down. This was a real accomplishment because one out of four American bridges built between 1840 and 1880 collapsed. The oldest standing American suspension bridge is the one built by John Augustus Roebling in 1848 near Port Jervis, New York. It is now part of Delaware National Historic Recreation Area.  Roebling helped make America the land of great suspension bridges where most of the world’s suspension bridges are found.

His company, John Roebling & Sons, became the foremost manufacturer of  cable in America. In 1841, Roebling invented “iron rope” or cable to replace the hemp rope that had previously been used. Roebling eventually had eleven patents to his credit. Bridges, mines, and railroads demanded what he made. His company spun the cable for the George Washington Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge. He set up his factory in Trenton, New Jersey, which he considered his hometown. In turn, the City considered him its hometown hero. His statue stands in Cadwalader City Park to this very day. People remarked that the statue looked exactly like Roebling’s son, Washington Augustus. But then it should, because it was he who had posed for the statue.

On June 24, 1869 while surveying the shores of the East River for the exact site to begin construction, Roebling sustained fatal injuries. He was so busy scouting the area that his toes became trapped between the ferry and the landing. John Roebling died from gangrene and tetanus a few days later.

Part III: Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge:

Washington August Roebling, the Son


Fortunately, his son, Washington Augustus Roebling, was determined not only to follow his father’s plans but was flexible enough to modify them as unanticipated problems occurred.   And in turn, he had the support and the partnership of his wife Emily Warren Roebling.

You may ask, who was Washington Augustus Roebling the son? John Augustus Roebling. The father, had taught his son to work hard and to be self-reliant. He had trained Washington Roebling to follow in the family business as both a businessman and as an engineer. Washington studied engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Washington Roebling fought for the Union in the Civil War. He reconnoitered by air balloon, constructed pontoon bridges as an engineering officer, and was the first man on top of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.


Washington met Emily Warren at the Second Corps Officers Ball given by her brother, the commanding general, Gouvernor K. Warren. Warren had ordered the Union troops to occupy Little Round Top. After they married in January 1865, Roebling resigned from the army. They accepted the elder Roebling’s offer to pay for their honeymoon if they would observe the latest bridge-building techniques in America and Europe.   Upon his father’s death, Washington Roebling became the chief engineer of the bridge.

Dredging was completed in the spring of 1870. A caisson, designed by the Roeblings and the largest ever built, was used to build the Brooklyn Tower. Imagine a submarine open at the bottom. It sinks as the mud is dug out through a series of pressure chambers. At the same time, construction of the tower is begun on top of the submarine. Once the submarine hits bedrock, it is filled with concrete. This then becomes the solid foundation for the tower.


Cabling the Bridge

Like his father, Washington worked closely with the men and shared their hardships and dangers. The air inside the caisson was stuffy. Temperatures reached over 100 degrees. The bends was a great hazard.  Since its medical cause was not yet understood, it posed a great danger. As the men went deeper, nitrogen would accumulate in the blood. If they went up too fast without allowing time for decompression, nitrogen bubbles would disrupt the body. There were casualties among the workmen. Washington got the bends for the first time when he saved the Brooklyn caisson when it caught fire in December 1871. The Brooklyn caisson reached a depth of 45 feet, equal to five stories, before hitting bedrock. This is also known as AManhattan schist,@ the ideal foundation for skyscrapers.


Washington August Roebling in his home in Brooklyn Heights where looked through a telescope to monitor the Brooklyn Bridge construction

The New York caisson proved even more dangerous. On May 1872 Roebling ordered the digging to stop at a depth of 78 feet 6 inches to avoid further loss of life. By this time, Roebling had suffered his second and most disabling attack of the bends. His eyes, muscles and vocal cords were permanently damaged. He remained in pain the rest of his life and became a recluse. Roebling decided to risk his reputation and career on the decision not to reach to bedrock, which was another 30 feet down.. Since the Brooklyn Bridge has not yet fallen down, apparently he made the right decision. The 13 years it took to build the bridge witnessed the death of only 20 workers, a remarkably low casualty rate for the time.  Thanks to the assistance of  his helpmate, Emily Warren Roebling, he was able to complete the bridge.

Part IV: Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge:

Emily Warren Roebling, the Wife


You may ask, who was Emily Roebling? Emily Warren Roebling is the undersung, under-appreciated heroine of the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily was born and raised in the Upper Hudson River Valley at Cold Spring, New York. Although Emily had no formal training, she learned engineering from her brother and from her husband. Emily was fantastic in supervising people, whether they were office workers or construction laborers, and dealing with the politicians and the press. It was a most remarkable achievement at a time when the number of women who were lawyers or doctors in America could be counted on one hand. There were no women engineers at all.

Together, husband and wife would become an unbeatable team. Washington solved the engineering problems; Emily implemented the solutions. Washington was the engineer, the number-cruncher; Emily, the good manager, was the people person. She also handled her husband’s correspondence. When the mayor of Brooklyn tried to fire her husband from the project because he would not finish as quickly as the mayor wanted, she rallied the board of trustees to her husband=s side.


Ironically, Emily would not have become the world=s first woman engineer if her husband had utilized the newly invented telephone. J. L. Haige became the first paid telephone subscriber in the city for a telephone. A five mile-long wire was laid across the half finished Brooklyn Bridge, connecting this office to his steel-wire plan in Brooklyn.

Haige was the one who put rotten cable into the bridge before he was caught. The inspectors observed that the bad pile of steel kept on getting smaller instead of bigger.  They followed a wagon full of approved steel to a warehouse and saw that a switch was being made.  Haighe was made to put extra steel cable onto the bridge and he was replaced as the contractor for this operation by John August Roebling and Sons.

Part V: Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge:  Frank Farrington, the Master Mechanic


Once the towers were in place, cabling the bridge became a major event. All river traffic stopped. Huge crowds watched as the workers labored to connect the cables across the East River. On August 14, 1876, the first slender wire was strung from tower to tower. The headline in the Brooklyn Eagle proclaimed: “Wedded!” while the  New York Tribune considered it “an engagement.”


To this single strand, other wires would be added. Emily Roebling selected Frank Farrington, the master mechanic, to do the bridge crossing by cable. Farrington showed the untrained workers how safe it would be to work so high in the air. [He had given a number of highly popular lantern-slide lectures at Cooper Union and the Brooklyn Music Hall.] On August 25, he rode in a boatswain’s chair tied to a wire rope. At one point, he tipped his hat to the crowd of 10,000 people below. His trip took 22 minutes. Today, you can walk across the bridge in 20 minutes or jog across in eight minutes.

Part VI: The Grand Opening


Opening Day 24 May 1883

On May 24, 1883, the formal opening of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” took place. The bridge was illuminated by electricity for the occasionCthe first time this had ever been done. It was the biggest celebration New York had seen since the opening of the Erie Canal or the New York Water Works. Tiffany invitations were sent. Both cities went on holiday to the great joy of the school children. Fourteen tons of fireworks were set off. Bands played on excursion boats. The Atlantic Squadron steamed and sailed up the river. Harper’s Weekly reported “A festival …unique…New York has seldom seen….

President Chester A. Arthur of the United States, Governor Grover Cleveland of New York State, and Mayor Franklin Edson of New York City, the United States Marine Band, and the United States Army Seventh Regiment walked across from the Manhattan side. They were greeted by Mayor Seth Low of Brooklyn on the Brooklyn side. The bridge was opened to the general public at midnight. The first day 153,300 people crossed the bridge; a record number of 165,500 people strolled across two days later. Today, the bridge is lucky to have 1,000 people cross over it on a Sunday. Mrs. Roebling invited 1,000 guests to a private reception at their family home in Brooklyn Heights. The physical act of joining New York and Brooklyn helped to pave the way for the political unification of both cities in 1898 to form Greater New York.


The Brooklyn Bridge is more than a bridge. It is a monument that has become a legend C to American Can-Do Technology.  We believe that we can do anything.  Let us walk.

Part VII:  The Amazing Bridge

It took thirteen years (1870-1883) to build instead of the promised three; compared to six years it took to build the Transcontinental Railroad (1863-1689). Or the nine years it took Keith Godard to put up the plaques. $15,000,000 instead of the estimated $7,000,000. In today’s money, the Brooklyn Bridge cost more than $1,500,000,000 to build.


/ The Brooklyn Bridge was the first suspension bridge in the world to use steel for its cable wire.  John August Roebling designed the bridge so well that it is six times stronger than it was supposed to be!  No wonder it can handle 145,000 vehicles and 5,000 pedestrians that cross the bridge every day.  The most number of pedestrians that crossed the bridge in a single day was the 400th anniversary celebration of Christopher Columbus on October 12, 2017.  It was the first bridge in the world to be illuminated at night by electricity.  The Brooklyn Bridge was the world’s longest bridge from 1883 to 1890.  To prove that the bridge was secure to a skeptical audience, P. T. Barnum marched a herd of 21 elephants across the bridge in an 1884 publicity stunt beneficial for both the bridge and the circus.

Neither John Augustus Roebling nor Washington Augustus Roebling ever crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge.  Emily Warren Roebling was officially the first person to walk across the bridge.



Burns, Ken. Brooklyn Bridge. (Videotape, PBS).

Harrod, Kathryn E.  Master Bridge Builders: The Story of the Roeblings. New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1958.

Inside the Brooklyn Bridge (Videotape, Discovery Channel.) 1999

Kaplan, Leslie.  Brooklyn Bridge. (Fiction).

Mann, Elizabeth B. The Brooklyn Bridge.

McCullough, David.  The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1972.  Unabridged audiotape version of the book has been done.

Modern Marvels:  Brooklyn Bridge.  (Videotape, History Channel), 1998

Modern Marvels: East River Bridges. (Videotape, History Channel). 1999.

Pascoe, Ellen. The Brooklyn Bridge.

St. George, Judith. Brooklyn Bridge.  They Said It Couldn=t be Done.

Schoenberg, Philip.  Brooklyn Bridge Talk and Walk:  New York:  New York Talks and Walks, 1998 (audiotape).

Schuyler, Hamilton.  The Roeblings:  A Century of Engineers and  Industrialist C The Story of Three Generations of an Illustrious Family 1831-1931.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1931.

Shapiro, Mary J.  A Picture History of the Brooklyn Bridge.  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1983.

Trachtenberg, Alan.  Brooklyn Bridge:  Fact and Symbol. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1965.

Part IX:  Additional Information About the Brooklyn Bridge Construction:  


C First bridge in the world to be lit by electricity at night.

C First suspension bridge to use galvanized steel wires in its main cables.

C Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, sister of the Brooklyn Bridge, also built by John A. Roebling, opened in 1866, is the only other suspension bridge in the United States to have stone towers.


C Today, some 30 New York City Department of Transportation workers look after the bridge.

C It is supposed to be repainted every five years but this is not always on schedule.

C Epoxy paints are used.

Physical Structure:


C River Span: 1,595 feet.

C 5,989 feet in total length including approaches and land spansCtwice as along as any previous bridge built at its opening in 1883.

C 85 feet wide at bridge floor.


C Number of cables: 4.

C Diameter of each cable: 15 3/4 inches.

C Length:  3,578 feet 6 inches.

C Number of wires in each cable:  5,434.

C Total length of wire in each cable: 3,515 miles.

C Number of wires in each strand:  286.

C Number of strands in each cable: 19.

C Weight of each cable: 7,732,086 pounds.

C Pull strength of each cable: 24, 621,780 pounds.


C Depth of Brooklyn side: 44 feet 6 inches below high water.

C Depth of Manhattan side: 78 feet 6 inches.

C Height of each Tower: 276 feet 6 inches.

C Weight of each anchorage: 60,000 tons

By Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg © 2017

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