January 3rd, 1870 – The Deadly Brooklyn Bridge

Today-In-History

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began on January 3rd, 1870. The bridge was initially designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges, such as Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge between Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky.

While conducting surveys for the bridge project, Roebling sustained a crush injury to his foot when a ferry pinned it against a piling. After amputation of his crushed toes he developed a tetanus infection which left him incapacitated and soon resulted in his death, not long after he had placed his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling in charge of the project.

Brooklyn Bridge 680

The bridge’s two towers were built by floating two caissons, giant upside-down boxes made of southern yellow pine, in the span of the East River, and then beginning to build the stone towers on top of them until they sank to the bottom of the river. Compressed air was pumped into the caissons, and workers entered the space to dig the sediment, until the caissons sank to the bedrock. The whole weight of the bridge still sits upon a 15-foot thickness of southern yellow pine wood under the sediment.

BrooklynBridgeSchematicMany workers became sick with the bends in this work. This condition was unknown at the time, and was first called “caisson disease” by the project physician Andrew Smith. Washington Roebling also suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of decompression sickness shortly after the beginning of construction on January 3rd, 1870. Roebling’s debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand.

Roebling conducted the entire construction from his apartment with a view of the work, designing and redesigning caissons and other equipment. He was aided by his wife Emily Warren Roebling who provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on site. Under her husband’s guidance, Emily studied higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years assisting Washington Roebling, helping to supervise the bridge’s construction. When iron probes underneath the caisson for the Manhattan tower found the bedrock to be even deeper than expected, Roebling halted construction due to the increased risk of decompression sickness. He later deemed the aggregate overlying the bedrock 30 feet (9 m) below it to be firm enough to support the tower base, and construction continued.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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