The Bridge That Made N.Y. and the Family Who Made That Bridge

John Augustus Roebling suffered for his dream of a Brooklyn Bridge

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    May 24, 1883 was a beautiful day in New York. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky. There was a cool breeze. And visitors streamed into New York by the thousands on special trains from Philadelphia and distant points on Long Island.

      For on this day, Brooklyn and Manhattan were joined for the first time by a suspension bridge, the longest ever built, and a new, greater city of New York was created.    
     
    The Brooklyn Bridge, on this week that marks its 127th birthday, is a unique symbol of New York itself. The bridge’s story is the city’s story -- a romance filled with love and sacrifice, tragedy and triumph.
     
    The bridge was the dream of a German immigrant, John Augustus Roebling. He was brilliant and tenacious. And, though it took many years, he was finally able to persuade a group of businessmen to finance the building of a bridge across the East River. Previously the only way to go between the boroughs was by ferryboat and, during the winter months, when ice clogged the river, the trip was slow and difficult.
     
    It took many years but, finally, in 1870, the first work on the bridge began. Laborers started to clear the Brooklyn site, where a granite and limestone tower would rise. A similar tower would go up on the Manhattan side and, ultimately, steel cables would be strung across the span.
     
    On July 6, 1869, John Roebling stood on a Brooklyn wharf, surveying the scene, when an incoming ferryboat crushed his right foot against the pier. He died 16 days later of tetanus.
     
    His 32-year-old son, Washington A. Roebling, took over as chief engineer. He was determined to fulfill his father’s dream. But the Roeblings were doomed to suffer for their dream. One day, he went down in a caisson to supervise the workmen below the water and was left partially paralyzed. At the time, little was known about the pressure disease commonly known as “the bends.” Washington Roebling suffered from it for the rest of his life. His condition made even the sound of a human voice unbearable to him.
     
    But, like his father, Washington Roebling was tenacious. Even though he couldn’t walk to the construction site, he enlisted his wife Emily.

    While he watched progress of the work with a spyglass from their home in Brooklyn Heights, Emily Roebling would walk to the bridge and relay his orders to the workers.
     
    On that special day in May, 1883, New York went wild over the bridge. The President of the United States, Chester Arthur, came from Washington to dedicate the bridge. He was joined by Governor Grover Cleveland and the mayors of New York and Brooklyn -- separate cities back then -- and assorted politicians and civic leaders.
     
    Flags and bunting decorated the buildings on the streets leading to the bridge on the Manhattan side. A parade led by the Seventh Regiment led the official party. As the procession passed across the bridge,   ferry boats, tugs and small craft haw flags flying. Warships were anchored below. They fired off a salute of 21 guns. A band played “Hail to the Chief” on the Brooklyn side. A crowd of thousands cheered.
     
    Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low accepted the bridge in the name of the people of Brooklyn. New York Mayor Franklin Edson accepted it in the name of New York.
     
    Then the official party marched across the bridge to the home of Washington Roebling in Brooklyn Heights. The crippled engineer was unable to be at the ceremony so he watched from his window with a pair of binoculars. He was congratulated by the President and the other officials. They bowed down to the invalid and praised him.
     
    There’s a street in Brooklyn named after the Roeblings. It runs through Williamsburg, roughly parallel to the East River, for about a mile. But, although the Roeblings had os much to do with the development of this city, there’s little recognition for their achievements
     
    Edwin Burrows, a history professor at Brooklyn College, told me: “The bridge changed everything. You had two rapidly growing cities on either side of the river. Connecting them was a natural step but it took the Roeblings to accomplish it.”
     
     Burrows compared the joining of the two boroughs to a marriage. Was this marriage better for Brooklyn or Manhattan? “I think that’s an open question,” he said. “When the two boroughs became one city it could be argued that it was good for Brooklyn but, perhaps, better for Manhattan.”
     
    In any event this unique symbol of New York -- the stone anchorages, the braided cables, the romance of its history -- should remind us of dramatic moments in this bridge’s life and New York’s.
     
    A Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, was so moved when he first saw the bridge that he wrote: “…it stretches on cables of string to the feet of the stars…”
     
    It’s our bridge, a wonder of New York and the world, as inspiring as the stars above.