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6 June 2017

From shore to shining shore: Erica Wagner’s vivid account of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge

Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge tells the story of the father and son responsible for the epic project.

By Philip Hoare

The Brooklyn Bridge looms over the East River, tethering the venal rocks of Manhattan to the free shores of Brooklyn in a narrative of capitalist progress; linking the engine of production and the helots who served it. In her bravura book about its creation, Erica Wagner quotes a contemporary comment from the opening of the bridge in May 1883. The 19th-century writer thought it looked

. . . like a motionless mass of masonry and metal; but, as a matter of fact, it is instinct with motion. There is not a particle in it which is at rest even for the minutest particle of time. It is an aggregation of unstable elements, changing with every change in the temperature, and every movement of the heaving bodies.

Something so important, so visible, was inevitably anthropomorphised. In 1904 Henry James saw the structure as part of “the bold lacing-together, across the waves, of the scattered members of the monstrous organism” of the very city – as if progressing across it were the huddled masses to whom Emma Lazarus had given voice in her poem, written in the year that the bridge opened and which was added in 1903, as a kind of caption, to the Statue of Liberty.

The bridge spoke to the protean, heroic nature of America and the alternative capital of a republic that was still building itself. The huge undertaking of the bridge was a physical expression of that spirit – in the same way F Scott Fitzgerald described Jay Gatsby as being “related to one of those ­intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away”. Hart Crane ­poeticised it in the 1930s as a kind of giant stringed instrument, tense with the music of Manhattan. The heaving bodies that crossed it were the same as the ones that had been hymned by Walt Whitman: “Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!/On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home . . .”

It was a celebration, and a contrast to trans­pontine London, whose chartered Thames was crossed by bridges on which Eliot later saw the deathly undone. But soon enough the Brooklyn Bridge caught up: a century later, a secret Cold War store was discovered in its enormous stone stanchions, stuffed with supplies against Armageddon. That knowledge gave a charge to my first walk across the bridge – as if such power, like the river itself, could undermine its stability.

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This magnificent book by Wagner, an NS contributing writer, focuses on the two men responsible for building the edifice: John A Roebling and his patriotically named son Washington. Roebling Sr, a German émigré (born Johann August Röbling), was an inspired engineer who developed the wire cables and other mechanical features that would enable the construction of the bridge. This was his contribution to his adoptive land, as if he were supplying its sinews and neural networks. Yet he was also a domestic tyrant with a “great slaughter” of a temper; he often punched his wife and terrified his children with assaults that drew blood and put them in fear for their lives.

“Any man with more spunk than I would have killed him,” Washington later wrote. The father abused his family in other ways, too, insisting that their only health care should be the “water cure” that obsessed him, a bizarre series of eye baths, foot baths, half-baths and sitz baths, as well as cold-water “clysters” (enemas). He even believed that drawing water from his nose was beneficial, and that his snot was slime from “the excitement of the Brain”. As Wagner puts it, with her wonderfully mordant love of telling detail and dry theatrical wit, “No orifice escaped unwatered.” The therapy would kill his wife and, ironically, John Roebling, too: he died, horribly contorted by tetanus, persisting with a water treatment and refusing any conventional medicine.

At 17, Washington Roebling went to study engineering at the Rensselaer Institute in Troy, New York – a “soul-grinding” experience, not least because a fellow student fell in love with him and committed suicide when his affection went unrequited (though Washington kept his photograph for the rest of his life). With the outbreak of civil war, he enlisted to fight for the Union – partly at his father’s insistence. He had a good war, rising from private to colonel within four years. The fighting also took him to the charnel house of Gettysburg, stepping over corpses already rotting within hours under the hot sun, and recording a six-foot-high pile of amputated arms and legs outside the field hospital.

Having met and married Emily Warren towards the end of the war, he rejoined his father, now constructing revolutionary suspension bridges over Niagara Falls and in Cincinnati, their spans of 800 and 1,000 feet encouraging John to believe that the 2,000 feet of New York’s East River “presents no difficulties that cannot be overcome”.

The bridge was commissioned in 1869 at an estimated cost of $6m; this eventually doubled. Washington and Emily moved to Brooklyn Heights, from where he could watch the project unfold. That July, his father damaged his toes in a freak accident involving a boat and the pilings on the Brooklyn ferry terminal: he died three weeks later, leaving his now 32-year-old son to take over the whole task.

Washington was more than thorough, having made a trip to Europe to examine new bridge technology in England and France. Twin caissons – constructed from eight-tonne blocks of granite and limestone, and measuring 170 feet wide and 100 feet long – were built on either side of the East River and air forced into them to drive the water out, allowing men to work below sea level. This Herculean effort had its side effect – a kind of underwater shell shock known as caisson disease, equivalent to “the bends”, and caused by the intense atmospheric pressure as compressed air was pumped into the chambers. “Men had to lie for hours in confined spots, without room to turn, and breathing a foul mixture of hot candle-smoke and cement dust”, all at a temperature of 80 degrees and under a pressure of 14lb per square inch.

Washington, who was spending seven hours at a time in the caissons, began to suffer from intense pain and bouts of paralysis, and resorted to having salt and whiskey rubbed into his spine at home. It was another irony – given his father’s watery mania, and as he had dedicated himself to conquering the salt river that bound Manhattan – that he and Emily sought the hydropathic baths at Wiesbaden, in Germany, as a cure. On their return, they found the bridge was facing a new threat: corruption from Tammany Hall, whose board of supervisors was demanding up to 50 per cent in extortionate profits. This, and the onset of the Long Depression in 1873, slowed the project’s progress; so did the sickness of its chief engineer, reduced to watching the construction from his house through a telescope.

Inexorably, the bridge rose, telling out the years. Vast cables, designed to be made from 6,308 entwined wires of steel – the first time the new material had been used to such an extent – were slung across the river, trundled out by a continual “automatical wheel” running back and forth. At one point, a strand of No 4 cable snapped, flinging aside another two of the 27 lives sacrificed to the project. The challenges continued: Washington’s decision to strengthen the superstructure to carry Pullman cars was questioned, leading the exasperated engineer to declare in 1882: “I have given my whole life to finishing the bridge, and never expect to do any more work when it is successfully completed.”

After 14 years, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to fireworks and fanfare: Washington worried only that so many people walking on it at once might be more than it had been made for. He declined to engage with media hyperbole when one reporter asked him to liken his feat to the building of the Great Pyramid at Cheops. But the bridge was still standing in 1926 when ­Washington Roebling died, and there it remains – a venerable stone-and-wire structure; strung out in time and space; held taut against the clear Manhattan light; suspended by technology, frailty and faith; all but bouncing between one world and the other.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare will be published by Fourth Estate in July

Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge 
Erica Wagner
Bloomsbury, 364pp, £25



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This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning