Superheroes of suspension: how the Brooklyn Bridge was built

The Brooklyn Bridge is an icon – but few know the quintessentially American story behind it.

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In Tello, in southern Iraq, a bridge spans an ancient waterway. Built for the Sumerian city of Girsu in the third millennium BCE, it is the world’s oldest such construction – proof that as soon as human beings figured out how to pile stone upon stone effectively, they looked at the landscape and asked themselves: how do we get from here to there? A simple question with complex answers: the search for those answers links generations of the men and women who have worked to connect the world.

The Brooklyn Bridge is an icon of both engineering and architecture, not only in New York City but around the world. Opened in May 1883, it has been doing the work it was designed to do for 135 years. More than 100,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day – along with 10,000 pedestrians and nearly 4,000 cyclists. But if you pause on the soaring promenade and ask a fellow walker who built this epic span, you are likely to get as blank a stare as if you’d asked who built that old bridge in Iraq. But the story of its building is as striking as the bridge itself; Peter J Tomasi and Sara DuVall’s graphic novel The Bridge tells that tale with energy and verve.

The Brooklyn Bridge was never a foregone conclusion. In the mid-19th century, a bridge high enough and long enough to jump clear over the water seemed to many an impossibility, but not to John Roebling, a German-born engineer who was a pioneer in suspension-bridge construction and wire manufacture. He was given the go-ahead in 1867 – but by 1869 he was dead, felled by lockjaw, and it was left to his son, Washington Augustus Roebling, to construct the bridge his father had envisioned. When Washington himself nearly died from “the bends” while fighting a fire that broke out in the foundations of one of the towers, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, stepped into the breach. That in itself is an astonishing, and quite unprecedented, tale.

With brisk dialogue and clear story-telling Tomasi portrays technical innovation, politics and family dynamics – and he is ably assisted by Sara DuVall’s bold, clear illustrations. The graphic novel suits this material, where drama is well-combined with images that show what exactly a caisson is, or how you connect two vast stone towers with steel wire. Tomasi’s usual field, it should be said, is superheroes: as an editor at DC Comics, Batman’s exploits in Gotham City are more in his line of work. But perhaps that’s what drew him to the heroism of the Roeblings, and particular to the extraordinary partnership of Wash-ington and Emily, which lies at the heart of The Bridge.

Emily Warren, the younger sister of Washington’s commanding officer during his service in the Civil War, is a shadowy presence in the Roebling archives, of which Tomasi has clearly made good use. There is no real way to know exactly what she did, day to day, to assist her husband with the work; what is clear is that she was a vital part of the enterprise – she was recently recognised with a belated obituary in the New York Times as one of 15 women (including the campaigning journalist Ida B Wells and the poet Sylvia Plath) to have been ignored at the time of their deaths. “Nothing to see, gentlemen, but a woman going about her work,” says Tomasi’s Emily to a group of startled men at the worksite.

But in Tomasi’s dramatic retelling of the story she is a vivid character, as she must have been, not only keeping her husband’s spirits up, but in her understanding of the work and as an important facilitator in dealing with the men who controlled the money for the bridge – who tried to have Roebling removed as chief engineer just a year before its completion.

The accidents that occurred during the construction – a terrible fire deep in the wooden caisson that formed the foundation of the Brooklyn tower, a wire rope that snapped – killing several men and indirectly revealing that 200 tons of inadequate, brittle wire had been laid into the bridge’s cables by a fraudulent contractor – are well suited to the comic book noises (“SNAPOOM”, “SHRRIP” “FRROOSH”) that would more usually indicate Batman landing a punch on a dastardly villain. Tomasi has taken a few liberties with the facts, but this is a novel, not a history book, and his minor nips and tucks serve his subjects well.

This is a lively, pleasing account of one of the “quintessential American stories that no one really seems to know about”, as Tomasi writes in his preface. If we talk about building bridges rather than walls, why not read about the men – and the remarkable woman – who built one of the greatest bridges of them all? 

The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York
Peter J Tomasi, illustrated by Sara DuVall, Gabriel Eltaeb and John Kalisz
Abrams ComicArts, 200pp, £17.99

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum