When the Civil War ended, the population of American cities exploded. America's two fastest growing cities during the post-Civil
East River In Red
war Era were New York City on Manhattan Island and Brooklyn on Long Island. At the time, Brooklyn and New York were two entirely different metropolises, separated by the East River, highlighted in red in the picture to the right. At the end of the Civil War, New York City could boast a population of 813,669, while Brooklyn had a massive 266,661. Once the war ended, country immigrants wanting big city life had to choose between Brooklyn and New York. New York was seen as the more attractive city, being on the Atlantic Ocean and having a vast amount of industrial jobs to offer. To a farmer, there was nothing more alluring than the image of late night, big city glamour.

New York was the place to be, and those living in Brooklyn envied those living across the river from them. The only way Brooklyn residents could reach New York was by ferry, a very unreliable source of transportation. Every winter, ice would float in from the Atlantic Ocean and clog the East River, causing massive delays for the ferries. The reason ice would float into the river is because the East River is not actually a river, but a tidal strait. A tidal strait is a narrow channel of water that flows from one part of an ocean to another part of the same ocean. The first settlers of New York named the strait the East River because it seemed to flow like a river, when in reality it is only an illusion caused by the tides of the ocean.

The problems that were caused by the tidal strait frustrated residents of Brooklyn commuting to New York by ferry. Many Brooklyn residents cried out for a bridge to be built, but it was seen as an impossibility, as no bridge at the time was anywhere near the size of what was being proposed. However, the people of New York had never met the only man who could possibly build something of this magnitude; John Roebling. During the winter of 1852, John Augustus Roebling took an hour long ferry ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The trip usually took a mere 10 minutes, but the treacherous conditions of the near frozen river caused massive delays. He vented his frustration to his son, Washington, as the ferry manevuered past the chunks of ice floating in the water. He told his son a bridge needed to be built, and he would be the man to do it. As he gazed across the river, he realized how treacherous construction of a bridge of this size would be. But he was a man of steel and brains, who knew no limit of what was possible or not. He vowed to himself he would be the man to link the two greatest cities in America with the greatest piece of engineering the world had ever seen.

In the winter of 1866, the East River became blocked with ice for many weeks, halting all ferry rides across the river. Brooklyn was the most rapidly growing city in America, and demands for a bridge could no longer be ignored. Roebling had already drawn up plans for a suspension bridge across the East River, and he had sent them to various contractors throughout the New York area. After the winter of 1866, a respected contracter, William Kingsley, began promoting the idea of a revolutionary bridge to span the East River. He discovered Roebling's blueprints and persuaded a Brooklyn senator and lawyer, Henry Murphy, to rally support for the bridge. A bill was passed in 1867 that created the New York Bridge Company (NYBC), which was to be lead by John Augustus Roebling. The NYBC was created solely for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and was backed by private funds. After he was appointed lead engineer of the NYBC, Roebling spent 3 months re-designing his plans for the bridge to make sure he would succeed. Finally, after 2 years of vigorous work and campaigning, Roebling's plans for the largest bridge ever built were approved the New York City Council.


The man who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the greatest pieces of American architecture, was not even an American citizen. John Augustus Roebling was born in a small German village in 1806. His father owned a tobacco shop and raised John to take over the family business when he came of age. However, in school he became fascinated with bridges and metaphysics. His parents both realized that his brilliance could not be wasted in a tobacco shop, so they gave him free reign over his life. He attended Germany's premier university, the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Berlin, and graduated in 1826. He immigrated with his brother to the United States in 1831 and settled in a colony with
John Augustus Roebling
from his hometown. He married the daughter of an immigrant from Germany and together had 9 children. He attempted to make a living by farming, though it proved extremely unsuccessful. He decided his calling was in the industrial world and set out to become a civil engineer.

He first worked in Pennsylvania as a canal engineer. During this time, he worked vigorously and made a vast amount of money, which he invested in the production of wire cable. Wire cable is rope that is made up of several strands of steel or iron wire. Roebling saw wire cable as the next big thing, and quickly invented a machine that threaded metal wire into tightly bonded cable. The demand for wire cable skyrocketed when he first introduced it to the American people. He established a factory in Trenton, New Jersey to manufacture wire cable for the industrial companies that demanded it. He developed the factory into a huge industrial complex that produced from the thinnest cable possible to cable a yard thick in diameter. Because of the great profit generated by the factory, Roebling decided to keep ownership of the complex within the Roebling family for 3 generations.

With unlimited wire cable at his
Washington Roebling
, Roebling decided to try his luck building bridges. His trademark bridge came to be the suspension bridge, which utilized the wire cable. The first bridge he built was a suspension bridge across the furious Niagara Falls river. It took Roebling 4 years to complete and was supported by four 10-inch thick wire cables strung from 4 towers, 2 on either side. It was the first suspension bridge that could withstand the weight of a train moving across it. Once completed, the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge received enormous praise from all who used it. Roebling decided that he could be more influential outside of his factory, and spent less and less time supervising construction and more time actually using what he invented.

His eldest son, Washington, exuded the brilliance that Roebling showed at the same age. Washington was yearning to join his father during construction of his bridges, and when he came of age, Roebling happily obliged. Together they built 3 bridges; 2 in Pittsburgh and another in Cleveland. His reputation as an innovator in the bridge building world grew immensely through his amazing suspension designs. He was the only bridge designer in the world who was mad enough to attempt to gap the East River, and he paid for it with his life. While on the docks of the East River surveying the area where he would position a supporting tower, a boat lost control and crashed into the dock where he was standing. He broke 3 toes and had them all amputated, but this was not to be enough, as he died 3 weeks after the accident because of tetanus. His son, Washington, took on the task of finishing his fathers dream, the Brooklyn Bridge.


John Robeling's death caused huge concernces for all those financing the bridge to be built. Many people thought Roebling had an idea in his head that no one else could imagine. However, he had implanted his vision in his son, Washington, to finish. Washington was 32 years old when he was appointed as the head engineer of the New York Bridge Company. His father had left intricate blueprints behind for his son to read, but Washington had his own ideas.

His first change to his father's plans was to build the 2 gigantic supporting towers on caissons. Washington Roebling toured Europe with his wife, Emily, and learned of many revolutionary construction techniques. He learned of the caisson, an upside-down wood and iron box that sits deep in the river bed
Workers Inside The Caisson
provides a stable support for the immense weight of the tower. The caisson was so large that it needed to be constructed in a shipyard and floated downriver to the site of the bridge. The placement of the caisson was a momentous occasion and was greeted with speeches, fanfare and a band that played sweet music as the caisson was sunk into place. Once in place, the interior was pumped with compressed air to prevent river water from seeping in, and brave workers were sent down beneath the murky waters to dig up the loose gravel and mud that covered the solid rock bottom. These workers were mostly Irish, German and Italian men who barely $2.00 a day. Hundreds of men entered the hollow caisson through air-tight valves in the sides and began to dig out the gravel and mud to reach the sturdy rock beneath. Workers described the interior of the caisson "like hell itself." Because of the tough conditions, one man out of every three quit each week. The compressed air being breathed in by the workers caused "a confused sensation in the head, like the rush of many waters." Hammers, drills and chains sounded distorted as the heart rates of the workers fluctuated rapidly. The temperature inside was constantly 80 degrees or higher, causing the workers to constantly be perspiring. Every shovel full of the waste being excavated from the riverbed gave off a rancid odor which hung in the air for hours on end. The sides of the caissons were not extremely well sealed, and occasional "blowouts" sent hundreds of gallons of water pouring into the hallow interior filled with the bewildered workers. Blowouts would delay work for weeks as the water needed to be pumped out.

After months of hard work, the caissons were filled with concrete and finished. However, the construction of the caisson took its toll of Washington. He worked for 14 hours, 6 days a week for many weeks until his body gave way of exhaustion and the bends disease, from being inside the caisson for too long. Sick in bed, barely able to speak or move, it seemed the bridge would take his life along with his fathers. But almost through sheer determination, Washington battled back from completely weakness in 1872 to oversee the beginning of phase 2 of construction: the building of the towers.

The towers sprung from the caissons at such a rapid pace, many New Yorkers couldn't believe their eyes. The 2 towers dwarfed everything around them, as if all the buildings were merely dollhouses. The blocks used in the building of the towers were shipped in from Maine and were larger that the workers who put them in place. Pulleys were used to hoist the massive blocks up the rapidly growing towers when simple boom derricks could no longer handle them. However, these pulleys caused significant danger to those below, as winds from the ocean often gusted down the river and blew bits of rock off the pulleys as they were being hoisted skyward. Washington saw the dangers posed by construction and made sure he administered daily inspections of the working machinery to safely detect any malfunctions that could be harmful. With safety a top priority, the Brooklyn Tower soared to 145 feet high, while the New York Tower stood 60 feet. However, the winter conditions caused Washington Roebling to call a halt on construction. That December was the last time Washington would work on the site of the Brooklyn Bridge, as his body could no longer take the strains of the site and he was bedridden for the rest of the
Workers Spinning Cables

When work on the Towers started up again, Washington Roebling didn't have the strength to arise from his bed. However, being the resourceful man he was, he knew a way he could monitor construction on the bridge and have a say in what happened. He appointed his wife, Emily, as the stand-in chief engineer of the New York Bridge Company. Washington was able to lay in bed and gaze out at the under-construction bridge and instruct his wife to carry his orders down to the workers to have them carry it out. Fortunately for Washington, the construction of the towers was fairly routine, as the insides were hollow in both.

After 4 years of construction, both towers were finished. The Brooklyn Tower was completed in 1875 and the New York Tower was completed in 1876. The two anchorage systems were also completed in 1876. The anchorages weighed 120,000,000 pounds and were to hold the 4 great wire cables that would support the bridges roads and keep the two towers sturdy. In the summer of 1876, both towers and anchorages stood ready to receive the massive iron wire cables, the first iron cables to be used on a bridge. A large crowd of 6,000 people stood along the East River to watch the first cable connect the 2 great towers. A 1 inch thick wire cable was attached to the Brooklyn anchorage and strung over the Brooklyn Tower. It was then attached to a tugboat below the Brooklyn Tower, which housed a large spool of the iron cable wire. The boat moved across the river, loosely trailed by the cable wire which sank to the oceans floor to prevent it from colliding with passing boats. Once the boat reached the New York tower, the cable wire was strung over and attached to a hoisting engine that tightened the slack of the cable. Once no boats were in sight, the engine started and to the thunderous applause of the audience, the first cable attached the two towers together at last. This process was repeated 4 times between the towers. Then came the spinning.

Laying The Roads Steel Skeleton

The cable was not to be provided by Roebling's own company, but rather it was awarded to a Brooklyn firm run by J. Lloyd Haigh who provided the highest bid to the New York Bridge Company to supply the iron cable. They provided enough iron cable to run from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. To make the cables, wire was carried by workers across a wooden bridge high in the sky from one tower to the other. This process was done endlessly until 280 wires were formed together. These 280 wires formed 1 strand, and it took 19 strands to make a cable. Once all 4 of the cables were tight as a tightrope, they were loosened so they would be able to provide maximum support for the actual road. Once at the desired tightness, pins were placed in all the anchorages to keep the cables in place.

Once all of the necessary cables were in place, workers began to attach cables to the 4 main cables that were the only thing connecting the two towers. The cables that the workers attached hung down towards the water, and it would be through these cables that the actual motorway would be attached to the bridge. Once all of the "suspenders," as they were called, were attached and in place, the steel floor beams were threaded through the openings in the towers. They worked out over the water from both towers and anchorages. By December of 1880, the floor beams had been hung from tower to tower. The skeleton of the bridge hung majestically over the river for all of Brooklyn and New York to marvel at.

The final piece of the construction process was the laying of the road. Steel was used to make the road and wood was made to make the walkway. It was the easiest part of the entire construction, and one it was finished, there was incredible celebration.

Emily, Washington Roebling's wife, was given the honor to make the first crossing upon the bridge she and her husband worked so hard to build. Riding in the back of a brand new carriage, she carried with her a rooster as a sign of victory. All of the workers lined up across the bridge and rejoiced as she passed by. The victory was sweet, the celebrations were joyful, and the bridge that took the life of it's founder was finally completed, after 14 years of hard construction


The day the bridge opened was declared "Peoples Day" by the New Yorkers and Brooklyn residents. Schools and offices were closed so that everyone could revel in the majesty of this bridge. The President even decided to make an appearance to walk across the bridge. After crossing the bridge, the President met
Birds Eye View of the Brooklyn Bridge
Washington Roebling in his house to congratulate him on his monumental achievement.

The Brooklyn Bridge pioneered the skyscraper flurry in New York and Brooklyn. Every step of the bilding of the Brooklyn Bridge had been a breakthrough- from the sinking of the caissons to the massive anchorages. It also was the first massive structure to utilize steel as the skeleton. It showed people that it was possible to build upwards while still have enough support to carry thousands of people at a time. The use of iron cable was a revelation to the skyscraper world, as the iron cable was the only support system strong enough to carry an elevator with people inside of it.

This Brooklyn Bridge was called by many "The Eighth Wonder of the World," and for good reason. Even to this day, its power and awe are undeniable by all those who lay eyes upon it.

In total, the bridge claimed the lives of 20 men, including John Roebling, its creator. A small plaque at either tower honors the lives of the two Roeblings, Washington and John, who gave their lives for the creation of the greatest bridge of all time. Later, a plaque was added for Emily. Some 25 years after the opening of the bridge, a stature was revealed of John Roebling. The speaker who unveiled it said "Yes, the bridge is beautiful. His genius stands embodied in this form... Whatever of faith, feeling, reverence John Roebling cherished in his heart, was here voiced like a ringing cry." And for a century, that ringing cry has stood


-St, George Judith. The Brooklyn Bridge: They Said It Couldn't B e Built. New York: Putnam, 1982. Print.

-Cadbury, Deborah. Dreams of Iron and Steel: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal. New York, NY: Fourth Estate, 2004. Print.

-Mann, Elizabeth, and Alan Witschonke. The Brooklyn Bridge: a Wonders of the World Book. New York: Mikaya, 1996. Print.

-"John Augustus Roebling (American Engineer) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Feb. 2011. <>.