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McDowell: The Brooklyn Bridge - American Engineering in the Sky
ARBOR OUTLOOK

McDowell: The Brooklyn Bridge - American Engineering in the Sky

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"And for all the spectacular additions to the skyline since, the bridge remains as proud and popular a symbol of New York as the Eiffel Tower for Paris." – Author David McCullough

Part One in a Two-Part Series

The Brooklyn Bridge predates Hoover Dam, the Interstate System, and the U.S. Moon landing, but it was a rare feat of American civil engineering and personal determination.

The man who was hired to build it, John Roebling, died as a result of an accident on the bridge. His son, 32 year-old Washington Roebling, was named to replace his father as Chief Engineer. The process nearly killed him as well. But he finished the job.

Today it accommodates about 121,000 vehicles daily. It took 14 years to build and cost $15 million, twice the original estimate. It is about 6,000 feet long and was about 85 feet wide at the bridge floor before it was widened. The average worker was paid $2.50 a day.

As author David McCullough writes in The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, "For nearly 50 years after it was completed the Brooklyn Bridge reigned supreme as the most magnificent...suspension bridge on earth."

The idea for constructing a bridge between Brooklyn and New York dates back to 1800. In 1869, the year that work began, Brooklyn's population was 400,000, making it the third largest city in America, more populous than Philadelphia, Boston, or Chicago. At least one of every three working residents in Brooklyn crossed the East River daily to labor in New York. Virtually all used one of the 13 ferry boats that hauled passengers from shore to shore.

So the bridge served a great purpose. Bridge trains carried residents across in passenger cars, complimenting the ferry boat services below. In addition to horse-drawn carts, pedestrians and bicyclists could cross at their leisure, too.

After a decorated military career as a Union officer, Roebling assisted his father in constructing suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and at Niagara Falls. He studied suspension bridges in Europe, and borrowed the relatively new idea of sinking huge caissons down into the river floor. Roebling had planned to sink the caissons deeper, but found the sand and gravel hard as rock itself, and made the bold decision that the river floor would support the caissons without achieving the original depth.

Decompression techniques were unknown at the time. The men worked at the bottom of the caissons in airtight, pressurized compartments. When they emerged and returned to ground level, many became violently ill and some were temporarily paralyzed. Roebling, having ventured down repeatedly and come back up without decompressing, became very ill himself. He was forced to watch the last few years of construction through a telescope in his bedroom.

A massive fire at the bottom of the structure, invisible from above, caused construction delays and concern over safety. New York's William Marcy "Boss" Tweed obtained bridge shares without paying for them, and financial irregularities associated with the bridge eventually brought down the Tweed Ring.

Next Week: Corruption, Graft and a Completed Bridge

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC®, AIF®, author of the syndicated economic column “Arbor Outlook,” is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 – www.arborwealth.net), a fiduciary, “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Destin. This column should not be considered personalized investment advice and provides no assurance that any specific strategy or investment will be suitable or profitable for an investor.

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