Authors: David McCullough
The shapes arise!
at his request on at least six different occasions, beginning in February 1869. With everyone present, there were just nine in all—the seven distinguished consultants he had selected; his oldest son, Colonel Washington Roebling, who kept the minutes; and himself, the intense, enigmatic John Augustus Roebling, wealthy wire rope manufacturer of Trenton, New Jersey, and builder of unprecedented suspension bridges.
They met at the Brooklyn Gas Light Company on Fulton Street, where the new Bridge Company had been conducting its affairs until regular offices could be arranged for. They gathered about the big plans and drawings he had on display, listening attentively as he talked and asking a great many questions. They studied his preliminary surveys and the map upon which he had drawn a strong red line cutting across the East River, indicating exactly where he intended to put the crowning work of his career.
The consultants were his idea. In view of “the magnitude of the undertaking and the large interests connected therewith,” he had written, it was “only right” that his plans be “subjected to the careful scrutiny” of a board of experts. He did not want their advice or opinions, only their sanction. If everything went as he wanted and expected, they would approve his plan without reservation. They would announce that in their considered professional opinion his bridge was perfectly possible. They would put an end to the rumors, silence the critics, satisfy every last stockholder that he knew what he was about, and he could at last get on with his work.
To achieve his purpose, to wind up with an endorsement no one could challenge, or at least no one who counted for anything professionally, he had picked men of impeccable reputation. None had a failure or black mark to his name. All were sound, practical builders themselves, men not given to offhand endorsements or to overstatement. With few exceptions, each had done his own share of pioneering at one time or other, and so theoretically ought still to be sympathetic to the untried. They were, in fact, about as eminent a body of civil engineers as could have been assembled then, and seen all together, with their display of white whiskers, their expansive shirt fronts and firm handshakes, they must have appeared amply qualified to pass judgment on just about anything. The fee for their services was to be a thousand dollars each, which was exactly a thousand dollars more than Roebling himself had received for all his own efforts thus far.
Chairman of the group was the sociable Horatio Allen, whose great girth, gleaming bald head, and Benjamin Franklin spectacles gave him the look of a character from Dickens. He fancied capes and silver-handled walking sticks and probably considered his professional standing second only to that of Roebling, which was hardly so. But like Roebling he had done well in manufacturing—in his case, with New York’s Novelty Iron Works—and forty years before he had made some history driving the first locomotive in America, the
all alone and before a big crowd, on a test run at Honesdale, Pennsylvania. He had also, in the time since, been one of the principal engineers for New York’s Croton Aqueduct and so was sometimes referred to in biographical sketches as “the man who turned the water on.”
Then there was Colonel Julius Adams of Brooklyn, a former Army engineer, who was usually described as an expert on sewer construction, and who, in truth, was not quite in the same league as the others. He had, however, a number of influential friends in Brooklyn and for years he had been dabbling with designs for an East River bridge of his own. For a while it had even looked as though he might be given the chance to build it. When Roebling’s proposal was first made public, he had been among those to voice sharp skepticism. That he had been included as a consultant at this stage was taken by some as a sign that Roebling was not entirely the political innocent he was reputed to be.
William Jarvis McAlpine, of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Kindly, genial, widely respected, he had built the enormous dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Albany Water Works, and a fair number of bridges. He was also the proud possessor of what must have been the most elaborate jowl whiskers in the profession and he was the one man in the group, the two Roeblings included, who had had any firsthand experience working with compressed-air foundations, or caissons, as they were called, which, in this particular case, was regarded as an attribute of major proportions.
Probably the best-known figure among them, however, was Benjamin Henry Latrobe of Baltimore, who had the face of a bank clerk, but whose endorsement alone would perhaps have been enough to settle the whole issue. He was the son and namesake of the famous English-born architect picked by Jefferson to design or remodel much of Washington, and who rebuilt the Capitol after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812. He had laid out most of the B&O Railroad and had been in charge of building a number of exceptional bridges in Maryland and Virginia.
And finally there was John J. Serrell, the only builder of suspension bridges in the group except for the Roeblings; J. Dutton Steele, chief engineer of the Reading Railroad; and James Pugh Kirkwood, a rather mournful-looking Scotsman who was an authority on hydraulics, among other things, and who, in 1848, in northeastern Pennsylvania, had built the beautiful stone-arched Starrucca Viaduct, then the most costly railroad bridge in the world.
There is no way of knowing what thoughts passed through the minds of such men as they first looked over Roebling’s drawings and listened to him talk. But it is also hard to imagine any of them remaining unimpressed for very long, for all their collective experience or their own considerable accomplishments or any professional jealousies there may have been. Nor does it seem likely that any of them failed to sense the historic nature of the moment. Roebling was the recognized giant of their profession, a lesser-Leonardo he would be called, and even on paper his bridge was clearly one of the monumental works of the age. To an engineer especially that would have been obvious.
A bridge over the East River, joining the cities of New York and Brooklyn, had been talked about for nearly as long as anyone could recall. According to the best history of Brooklyn ever written, a three-volume work by a medical doctor named Henry R. Stiles, Volume II of which appeared that same year of 1869, the idea for a bridge was exactly as old as the century, the first serious proposal having been recorded in Brooklyn in 1800. Stiles wrote that an old notation, found in a scrapbook, referred to an unnamed “gentleman of acknowledged abilities and good sense” who had a plan for a bridge that would take just two years to build. Probably the gentleman was Thomas Pope of New York, an altogether fascinating character, a carpenter and landscape gardener by trade, who had designed what he called his “Flying Pendent Lever Bridge,” an
as he saw it, available in all sizes and suitable for any site. His bridge to Brooklyn was to soar some two hundred feet over the water, with a tremendous cantilever fashioned entirely of wood, like “a rainbow rising on the shore,” he said in the little book he published in 1811. Thomas Pope’s “Rainbow Bridge” was never attempted, however, and fortunately so, for it would not have worked. But his vision of a heroic, monumental East River bridge persisted. Year after year others were proposed. Chain bridges, wire bridges, a bridge a hundred feet wide, were recommended by one engineer or another. “New York and Brooklyn must be united,” Horace Greeley declared in the
in 1849, while in Brooklyn a street running down to the river was confidently christened Bridge Street.
But nothing was done. The chief problem always was the East River, which is no river at all technically speaking, but a tidal strait and one of the most turbulent and in that day, especially, one of the busiest stretches of navigable salt water anywhere on earth. “If there is to be a bridge,” wrote one man, “it must take one grand flying leap from shore to shore over the masts of the ships. There can be no piers or drawbridge. There must be only one great arch all the way across. Surely this must be a wonderful bridge.”
In April 1867 a charter authorizing a private company to build and operate an East River bridge had been voted through at Albany. The charter was a most interesting and important document, for several different reasons, as time would tell. But in the things it said and left unsaid concerning the actual structure to be built, it was notable at a glance. Not a word was mentioned, for example, about the sort of bridge it was to be or to suggest that its construction might involve any significant or foreseeable problems. The cities were not required to approve the plans or the location. The charter said only that it be a toll bridge. It was important that it have a “substantial railing” and that it be “kept fully lighted through all hours of the night.” It was also to be completed by January 1, 1870.
A month after the charter became law, Roebling had been named engineer of the work. By whom or by what criteria remained a puzzle for anyone trying to follow the story in the papers. In September, that same year, 1867, at a private meeting held in Brooklyn, he presented his master plan in a long formal report. But such was “the anxiety manifested on the part of the press of the two cities to present his report to the public, that it was taken and published, as an entirety…” The bridge had no official name at this point, and in the time since, nobody seemed able to settle on one.
At an earlier stage it had been referred to occasionally as the Empire Bridge, but the organization incorporated to build it was called the New York Bridge Company, because the Brooklyn people behind the idea saw it as just that—a bridge to New York. Roebling, on the other hand, had referred to it as the East River Bridge in his proposal and the newspapers and magazines had picked up the name. But it was also commonly called the Roebling Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge or simply the Great Bridge, which looked the most impressive in print and to many seemed the most fitting name of all, once they grasped what exactly Roebling was planning to do.
But it was the possible future impact of such a structure on their own lives that interested people most, naturally enough, and that the press in both cities devoted the most attention to. The
for example, described the bridge as a sort of grand long-needed pressure valve that would do much to alleviate New York’s two most serious problems, crime and overcrowding.
In Brooklyn, where interest was the keenest, it was said the bridge would make Brooklyn important, that it would make Brooklyn prosper. Property values would soar. Roebling the alchemist would turn vacant lots and corn patches into pure gold. Everybody would benefit. Brooklyn was already expanding like a boomtown, and the bridge was going to double the pace, the way steam ferries had. Merchants could expect untold numbers of new customers as disaffected New Yorkers flocked across the river to make Brooklyn their home. Manufacturers would have closer ties with New York markets. Long Island farmers and Brooklyn brewers could get their wares over the river more readily. The mail would move faster. Roebling had even told his eager clients how, in the event of an enemy invasion of Long Island, troops could be rushed over the bridge from New York in unprecedented numbers. In such an emergency, the old Prussian had calculated, nearly half a million men, together with artillery and baggage trains, could go over the bridge in twenty-four hours.
Most appealing of all for the Brooklyn people who went to New York to earn a living every day was the prospect of a safe, reliable alternative to the East River ferries. Winds, storms, tides, blizzards, ice jams, fog, none of these, they were told, would have the slightest effect on Mr. Roebling’s bridge. There would be no more shoving crowds at the ferryhouse loading gates. There would be no more endless delays. One Christmas night a gale had caused the river to be so low the ferries ran aground and thousands of people spent the night in the Fulton Ferry house. Many winters when the river froze solid, there had been no service at all for days on end.
Some of the Brooklyn business people and Kings County politicians were even claiming that the bridge would make Brooklyn the biggest city in America, a most heady prospect indeed and not an unreasonable one either. Congressman Demas Barnes contended Brooklyn would be the biggest city in the world, once New York was “full.” New York, that “human hive” John Roebling called it, was running out of space, its boundaries being forever fixed by nature. Roebling and others envisioned a day when all Manhattan Island would be built over, leaving “no decent place” to make a home, neither he nor anyone else thus far having imagined a city growing vertically. “Brooklyn happens to be one of those things that can expand,” wrote the editors of the new
“The more you put into it, the more it will hold.”
And such highly regarded Brooklyn residents as Walt Whitman and James S. T. Stranahan, the man behind Brooklyn’s new Prospect Park, looked to the day when the bridge would make Brooklyn and New York “emphatically one,” which was also generally taken to be a very good thing, since the new Union Pacific Railroad was going to make New York “the commercial emporium of the world.” This was no idle speculation, “but the natural and legitimate result of natural causes,” according to John Roebling. His bridge was part of a larger mission. “As the great flow of civilization has ever been from East towards the West, with the same certainty will the greatest commercial emporium be located on this continent, which links East to the West, and whose mission it is in the history of mankind to blend the most ancient civilization with the most modern.” The famous engineer, it had been noticed in Brooklyn, tended to cosmic concepts, but so much the better. If there were now forty million people crossing the East River every year, as was the claim, then, he said, in ten years’ time there would be a hundred million.