By David Waller
When completed in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the great feats of nineteenth century civil engineering. To this day, it is as much a symbol of New York as the city’s vaulting skyscrapers, an epic work of stone and steel that spans 1600 feet across the East River.
Born and brought up in Manhattan, Erica Wagner describes how the bridge hadn’t really impinged on her consciousness until her teens. But one Christmas she walked across and had a sudden realisation that it was a thing of poetry, miles of quivering steel wire hanging improbably from two massive granite towers.
The bridge became something of an obsession for Wagner, even after she moved to the UK (where for many years she was literary editor of The Times). It was the product of a remarkable father and son team of engineers. Washington Roebling was the man who supervised the physical construction of the bridge, but his father John came up with the idea and his mean-spirited genius looms large in this account.
John Augustus Roebling was an immigrant from Germany who came to Pennsylvania in 1831 to set up as a farmer, but soon discovered a talent for engineering. He spotted an opportunity to apply the principles of rope-making to wire rope, took out a patent, and rapidly built up a major industrial enterprise from a base in Trenton, New Jersey. He branched out from making wire to building bridges, including those across the Niagara and at Cincinnati.
Contemporaries regarded Roebling pere as a “lesser Leonardo,” but his genius came at a price: he bullied his son Washington and six other children ferociously, and drove his wife to an early grave. He refused to allow doctors near any family member when ill, requiring them to eat charcoal or submit to a painful but ineffective water cure. “No orifice escaped unwatered,” notes Wagner.
One imagines that Washington was delighted to exchange the rigours of family life for the battlefield. Soon after graduating from engineering school, the civil war broke out and he enlisted into the Unionist army. He was present at some of the bloodiest battles, from Antietam to Gettysburg, and narrowly avoided death on many occasions, as when bullets hit his hat and horse but left him unscathed.
He rose rapidly from Private to Colonel, his wartime service including a spell in a hot-air balloon as a battlefield spotter, as well as building bridges. When hostilities ceased, he was well qualified to join his tyrannical father in the family business.
John had had the idea of building the Brooklyn Bridge before the war, but it was only now that he could raise the funds and drum up the political support to get on with the project. It came to be seen as a metaphorical bridge, symbolising the reconstruction of the country after the bitter and bloody conflict: as Wagner puts it, a “symbol of nineteenth century ideals of progress”.
Roebling senior would not live to see the project through, as he suffered an accident onsite and the water cure could not save him from tetanus. Thus it was that Roebling junior was put in charge of the project at the age of only 32. Wagner describes vividly how Roebling first built the stone towers using pneumatic caissons: massive hollow iron structures, 170 feet wide and more than 100 feet long. Compressed air was pumped in to keep the river out and men would climb in to dig the foundations. Then he made and erected the thousands of miles of wire that hold the bridge together.
In the early years, Roebling was decidedly hands-on, descending into the caissons, or teetering aloft as the wire structures took shape. In time, he was often absent and ill, so much so that gossips said that his talented wife Emily was actually in charge. It was 14 years before the bridge was opened, to the wonderment of millions.
The story of the bridge’s construction has been told before, but not with such brio or insight into the human factor: Wagner had access to Washington’s hitherto unseen memoir and Chief Engineer sheds new and intimate light on the man, the bridge and the age.
David Waller’s Iron Men, an account of early Victorian mechanical engineering, was published by Anthem Press last year.
A version of this book review appeared in the Financial Times