4. The Roebling Curse

Roebling statues
A statue of the Roeblings beneath the Brooklyn Bridge

The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge’ was somewhat of a family affair. John Augustus Roebling was an innovative engineer and pioneer who designed the East River crossing. It would be the longest bridge in the world at the time, but he wouldn’t live to see it. While collecting measurements at a possible tower location near Fulton Ferry, his foot got stuck and crushed between a ferry and the dock. Doctors amputated some of his toes but Roebling refused further medical care, opting instead to try a trendy water-cure. In 1869, just a few weeks after the accident, Roebling died of tetanus. Roebling’s son, Washington, stepped up as Chief Engineer.

Washington, like his father before him, was also plagued by misfortune. In order to reach the bedrock below the river, massive caissons, basically giant diving bells, were built to enable workers to excavate the tower foundation sites underwater. Improper use of these caissons could lead to caisson disease, more commonly known as the bends. Their weight, wood structure, and use of pressurized air also made them prone to explosions and fire. 

After a particularly long day below water in 1872, Washington rose to the surface and promptly passed out. After this incident, he became incapacitated and unable to return to the construction site. He would suffer from symptoms of caisson disease – paralysis, deafness, and partial blindness – for the rest of his life. The severity of the caisson cases experienced by workers impacted the bridge itself.

As opposed to the Brooklyn side bedrock, the Manhattan side bedrock proved to be much deeper than originally estimated. As work approached nearly 80 feet down, excavation had to stop – even though bedrock lay at least another 20 feet down. Far too many men were becoming ill. The result of this stunted digging is that the Manhattan tower technically rest on sand rather than bedrock. Roebling reassuringly noted that the sand hasn’t shifted in millions of years, so it should be good for a few million more…