Arbor Outlook: Completing the World's Largest Suspension Bridge
"It always seems impossible until it's done."
This is the second in a two-part series
Building the Brooklyn Bridge, a 6,000 foot span that connected New York City and Brooklyn, was a unique civil engineering challenge. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world for 50 years. Unfortunately, sinking watertight caissons into the floor of the East River and connecting guide wires was only part of the challenge.
Political issues and financial corruption hounded the 14- year-long project, which began in 1869. Estimates are that the Tweed Ring of Tammany Hall stole some $75 million from public coffers during the reign of New York’s William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, and part of that was derived through graft related to bridge sub-contractors. Tweed and his cronies also managed to obtain large shares in the bridge project without paying for them.
Brooklyn and New York City were both paying for the bridge, and at one juncture New York failed to meet a $1 million invoice, causing work to halt temporarily. The entire project cost about $15 million. Today that figure would not pay for significant repairs.
Builder Washington Roebling suffered severe health issues from his work on the bridge (his father, John Roebling, who began the project, died as a result of an accident on the bridge). Roebling remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Roebling's wife Emily was a vital assistant. “Apparently just about everyone involved…liked her enormously and held her in great respect…That she was welcome among them, her opinions regarded seriously, was considered testimony in itself, in a day and age when a woman’s presence in or about a construction job…was absolutely unheard of,” wrote author David McCullough.
The bridge opened with incredible fanfare, with President Chester Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland in attendance. Emily Roebling enjoyed the first ride over the bridge and carried a live rooster with her for good luck. One speaker compared the original builder, John Roebling, with Leonardo da Vinci. Within 24 hours, a quarter of a million people had walked across the bridge.
Bridge trains carrying passengers cost each rider five cents. A horseback rider could also cross for five cents; a horse pulling a cart cost ten cents. Cattle could cross at five cents; sheep and hogs for two pennies. Pedestrians paid one penny to walk across the span. Today upwards of 120,000 vehicles cross it each day.
“From the (Brooklyn) Heights (a neighborhood that offered a view of the entire suspension bridge) it was perfectly clear why the bridge had been built,” wrote McCullough. “It’s practicality, no less than its grandeur, was unmistakable…It was the great highway to New York…”
During its construction, the telephone and the electric light came into use. In 1944, when the bridge was 61 years old, engineers hired to assess its sturdiness concluded that it only needed a new coat of paint. Surveyors discovered that the bridge is less than two-thirds of an inch higher on one side than the other.
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, FL. 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.