Books

Spinning Wire and Spanning Worlds: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

A new graphic novel recounts the tragedies and triumphs of one family’s dream of building a bridge across the East River

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Sometimes great achievements arise from petty annoyances. Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall begin their fast-paced and deeply moving graphic novel, The Bridge (Abrams ComicArts), in 1852, on a ferryboat in the partially frozen East River. One of the passengers, John A. Roebling, is irritated because the vessel hasn’t moved in exactly “three hours, twenty-eight minutes, and sixteen seconds,” as he puts it in a note to the vessel’s captain, who has been using the immobility to catch a very long nap. When Roebling, a civil engineer, receives the captain’s reply — “Stick a piece of river ice in your ear and cool off” — he and his young son, Washington, cobble together some scrap metal in the ferry’s hold to fashion a crude icebreaker. As the passengers cheer, Washington comments that all of the other ferries are still stranded. His father, a German immigrant and a ramrod of rectitude, gazes into the chill distance and says, “It will no longer suit the spirit of the present age to pronounce an undertaking impracticable, Washington. Remember that.”

They had been stranded on the ferry because there was as yet no other way to get across the East River — the vast reach seeming, more than a century and a half ago, literally unbridgeable. Author Tomasi grew up in Washington Heights, near enough to the George Washington Bridge that its revolving beacon cast “a soothing nightlight that put me to sleep each and every evening.” This proximity fostered a fascination with the bridges that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world; as a teenager, Tomasi walked across them all, and researched “who, what, where, when, and why these beautiful works came into being.” He and DuVall convey the “how” as well, employing lively dialogue and dynamic illustrations to engagingly explain the basics of industrial processes, including spinning wire from iron plates (use a very hot furnace), the proper way to sink a massive caisson — a hollow box made of wood and iron — into the riverbed (build granite towers atop it), and even how the sewage created by workers pulling long shifts in a caisson is removed (use compressed air to shoot it up a pipe and into the river).

The “who” in this true story of the conception, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge includes the senior Roebling, an expert in manufacturing wire rope that he used to build early, relatively short suspension bridges; young Washington and his wife, Emily; and a supporting cast of historical figures — Civil War generals, mayors of Brooklyn and New York, governors, presidents, and, ultimately, the Italian stonecutters, Irish sandhogs, and other workers killed during the fourteen-year project, too many of whose names have been lost to history.

The story follows the teenage Washington, known to the family as Wash, as he is one night unceremoniously rousted from sleep by his father, who loads him into a carriage. As the horses clip-clop away from their comfortable family home in Trenton, New Jersey, the elder Roebling explains to his puzzled son, “Unfortunately, none of us can foresee what will bring us to our knees. Your contentment must be shattered if you are to flourish in good times and bad, boy.” He drops Wash off at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, where the bewildered youth spends the next four years studying geometry, mineralogy, civil mechanics, structural engineering, and other grueling courses.

When he returns home, Wash takes his place as an assistant manager at the family firm, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. But he soon tires of his father’s humorless diligence and bolts, joining the Union forces in the Civil War. After serving with distinction and bravery — he spotted Rebels advancing on Gettysburg from an observation balloon, and later built rope bridges under heavy fire — Washington returns to civilian life, goes back to working at the mill, and marries the charming and steadfast Emily, sister of one of his fellow officers. During this time the elder Roebling makes a proposal to the cities of Brooklyn and New York to design and build an East River Bridge, while Wash is more than a little dissatisfied that his father has not promoted him to full manager. DuVall’s artwork is as precise and forceful as the characters she portrays: The young veteran’s barely contained anger is conveyed by two spare lines at the brow and a couple of squiggles to indicate a throbbing vein at the temple.

In 1869, Roebling senior dies after a freak accident (ironically, when a Brooklyn ferry hit the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot; he died several weeks later of tetanus). Prepared by his father’s stern protocols as well as by his own service in the war, Washington takes on the unprecedented engineering project. The bridge’s financial trustees are wary of hiring someone in his early thirties to oversee a gargantuan enterprise that includes two 90,000-ton towers and 14,000 miles of steel wire in the suspension system, but Washington persuades them by pointing to the plans that he and his father had drawn up, stating, “The only person who knows this bridge better than I do is dead.” He gets the job, but the next fourteen years take a heavy toll on him, his wife, his crew of assistants, and the small army of workers who toil in otherworldly conditions far beneath the surface of the East River.

In a recurring gag, Tomasi captures the fatalistic humor of men in dangerous jobs (with a nod to the movie Airplane). As they climb into one of the sunken, pressurized caissons, an assistant named Farrington remarks, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m claustrophobic.” On the next page, as the lights go temporarily dim, Farrington adds, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of the dark.” Then, as they hear the water rushing past on the other side of the caisson walls, he informs the assembled crew, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I can’t swim.” Some eighty pages later, when he is selected to be the first to traverse the bridge’s preliminary wire span, he stays true to character: “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of heights.”

But Farrington and the other men involved in the construction show Roebling the loyalty soldiers give to respected officers, calling him “Colonel” in reference to his Civil War rank. Roebling in turn offers good wages and — when men start suffering from nose bleeds, vomiting, fever, and fainting — orders that a doctor be present on site every day. The sickness turns out to be a form of the bends brought on by the high atmospheric pressures inside the sunken caissons. The doctor, struggling to make the caisson crews understand the grave importance of depressurizing in an airlock when they finish their shifts, tires of flip remarks from the skeptical laborers and shakes a soda bottle hard, saying, “The seltzer in this bottle is your blood. If you do not stay in the airlock a few minutes after leaving the caisson, then — ” He lets the fizzy seltzer spray over the audience. “Class dismissed.”

In one scene, the caisson crew discovers the bones of Redcoats while digging toward bedrock. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” one jokes. Another answers, “Not anymore, they ain’t,” while a third grumbles, “Feed their stinky Limey bones to the dogs, who cares?” The workers’ reactions make real the idea that the history of the Revolutionary War was still raw, as of course are their memories of the just-ended Civil War. A couple of the workers who served on different sides nearly come to blows.

When a caisson that is not yet fully weighted lifts with the tide, the pressurized air holding the water at bay, DuVall depicts the startled workers pointing at fish on the other side as if they had suddenly found themselves at an aquarium. After the wooden box slams back down, some of the workers decide that their nerves can no longer handle the hazardous labor. As they leave, Washington assures them, “Keep your heads up. There’s no shame here.”

But eventually Washington himself begins to show the effects of working literally under high pressure. When he is no longer able to tolerate loud noises or perform extended physical labor, he resorts to surveying the project’s progress through a telescope from his Brooklyn Heights residence, relaying instructions to the work crews in notes delivered by Emily. Although not formally trained as an engineer, she is nearly as steeped in the family business as her husband, and becomes the de-facto on-site manager.

As the years pass, the towers rise and the caissons sink, and Washington’s company bids on the next phase of the project, stringing the massive steel cables. But they are undercut by another wire manufacturer, one with financial ties to a bridge trustee. Corners are purposely cut to skim more profit, and when the subpar materials are discovered it’s too late to remove the faulty steel from the suspension system. The bridge, however, was designed to be six times stronger than its maximum load, and the inferior materials (which remain part of the structure to this day) still left a safety factor of five. When Washington exposes the crooked trustee, the man huffs out of the meeting, sneering, “You will be hearing from my attorney.” The experienced engineer replies, “I doubt it.”

In scene after scene, Tomasi and DuVall limn human intimacies, giving the familiar history of their tale a lively and surprisingly touching resonance that goes beyond the sweeping visual appeal of the neo-gothic support towers and elegant webwork of the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, after fourteen years of construction and at a cost of $15 million (approximately $350 million today). Both figures were roughly twice their original estimates, and between twenty and thirty men died working on the bridge. (By contrast, the new Kosciuszko Bridge, between Brooklyn and Queens, which is a bit longer, cost $555 million and no workers died during construction.) In 1884, some people still doubted whether the one-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge — which includes a main suspension span of 1,595 feet, the world-record holder for twenty years — could truly be safe. Ever on the lookout for a galvanizing publicity stunt, P.T. Barnum marched twenty-one elephants from Manhattan to circus grounds in Brooklyn, thus putting New Yorkers at ease.

Such is the Brooklyn Bridge’s romantic gravitational pull that when future East Village counterculture icon Tuli Kupferberg attempted suicide from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1945, he found himself reimagined ten years later in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & fire trucks, not even one free beer.…”

Author Tomasi ends the book’s preface with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, an essayist and architecture critic, who showed astonishing prescience in a May 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly when he wrote, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

It seems, 135 years later, that Schuyler was on the money — after all, nothing’s been sold more times than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s still here, free as the breeze.

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