Although numerous suspension bridges had been built prior to the Brooklyn Bridge, nothing came close to the almost 1,600 foot span across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. German immigrant John Augustus Roebling was attracted to the challenge after he developed a system to stabilise large span bridges using a steel web truss down each side. He was appointed chief engineer but, six months before construction began, died of a tetanus infection after a boat crushed his toes while he was surveying the site.

Roebling’s son Washington took over the project but he too suffered a terrible injury while inspecting the foundations. In order to secure a stable foundation for the towers of the bridge, large watertight timber caissons were sunk to the river bed. These enormous upside down boxes were filled with compressed air to keep out the water, and men known as sandhogs then entered to dig away the sediment until they reached bedrock.

The compressed air inside the caissons gave the workers terrible headaches but, more dangerously, dissolved high levels of gases into their bloodstream. Exiting the caisson caused these gases to expand, leading to incredible pain, paralysis, and even death. Washington Roebling himself was struck down with ‘caisson disease’, now better known as ‘the bends’, and was confined to his home for much of the bridge’s construction. His wife, Emily, took over many of his duties and successfully oversaw the completion of the project.

The bridge was officially opened on May 24, 1883, 13 years after construction began. The total cost was over $15 million, more than twice the original estimate, but well over a century later it still remains a vital link for New Yorkers.

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