By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred and 18 years ago this week, on May 24, 1883, the great bridge connecting the cities of Brooklyn and New York opened. Fourteen years in the making, the completed Brooklyn Bridge stood as a wonder of engineering and vision. Everyone it seemed, from the president of the United States on down, was on hand for a celebration unlike any other witnessed in the U.S. to date.
The idea of building a bridge across the East River went back to the colonial era. From an engineering standpoint, a traditional bridge built on pilings presented no particular challenge. But such a structure would allow only small boats to ply the East River, which by 1850 was one of the busiest waterways in the world. Only when it became possible to build suspension bridges — literally hung high above the river from only two large towers — did the idea get serious attention.
Politicians, business owners, and real estate interests combined forces in the mid-1860s to gain state approval for an "East River Bridge" to join the two independent cities. They promptly hired German-born engineer John Roebling, the man with more experience in designing suspension bridges than anyone in the world. Roebling designed the bridge but died in the first months of construction. It fell to his son (also an engineer), Col. Washington Roebling, to see construction of the bridge to completion.
Apart from the Roeblings, nearly all the key figures involved in building the Brooklyn Bridge were Irish or Irish American. Indeed, the story of the bridge reveals a good deal about the varied economic status of the Irish in Gilded Age America. To be sure, many of the lowest-paid common laborers were Irish, but so too were large numbers of skilled tradesmen and foremen, as well as several of the project’s most important men at the top.
William C. Kingsley was the man who literally built the bridge. Born in Kilkenny as William Charles Kinsella, he immigrated to to the U.S. and later changed his name (presumably to hide his Irishness). He moved to Brooklyn in 1856 and soon became the city’s richest contractor, winning contracts to pave streets, lay sewer lines, and build Prospect Park. A major promoter of the bridge, he won the contract to build it by submitting a preposterously low bid of $5 million. The actual cost ran over $15 million.
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Henry Cruse Murphy likewise played a major role in making the bridge. Born in Brooklyn in 1810 into a wealthy family, he became an attorney, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, and politician (mayor, congressman, and ambassador to Holland). Murphy drafted the legislation that authorized the project and served as president of the East River Bridge Company from its inception in 1867 until his death in 1882 — just six months before the bridge was finished.
George McNulty served as Washington Roebling’s assistant engineer. Hired at age 20, he was given charge of executing the most difficult parts of the construction. His skill and ingenuity made him an indispensable part of Roebling’s team.
Beyond these high-profile figures were thousands of skilled and unskilled workers. By the 1870s, Irish Americans had begun to move into the ranks of skilled tradesmen. One look at the records of the East River Bridge Co. shows that as many as one third of the stonecutters, bricklayers, carpenters, and metal workers were Irish. These men earned a comfortable wage and many belonged to unions.
Still, Irish Americans in the 1870s and ’80s remained overrepresented in the ranks of unskilled workers. A majority of the laborers who worked on the Brooklyn Bridge were Irish. They worked 12-hour days for 12.5 cents and hour.
One group of laborers, however, earned the princely sum of $2.75 for a five-hour day. They worked in the caissons — huge boxes sunk beneath the East River on top of which rose the bridge’s towers. Men inside dug away the mud and sand allowing the caisson to sink deep into the river bed. The tremendous pressure inside gave the men what deep sea divers call "the bends" (essentially muscular distress caused by excessive nitrogen in the blood). Others died or were crippled by seizures. Even with the shortened shift, at least 40 and likely many more died in the making of the bridge. Countless more, including Washington Roebling, were crippled for life.
Other Irishmen found work on the bridge as it grew. Al Smith, future governor of New York and Democratic nominee for president, remembered walking across the footbridge with his father, a bridge watchman. Smith never forgot the experience. Nor did his mother, who, according to Smith’s sister, sat at home "saying 10 rosaries all the time they were gone."
Despite the many fatalities, cost overruns, strikes, taxpayers suits, and corruption scandals, the Brooklyn Bridge reached completion in the spring of 1883. It was an awesome sight to behold. At 276.5 feet in height, the two stone towers were the tallest structures in North America. Yet what struck most people was the spindly web of wiring — thousands upon thousands of miles of woven wire configured into a complex suspension system. The age of steel had dawned and for the first time in human history people would no longer equate mass with strength.
One last Irish aspect to the story emerged in the weeks leading up to the official opening on May 24, 1883. Irish nationalist feelings ran high in the early 1880s as a result of the Land League movement. So when someone discovered that the chosen day — May 24 — was Queen Victoria’s birthday, the Irish press exploded with indignation. "It is a trucking, un-American spirit that inspired the idea," thundered Irish World editor Patrick Ford. Why not Decoration Day on May 30 or July 4th — true blue American holidays? Irish-dominated labor unions in the city threatened to boycott the event. A few hardliners even spoke of dynamiting the bridge.
In the end, however, they were convinced that the date had been selected without any knowledge of the queen’s birthday. Furthermore, everyone had been invited and it was too late to change it. Talk of protest and boycott quietly faded in the face of a rising tide of civic pride and patriotism. Irish Americans joined the hundreds of thousands who turned out that day and were treated to a spectacular fireworks display. It commemorated not merely a feat of engineering and perseverance, but also the arrival of the modern industrial era in which new technology and materials would forever transform the nation.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
May 23, 1922: "Abie’s Irish Rose," a play about an unlikely Irish-Jewish romance, opens in New York. Panned by the critics, it nonetheless sets a Broadway record of 2,377 performances.
May 24, 1798: Uprising of the United Irishmen begins.
May 25, 1895: Playwright Oscar Wilde is sentenced to two years in prison for homosexual activities.
May 23, 1923: Sculptor Ellsworth Kelly is born Newburg, N.Y.
May 25, 1886: Boxer Gene Tunney is born in New York City.
May 29, 1917: President John F. Kennedy is born in Brookline, Mass. Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.