Revolutionary Lifestyles

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Constructing Class

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Appropriating Control

The People's Bridge

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Constructing Class

The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of a burgeoning middle class thanks to the educational and professional opportunities afforded by the Gilded Age. Membership in this stratum, however, was precarious due to economic fluctuations caused by a Wall Street crash in 1873 and labor strikes throughout that decade. The upper and middle classes sought to maintain their status by squelching such uprisings and maintaining poor working conditions, widening the gulf between them and the struggling laboring class.

John Roebling's early efforts to establish himself as an American engineer demonstrated the subordinate and tenuous status of civil engineers fifty years prior to the Gilded Age. During his tenure as an assistant engineer working on the Pennsylvania Canal, for example, he unexpectedly was laid off for a period. He also submitted design improvements for canal locks and railroad switches, but these were ignored because Roebling had neither the clout nor the financial backing for such changes. The construction firm dictated projects, and he was merely in its employ. Within four years, however, Roebling's gamble on an innovative wire rope—one lighter and stronger than the commonly used hemp—paid off. The canal company agreed to test it if he paid to produce it. John soon had a successful manufacturing business and financial freedom that enabled him to submit serious contracts for several open construction bids. By the time he began work on the Niagara bridge in 1851 he had six suspension bridges to his credit, as well as a lucrative wire rope company. Additionally, he now could dictate his own terms as a salaried engineer with total freedom of design (Trachtenberg, Bridge 50-55).

Washington Roebling

Within a generation, however, engineering became a highly regarded field, and the experiences of Washington Roebling greatly differed from that of his father. At 17, Washington enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, where he successfully completed a grueling course of study. As Trachtenberg explains, "With their close ties to private industries, their willingness to design their curricula to meet industrial needs, such schools fostered specialization of functions" (Trachtenberg, Incorporation 64). In 1857 Washington began working with his father on bridge sites in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati until the Civil War erupted. During this time, he proved himself a valiant union soldier, fighting at Antietam and Gettysburg, among others. However, the bridges Washington built across the Rappahannock and Shenandoah rivers also contributed to his rapid ascent from private to colonel: by mid-century an engineer was worthy of promotion to officer.

Shortly after the war's end, at the request and expense of his father, Washington enjoyed a tour of Europe. By this time, the elder Roebling had begun preliminary designs for the East River bridge, and the success of his plans rested on a technique in use across the Atlantic, pneumatic caissons. Thus, he sent Washington to study the process of building and sinking the cavernous structures. Still, the possibility of such a trip, regardless of its purpose, demonstrates the significantly increased respectability of the engineer. The opportunity for transatlantic travel previously had been reserved for the middle and upper classes only.

Inside the caisson

However, the evolving respect for the engineer did not extend to other construction employees. The relationship between the New York Bridge Company and the laborers it hired reveals worsening, rather than improved, conditions, a situation typical of the time. As Trachtenberg notes, technology did more than improve daily life. He writes: "[I]t also seems responsible for newly visible poverty, slums, and an unexpected wretchedness of industrial conditions. While it inspired confidence in some quarters, it also provoked dismay, often arousing hope and dismay in the same minds" (Bridge 38-39). Trachtenberg refers mainly to factory conditions, but the bridge company wage-earners—mostly Irish, German, and Italian immigrants who completed much of the highly dangerous and grueling work—fit the description, as well. Below the water surface alone, approximately 264 men, worked twenty-four hours a day, in three eight-hour shifts, six days a week. They earned $2 a day until hitting twenty-eight feet, at which point they received a quarter more per hour (McCullough 202-204). Inside the caissons, horrendous conditions caused an average of 100 men a week to quit. Calcium lamps and specially designed candles provided meager light, and temperatures, even in the dead of winter, exceeded eighty degrees, resulting in perpetually muggy conditions (McCullough 192-193). Inside the New York caisson, crews had to dig up sewage, and though compressed air impedes the sense of smell, many men took sick.

In the caissons, however, the most treacherous danger was the dreaded "bends," so named for the contorted form of its victims' bodies. Formally known as caisson's disease, the bends causes muscular paralysis and sometimes death due to nitrogen bubbles caught in the bloodstream when the body is subjected to high pressure. The workers repeatedly entered and emerged from intense pressures—in the New York caisson, the pressure reached more than thirty-five pounds per square inch—but no one knew neither how to prevent nor how to treat the condition. They were urged to consume much red meat and abstain from liquor; many frequently rubbed a mixture of salt and whiskey on their bodies to restore circulation (McCullough 213, 276). Still, nothing helped ease or prevent the pain. (A slower transition time from high to low pressure would have prevented the disease. )

During the sinking of the second caisson, workers, knowing the hazards and undesirability of their work, finally struck, demanding $3 for a four-hour workday. The strike, itself a novelty of the Gilded Age, demonstrated a growing knowledge among workers of how to negotiate with corporate America. Within hours, the Bridge Company offered $2.75, but the workers refused, dragging the negotiations on for three days. When the Company threatened to fire everyone, the workers conceded (McCullough 291-292). The incident, therefore, also demonstrated the widening gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots," for job security outweighed principles in the end.

Despite the increasing socioeconomic discrepancies between those involved with the Brooklyn Bridge, the conflict, though bitter, proved productive. The workers may have conceded to the corporation, agreeing to wages they deemed unacceptable, but more important, they exercised their right to challenge management—and won. In addition, they continued to show up, completed the project, and even the lowliest and most briefly employed laborers took pride in what they recognized to be a monument in the making. The situation demonstrates a successful conflict, a paradox mirrored by the contradictory qualities of the chief engineers, themselves.

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