Introduction

Revolutionary Lifestyles

Corporate Deals

Constructing Class

Chief Engineers

An Icon Is Born

Appropriating Control

The People's Bridge

Bridge as Image

Conclusion

Sources


Bridge Timeline

Roebling Timeline

Bridge Statistics


Printable Text







Corporate Deals

Progress meant not just an increased interest in technology, but also a change in the economics enabling that technology. An examination of the New York Bridge Company (so named, incidentally, by its Brooklyn founders because for them, it was a bridge to New York) reveals the rise of the corporation and its often-dubious effect on society, and especially politics.

Henry Cruse Murphy

That a public work such as a bridge should be undertaken by a private organization would have struck no one as unusual in an era when men like Andrew Carnegie were crisscrossing the country with train tracks. Therefore in 1867, when Henry Murphy, the lawyer, former politician, and owner of the Brooklyn Eagle, wanted to bridge the East River, he culled thirty-eight men to form a board of directors for the proposed company. They petitioned the state legislature for a charter and, a month later, were invested with broad and ambiguous powers. According to bridge historian David McCullough, the company "was to have the power to purchase any real estate for the bridge and its approaches and to fix tolls." In addition:

The legislation fixed the capital stock at five million dollars, with the power to increase it, and gave the cities of Brooklyn and New York authority to subscribe to as much of the stock as determined by their respective Common Councils. The stock was to be valued at a hundred dollars a share. The company was to be run by a president who would be elected annually (116).

The state expressed no concern about how the bridge would alter urban life, requiring only that company obtain federal approval.

William C. Kingsley

In later years, possibly because the corporation had become more pervasive in daily life, the public grew more knowledgeable about both bridge construction and business. In 1874, the seemingly unlimited power of the New York Bridge Company was challenged, and both Brooklyn and New York won greater representation on the board. A year later, the state legislature dissolved the company. However, demonstrating the power of business over government, the company's membership remained static, changing only their titles, from board members to "trustees."

Still, in 1867, secret meetings and questionable, if not corrupt, politics characterized company proceedings. A month after obtaining the charter, the board elected Murphy its president, and soon after, John Roebling was named chief engineer. William Kingsley, a wealthy Brooklyn contractor with known ties to Brooklyn's Boss Hugh McLaughlin, agreed to bankroll the project, though no such agreement was ever officially recorded. The Brooklyn contingent, however, still needed support from the New York side, and the infamous Boss Tweed happily complied—for a price.

Boss Tweed

The extent of Tweed's involvement has never been precisely determined. The story extrapolated from later testimony contends that the boss promised to secure the required vote in exchange for $65,000 (some versions claim $55,000), and someone, probably Kingsley, delivered the cash in a carpetbag. In addition, Tweed purchased company shares at an 80 percent discount. Kingsley, too, received a kickback, though the conditions are hazy (McCullough 127-131, 259). A financial investigation of the bridge company later uncovered that a disproportionate amount of money had been paid to Kingsley. He eventually returned the sum, offering only vague explanations about the matter. Equally enigmatic was the process by which the bridge company chose John Roebling. His early association with Murphy and Kingsley remains unclear in historical accounts, though it is known that the company chose the man, not a plan. According to official records:

Confidence on the part of the public and of those whose money was to be invested in the undertaking would best be insured by employing the Engineer who had achieved the most successful results, and who was thus most likely to accomplish this great enterprise (qtd. in McCullough 117).

Roebling submitted a formal bridge proposal to the New York Bridge Company only after he'd been awarded the title of chief engineer.

Natural Bridge: The East River freezes, winter 1866-67

This new, politically charged business climate also required a certain flair for personal salesmanship, a skill Roebling acquired early. In 1840, he lost the opportunity to build a suspension bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia because a lesser engineer, Charles Ellet Jr., had promoted himself better (McCullough 72-75, Trachtenberg, Bridge, 54-56). Five years later, he nearly lost the Niagara River crossing to Ellet, as well. Thus, in New York, Roebling played to the concern of his detractors. The shipping industry, including riverside warehouse owners, claimed that a bridge over the East River would hinder navigation, and some engineers alleged the technical impossibility of such a structure, touting instead the feasibility of a tunnel. In his proposal to the New York Bridge Company, Roebling predicted an increase in commerce between Brooklyn and New York due to the increased ease of and speed of travel afforded by a bridge. Ice jams, for example, would no longer impede travel. In addition, Roebling cleverly quelled safety concerns by securing the approval of a hand-picked collection of superior engineers, including Colonel Julius Adams, a highly respected Brooklynite who had voiced sharp anti-Roebling sentiments (McCullough 22, 35). Finally, to guarantee congressional approval, Roebling organized what came to be known as the "Bridge Party," consisting of three Army engineers on whose assessment Congress would base its decision, these engineers, Brooklyn businessmen and politicians, and Kingsley toured Roebling's previous work in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Niagara. Upon the trip's completion, all emphatically endorsed Roebling. In 1869 Congress voted its approval and established the Bridge as a legal post road.

Roebling's Niagara Crossing

The rise of corporations such as the New York Bridge Company not only changed the way business was transacted, but also altered the people involved by revolutionizing the jobs available. Incorporated America enabled greater social mobility, offering innumerable white-collar, managerial positions. However, not all segments of society benefited from modern economics.

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