The Human Toll of Building the “Impossible Bridge”

Photo by WillVision Photography

When in New York, if the sky is blue and you’re up for a walk, make for the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a symbol of the great city and provides a great view of the Manhattan skyline.

The bridge is a marvel of design and was then the longest suspension bridge in the world. An impossible feat of engineering to many. Pondering over this impressive structure might make you wonder about it’s construction over 130 years ago.

However, you might not think of the Bends as being a potential risk for workers. But it certainly was – it incapacitated many, including the structure’s chief architect and on several occasions almost halted the construction of the bridge altogether.

During the construction phase of the bridge – from 1870 to 1883 – there were three known cases at the site of the bridge’s construction. To understand why this out-of-place disease cropped up, you first need to appreciate the scale of this massive project.


Building the Bridge

The bridge’s two great towers required substantial underwater engineering. To establish a firm foundation for the cables and struts, the bridge’s builders had to drill down into bedrock and blast their way through many meters of compacted rock and sand. They were able to do so by using a huge wooden box called a caisson.

In essence, a caisson was like an upturned ship’s hull, keeping out the body of water above and enabling the workers to dig the riverbed while themselves remaining dry.

To say the work was tough is an understatement. The men toiled in near-darkness with only picks and shovels.

Soon after passing a depth of fifty feet, the workers began to complain of paralysis of the arms, lasting for several days. Other men began to suddenly gush blood from their ears and nose.

Work shifts were slashed: from eight hours to four as physicians raced to find an explanation to this silent illness.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were experiencing a mild form of the Bends.


Round the Bends

The Bends occurs when the body is subjected to a large amount of low pressure, causing liquid matter in the body to turn into gas. This can wreak havoc with various parts of the body, for restricting blood flow and nerve pulses.

Although it often starts as paralysis, more advanced signs of the disease take the form of blackouts and impaired vision.

The Bends becomes more severe with continued exposure to low pressure. The bridge’s chief engineer, Washington Roebling spent so long underwater in the caisson inspecting the work’s progress that he came down with a severe case of the Bends, forcing him into semi-retirement and confining him to his sick bed for the remainder of the project.


A Case of Caisson Disease

Whereas there are now treatments and preventive measures in place for those at risk of contracting the Bends, at that time medical knowledge was limited and couldn’t provide an adequate explanation. The disease was simply dubbed Caisson disease and considered to be an isolated occurrence.

Although now the disease is well researched and modern treatments have limited its prevalence, workers in the Nineteenth Century were advised simply to wait until symptoms cleared.

The building of the bridge was the first time that the disease had been encountered on a large scale. The early incidence of the disease remains testament to the fact that, even with modern technology it’s essential to take into full account the effects on the human body any venture will have.

Nearly one hundred and thirty years later, the mighty legs of the Brooklyn Bridge stand defiantly and help transport millions of thousands every day.

Few know of the hidden peril that once lay just meters below in the depths of the Hudson.


More Stories of “Suspension”

The Great Bridge - BookWhat you’ve read isn’t even the tip of an East River iceberg. David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge chronicles the fourteen years of it’s construction, and the lives lost, the political wars waged and the public doubts that threatened the project.

It’s a homage to the skill and courage of those who conceived and executed the Brooklyn Bridge at great personal cost.

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