The bridge itself is an iconic symbol of New York City, but the saga of its construction and its slow rise out of the East River marked watershed moments in the lives of a generation of New Yorkers and Brooklynites. Thousands gathered on the shoreline to watch landmark stages of the construction unfold. One of the most enlivening parts of McCullough’s book is the description of the first wire strung across the East River between the bridge’s gargantuan stone towers in 1876.
But a far more exciting moment, at least in McCullough’s telling, came when the second traveler wire was strung. This rope was lashed to the first and pulled out along the bridge’s span. Workmen where then sent out from both towers in swings to cut the lashings with knives and separate the two cables. Harry Supple, a sailor who had worked on the bridge for six years, was sent down between the New York tower and anchorage, and he detached the ropes with incredible ease and speed. As McCullough writes, “When his feet landed on the anchorage, the ovation was such that he ought to have taken a long bow” (p. 367). The two men tasked with cutting the lashings over the main span, however, ran into some trouble, getting stuck only partway down.
It was at this point that young Supple, who had by now returned to the top of the New York tower, decided to go to the rescue. He swung himself out over the river, sailor-style, hand over hand, with his legs wrapped around the traveler rope. He reached Carroll quickly enough, passed him by, and cut the next lashing, which instantly freed the pulley. Then back he went, up to the tower, in the same way he had come down, carrying on an easy conversation with those on the tower all the while. The crowd below was ecstatic" (p. 367-8).
I recently felt a similar thrill as I did from reading McCullough’s account of these death-defying feats when I watched Safety Last!, a 1923 film starring Harold Lloyd. Far less known known than Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Lloyd was nonetheless an equally skilled master of physical comedy in the silent era (which earned him the nickname “The Third Genius”). The climax of the film shows Lloyd scaling the facade of building for an ill-conceived publicity stunt to drum up business at the department store where he works and impress his fiancee. At each floor he is harangued by dogs, flocks of pigeons, and absent-minded residents, all of whom nearly send the inexperienced climber to his death. Lloyd did most of the stunts himself, including the famous shot dangling from the hands of a clock high above the street, with only primitive safety equiment (mattresses were piled two or three stories below to break his fall) and despite the fact that he was missing his thumb and index finger on one hand. In my opinion, modern, high-tech blockbusters have offered few shots more thrilling than these:
But movie stunts are one thing; dangerous, back-breaking work another entirely. In all, between 20 and 30 men lost their lives building the Brooklyn Bridge (accounts differ as to the exact number, but here is one list of casualties), from falls, equipment failures, and other accidents. Even the bridge’s designer, John A. Roebling, was felled by the bridge. While surveying the construction site, his foot was crushed by a ferry, an injury that led to a fatal case of tetanus. The condition came about as the result of his belief in the curative powers of moving water, in which he soaked his injured foot constantly, leading to the bacterial infection and his slow, painful death in 1869.
I can only imagine the thrill he felt watching from his window as Farrington and Supple went out on the wires, connecting the span of his masterwork for the very first time.
For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment. If you would like to follow this blog, subscribe to our RSS feed or sign up for the Urban Oyster email newsletter.