Building the Brooklyn Bridge was a feat like nothing ever before. Fourteen years of construction and high hopes led to one of the most iconic bridges in the world. But at what cost? It’s astonishing to know that some of the most intricate details regarding the bridge’s blueprints were recorded, but the loss of life was simply swept away. In fact, nobody knows to this day how many workers lost their lives working on the Great East River Bridge. Data conservatively suggest that 20-30 lives were lost, but with no real sentiment for low-wage workers, not to mention immigrants, it’s very difficult to find out. Today, it would be surprising if construction continued on any projects with a loss of life that exceeded 2 or 3 workers, let alone 30. Unfortunately, in that day and age, construction accident lawyers really weren’t a robust force against the big heads that ran construction across the city.
Surprisingly, the project’s first victim also happened to be the chief visionary creator – civil engineer and architect John A. Roebling. During a supervision session on the bridge tower, Roebling caught his foot on a rope and it became crushed by a nearby docking boat. A couple of his toes were later amputated but amongst his personal defiance of medical advice, he eventually succumbed to his injuries and died shortly a month after. Unsurprisingly, his son and second-in-command, Washington Roebling came to the rescue, unbeknownst that he too, would also become another casualty of the great Brooklyn Bridge.
The fate for many of the bridge’s workers was not very safeguarded either. Caisson disease actually originated from the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Sandhog workers were told to sink pairs of caissons, which were chambers molded out of wood and steel. Workers had to excavate the riverbed using only shovels and sometimes even dynamite. Working under stricter pressure, diggers began to experience symptoms of herniated discs, vomiting, chills, stomach pain, and joint cramps. These were all early stages of caisson disease, caused by the nitrogen bubbles flowing in their bloodstream.
Others succumbed to death by the simple gravity of the bridge itself. It was, after all, the biggest bridge to have been built at the time. It wasn’t uncommon to simply get dizzy atop the bridge towers, and some workers plummeted down all-sustaining fall injuries. Down below, bad luck could strike anytime as granite stones and falling blocks sometimes rained down, either injuring or killing workers on the spot.
Most unbelievably, however, was the loss of 12 lives on the day of the bridge’s opening. So many people attended the ceremony, between 15,000 – 30,000, that a stampede arose and watch-seekers were trampled to injury or death. Concern for safety was not held to a high standard but the lessons from the decade-long construction project gifted us with many lessons for today.