A bridge over the East River, joining the cities of New York and Brooklyn, had been talked about for nearly as long as anyone could recall. According to the best history of Brooklyn ever written, a three-volume work by a medical doctor named Henry R. Stiles, Volume II of which appeared that same year of 1869, the idea for a bridge was exactly as old as the century, the first serious proposal having been recorded in Brooklyn in 1800. Stiles wrote that an old notation, found in a scrapbook, referred to an unnamed “gentleman of acknowledged abilities and good sense” who had a plan for a bridge that would take just two years to build. Probably the gentleman was Thomas Pope of New York, an altogether fascinating character, a carpenter and landscape gardener by trade, who had designed what he called his “Flying Pendent Lever Bridge,” an invention, as he saw it, available in all sizes and suitable for any site. His bridge to Brooklyn was to soar some two hundred feet over the water, with a tremendous cantilever fashioned entirely of wood, like “a rainbow rising on the shore,” he said in a little book he published in 1811. Thomas Pope’s “Rainbow Bridge” was never attempted, however, and fortunately so, for it would not have worked. But his vision of a heroic, monumental East River bridge persisted. Year after year others were proposed. Chain bridges, wire bridges, a bridge a hundred feet wide, were recommended by one engineer or another. “New York and Brooklyn must be united,” Horace Greeley declared in the Tribune in 1849, while in Brooklyn a street running down to the river was confidently christened Bridge Street.
But nothing was done. The chief problem always was the East River, which is no river at all technically speaking, but a tidal strait and one of the most turbulent and in that day, especially, one of the busiest stretches of navigable salt water anywhere on earth. “If there is to be a bridge,” wrote one man, “it must take one grand flying leap from shore to shore over the masts of the ships. There can be no piers or drawbridge. There must be only one great arch all the way across. Surely this must be a wonderful bridge.”
In April 1867 a charter authorizing a private company to build and operate an East River bridge had been voted through at Albany. The charter was a most interesting and important document, for several different reasons, as time would tell. But in the things it said and left unsaid concerning the actual structure to be built, it was notable at a glance. Not a word was mentioned, for example, about the sort of bridge it was to be or to suggest that its construction might involve any significant or foreseeable problems. The cities were not required to approve the plans or location. The charter said only that it be a toll bridge. It was important that it have a “substantial railing” and that it be “kept fully lighted through all hours of the night”. It was also to be completed by January 1, 1870.
A month after the charter became law, Roebling had been named engineer of the work. By whom or by what criteria remained a puzzle for anyone trying to follow the story in the papers. In September, that same year, 1867, at a private meeting held in Brooklyn, he presented his master plan in a long formal report. But such was “the anxiety manifested on the part of the press of the two cities to present his report to the public, that it was taken and published, as an entirety . . . “
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