Construction of Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn Historical Society collection.

Path Location: 20

Unsung Builders

Building the Brooklyn Bridge was dangerous work. The project took at least 20 lives. Among the dead was John A. Roebling, the bridge’s designer, who contracted tetanus after his foot was hit by a boat at the Fulton Ferry landing in 1869.

Unlike Roebling, most of the casualties were not celebrated men. Since some deaths went unrecorded, we will never know exactly how many men died constructing “The Great East River Bridge.”

The Men Who Built A Bridge

Between 1869 and 1883, several thousand laborers and engineers worked above, below, and along the East River building the world’s longest suspension bridge.# Many of the laborers were immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy. Most worked for a daily wage of $2.00 or $2.25.#

How They Died

Several workmen were killed by falling stone during the construction of the towers, while others died when struck by a steel rope that snapped in 1878 during the cabling process. Others fell from the bridge’s two granite towers.#

But the most deadly work took place in the caissons, massive wooden boxes sunk into the riverbed to provide a base for the towers. Laborers toiled inside the caissons, slowly digging down until they hit solid rock. Fires repeatedly broke out in the caissons; the air inside them was foul and hard to breathe.

Death came most frequently from the effects of decompression sickness (“the bends”), caused by coming up from the caissons to the surface too quickly, trapping nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. In May 1872, the laborers went on strike, demanding $3.00 for a four-hour day in the caissons, but the strikers returned to work when the New York Bridge Company threatened to fire them.

Boycotting the Bridge Opening

The Brooklyn Bridge was slated to open on May 24, 1883, which was also Queen Victoria’s birthday. To show support for Irish revolutionaries resisting British imperial control – and to protest capitalists’ treatment of American labor – members of Brooklyn’s and Manhattan’s militant Central Labor Union# announced that they would boycott the ceremony unless the bridge trustees changed the date.

According to one member of the Central Labor Union, “The opening of the bridge on the Queen’s birthday would be a concession to a growing snobbishness in this country and an insult to American working men.” Union members debating calling out tens of thousands of working men in protest if the opening took place on Victoria’s birthday.

The bridge trustees refused to relent, and made sure two regiments of Brooklyn and Manhattan national guardsmen were on hand to prevent trouble on May 24. None occurred.

After 17 years of grueling work, laborers saw their struggles and demands for recognition ignored. To this day, their protests are rarely included in stories of the bridge’s construction.

Brooklyn Bridge Park site marker coming 2015