Spinning Wire and Spanning Worlds: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Sometimes great achievements arise from petty annoyances. Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall begin their fast-paced and deeply moving graphic novel, The Bridge (Abrams ComicArts), in 1852, on a ferryboat in the partially frozen East River. One of the passengers, John A. Roebling, is irritated because the vessel hasn’t moved in exactly “three hours, twenty-eight minutes, and sixteen seconds,” as he puts it in a note to the vessel’s captain, who has been using the immobility to catch a very long nap. When Roebling, a civil engineer, receives the captain’s reply — “Stick a piece of river ice in your ear and cool off” — he and his young son, Washington, cobble together some scrap metal in the ferry’s hold to fashion a crude icebreaker. As the passengers cheer, Washington comments that all of the other ferries are still stranded. His father, a German immigrant and a ramrod of rectitude, gazes into the chill distance and says, “It will no longer suit the spirit of the present age to pronounce an undertaking impracticable, Washington. Remember that.”

They had been stranded on the ferry because there was as yet no other way to get across the East River — the vast reach seeming, more than a century and a half ago, literally unbridgeable. Author Tomasi grew up in Washington Heights, near enough to the George Washington Bridge that its revolving beacon cast “a soothing nightlight that put me to sleep each and every evening.” This proximity fostered a fascination with the bridges that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world; as a teenager, Tomasi walked across them all, and researched “who, what, where, when, and why these beautiful works came into being.” He and DuVall convey the “how” as well, employing lively dialogue and dynamic illustrations to engagingly explain the basics of industrial processes, including spinning wire from iron plates (use a very hot furnace), the proper way to sink a massive caisson — a hollow box made of wood and iron — into the riverbed (build granite towers atop it), and even how the sewage created by workers pulling long shifts in a caisson is removed (use compressed air to shoot it up a pipe and into the river).

Washington Roebling learns his trade.

The “who” in this true story of the conception, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge includes the senior Roebling, an expert in manufacturing wire rope that he used to build early, relatively short suspension bridges; young Washington and his wife, Emily; and a supporting cast of historical figures — Civil War generals, mayors of Brooklyn and New York, governors, presidents, and, ultimately, the Italian stonecutters, Irish sandhogs, and other workers killed during the fourteen-year project, too many of whose names have been lost to history.

The story follows the teenage Washington, known to the family as Wash, as he is one night unceremoniously rousted from sleep by his father, who loads him into a carriage. As the horses clip-clop away from their comfortable family home in Trenton, New Jersey, the elder Roebling explains to his puzzled son, “Unfortunately, none of us can foresee what will bring us to our knees. Your contentment must be shattered if you are to flourish in good times and bad, boy.” He drops Wash off at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, where the bewildered youth spends the next four years studying geometry, mineralogy, civil mechanics, structural engineering, and other grueling courses.

Washington Roebling keeps an eye on his dream.

When he returns home, Wash takes his place as an assistant manager at the family firm, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. But he soon tires of his father’s humorless diligence and bolts, joining the Union forces in the Civil War. After serving with distinction and bravery — he spotted Rebels advancing on Gettysburg from an observation balloon, and later built rope bridges under heavy fire — Washington returns to civilian life, goes back to working at the mill, and marries the charming and steadfast Emily, sister of one of his fellow officers. During this time the elder Roebling makes a proposal to the cities of Brooklyn and New York to design and build an East River Bridge, while Wash is more than a little dissatisfied that his father has not promoted him to full manager. DuVall’s artwork is as precise and forceful as the characters she portrays: The young veteran’s barely contained anger is conveyed by two spare lines at the brow and a couple of squiggles to indicate a throbbing vein at the temple.

In 1869, Roebling senior dies after a freak accident (ironically, when a Brooklyn ferry hit the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot; he died several weeks later of tetanus). Prepared by his father’s stern protocols as well as by his own service in the war, Washington takes on the unprecedented engineering project. The bridge’s financial trustees are wary of hiring someone in his early thirties to oversee a gargantuan enterprise that includes two 90,000-ton towers and 14,000 miles of steel wire in the suspension system, but Washington persuades them by pointing to the plans that he and his father had drawn up, stating, “The only person who knows this bridge better than I do is dead.” He gets the job, but the next fourteen years take a heavy toll on him, his wife, his crew of assistants, and the small army of workers who toil in otherworldly conditions far beneath the surface of the East River.

Red lead and granite: Building the towers.

In a recurring gag, Tomasi captures the fatalistic humor of men in dangerous jobs (with a nod to the movie Airplane). As they climb into one of the sunken, pressurized caissons, an assistant named Farrington remarks, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m claustrophobic.” On the next page, as the lights go temporarily dim, Farrington adds, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of the dark.” Then, as they hear the water rushing past on the other side of the caisson walls, he informs the assembled crew, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I can’t swim.” Some eighty pages later, when he is selected to be the first to traverse the bridge’s preliminary wire span, he stays true to character: “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of heights.”

But Farrington and the other men involved in the construction show Roebling the loyalty soldiers give to respected officers, calling him “Colonel” in reference to his Civil War rank. Roebling in turn offers good wages and — when men start suffering from nose bleeds, vomiting, fever, and fainting — orders that a doctor be present on site every day. The sickness turns out to be a form of the bends brought on by the high atmospheric pressures inside the sunken caissons. The doctor, struggling to make the caisson crews understand the grave importance of depressurizing in an airlock when they finish their shifts, tires of flip remarks from the skeptical laborers and shakes a soda bottle hard, saying, “The seltzer in this bottle is your blood. If you do not stay in the airlock a few minutes after leaving the caisson, then — ” He lets the fizzy seltzer spray over the audience. “Class dismissed.”

A new age dawns: Surprised by a woman in the workplace.

In one scene, the caisson crew discovers the bones of Redcoats while digging toward bedrock. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” one jokes. Another answers, “Not anymore, they ain’t,” while a third grumbles, “Feed their stinky Limey bones to the dogs, who cares?” The workers’ reactions make real the idea that the history of the Revolutionary War was still raw, as of course are their memories of the just-ended Civil War. A couple of the workers who served on different sides nearly come to blows.

When a caisson that is not yet fully weighted lifts with the tide, the pressurized air holding the water at bay, DuVall depicts the startled workers pointing at fish on the other side as if they had suddenly found themselves at an aquarium. After the wooden box slams back down, some of the workers decide that their nerves can no longer handle the hazardous labor. As they leave, Washington assures them, “Keep your heads up. There’s no shame here.”

Emily Roebling, hands-on manager.

But eventually Washington himself begins to show the effects of working literally under high pressure. When he is no longer able to tolerate loud noises or perform extended physical labor, he resorts to surveying the project’s progress through a telescope from his Brooklyn Heights residence, relaying instructions to the work crews in notes delivered by Emily. Although not formally trained as an engineer, she is nearly as steeped in the family business as her husband, and becomes the de-facto on-site manager.

As the years pass, the towers rise and the caissons sink, and Washington’s company bids on the next phase of the project, stringing the massive steel cables. But they are undercut by another wire manufacturer, one with financial ties to a bridge trustee. Corners are purposely cut to skim more profit, and when the subpar materials are discovered it’s too late to remove the faulty steel from the suspension system. The bridge, however, was designed to be six times stronger than its maximum load, and the inferior materials (which remain part of the structure to this day) still left a safety factor of five. When Washington exposes the crooked trustee, the man huffs out of the meeting, sneering, “You will be hearing from my attorney.” The experienced engineer replies, “I doubt it.”

In scene after scene, Tomasi and DuVall limn human intimacies, giving the familiar history of their tale a lively and surprisingly touching resonance that goes beyond the sweeping visual appeal of the neo-gothic support towers and elegant webwork of the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, after fourteen years of construction and at a cost of $15 million (approximately $350 million today). Both figures were roughly twice their original estimates, and between twenty and thirty men died working on the bridge. (By contrast, the new Kosciuszko Bridge, between Brooklyn and Queens, which is a bit longer, cost $555 million and no workers died during construction.) In 1884, some people still doubted whether the one-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge — which includes a main suspension span of 1,595 feet, the world-record holder for twenty years — could truly be safe. Ever on the lookout for a galvanizing publicity stunt, P.T. Barnum marched twenty-one elephants from Manhattan to circus grounds in Brooklyn, thus putting New Yorkers at ease.

Such is the Brooklyn Bridge’s romantic gravitational pull that when future East Village counterculture icon Tuli Kupferberg attempted suicide from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1945, he found himself reimagined ten years later in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & fire trucks, not even one free beer.…”

The 1883 celebration for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. So many fireworks were used that the glow could be seen as far away as inland New Jersey.

Author Tomasi ends the book’s preface with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, an essayist and architecture critic, who showed astonishing prescience in a May 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly when he wrote, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

It seems, 135 years later, that Schuyler was on the money — after all, nothing’s been sold more times than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s still here, free as the breeze.


In John Bradford’s Dynamic Paintings, the Past Never Sleeps

Our current political discourse consists too often of verbal punches, rhetorical cold cocks, and bullying tweets calculated to stoke fury and bloodletting. But such has it ever been with American politics (minus the tweets), no more so than when the nation prepared first for revolution and then for civil war. With scabrous swipes and fleshy dollops of pigment, John Bradford’s history paintings at Anna Zorina Gallery achieve a visceral presence that surpasses mere portrayal of iconic events. Bradford, born in 1949, attended Cooper Union and Yale, and over the decades has enhanced the density of his subject matter with surfaces as smooth as cream cheese and as rough as buffalo hide, using colors that range from sepulchral to gaudy. He cites painters from Corot to the abstract expressionists as influences, and while his figures can be wildly simplified, his skilled drawing concisely portrays that weird amalgam of body and brain that can have us dancing one moment and slumping in despair the next.

“Publication of the Declaration” (2017)

Bradford comes by his intense interest in American history through a personal connection — he is descended from William Bradford, who served five inconsecutive terms as the governor of the Plymouth Colony between 1621 and his death in 1657. In this current series of paintings, Bradford looks at our history through both public and intimate tableaux. At center stage in Publication of the Declaration (2017), a man in waistcoat and breeches waves a large sheet of parchment before a surging multitude. In the days before cellphones and Twitter, important announcements were made in print and heralded in town squares.

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Through paint thick and swirled as cake icing, we get the sense of a conflicted crowd — giddy about the Declaration of Independence’s call to freedom but agitated by their own defiant act of rebellion. The orator stands in the broad opening of a large interior space; behind him, shadows overlap like lead sheets, contrasting with the sun-bright throng. Bradford wields his palette knife like a gold-medal fencer — a quick thrust here, a whipped contour there, deft scorings through paint to stand in for the lines of revolutionary text printed on the flapping page: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Incredibly moving words, but shot through with hypocrisy even as the ink dried. It is to Bradford’s credit that his fiercely graceful gestures convey the seeds of future conflict already abloom in those lines. As in James Ensor’s great 1888 painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889, a fraught — but maybe transcendent — future is evoked, the mob enthusiastic but volatile.

“Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation” (2017)
Detail, “Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation” (2017)

That brings us to Bradford’s Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation (the dozen or so works in the show were all painted within the past year). The president sits at a desk that looks too cramped for his lanky frame, his only companion a sleeping dog. Beyond soaring windows, figures can be seen strolling across a sunny lawn. But Lincoln resides in gloom, red drapes fading to soot behind him. Gazing at this accreted melancholy, this linked chain of smudged texture and abraded color, a viewer might get an inkling of the weight of history bearing down on this flawed man’s shoulders as he became the first American leader to come to grips with the savagery and unforgivable sin of slavery. Human chattel formed one pillar of America’s economy even as it gave the lie to the lofty rhetoric of our young democracy. In Bradford’s roiled surfaces, we can feel the undercurrent of anxiety that surely came with the normalized shame of a society that allowed the capture and brutalizing of fellow human beings for profit — a disgraceful heritage that we see Lincoln sweeping away with strokes of his pen. But Bradford’s scarred surfaces also convey the president’s awareness that the grievous wound of slavery upon the body politic would be a long time healing, certainly beyond his own lifespan — which was, of course, shorter than he would have imagined.

“Signing the Emancipation Proclamation” (2017)

In another piece, Signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the striped wallpaper seems to writhe and windowpanes shiver at the immensity of that moment. A painting inside a gilt frame hangs on the wall over the president’s head, a quickly scribed shadow implying its physical heft. This conceptually witty picture within a picture depicts a sailing ship approaching a shore lined with classical ruins, history’s calamities transformed into tranquil picturesqueness by time’s healing passage. But, as in Anselm Kiefer’s portrayals of shattered Nazi architecture, Bradford informs us that the past never sleeps, and that historical serenity means only that you are not paying attention. In this painting, set in 1863 as the Civil War was at its height, Bradford gives us Union officers standing rigid — concise verticals of paint conveying the men’s realization that there was no turning back, that they must fight to the wretched end. In Gettysburg July 3, 1863, clouds scroll across a blue sky above a vista of tiny, ranked figures. Smoke — conjured from twists of a palette knife through clots of white, brown, and green — gathers into a pall, fitting for a battlefield that saw thousands of the Blue and the Gray fall that day.

“Gettysburg July 3, 1863” (2017)

Death of Hamilton focuses on a single casualty, when Alexander Hamilton was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel on July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey. Bradford envisions a pale-pink sun burning through the gray mist of a humid morning as the implacable political rivals face off. With maybe a dozen brushstrokes he captures Hamilton falling to the ground, white shock of hair flapping, and then uses a few more to depict Burr as a blue right angle, implying an arm still held out stiffly as it aimed.

Installation view

In that space between the raw materiality of Bradford’s slathered paint and the people those vibrant gestures represent resides a history of humanity, rather than one of facts and body counts.

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‘John Bradford: Hamilton, History, Lincoln and Paint’
Anna Zorina
533 West 23rd Street
Through May 5

Detail “Hamilton Chasing Benedict Arnold at West Point” (2017)

Studies in Crap: ’30s Texas History Textbook on Lazy Indians, Idle Negroes, and Awesome White Folks!

Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

The Lone Star State: A School History

Author: C.R. Wharton
Date: 1932
Publisher: The Southern Publishing Company
Discovered at: Submitted by a Dallas Junior Crap Archivist

Representative Quote:
“Thousands of the flower of Texas’ manhood had been left on the battlefields while mothers, widows, and orphans mourned them throughout the desolate land. Freedom of the slaves meant the loss of one-fourth of the property owned by the people of Texas.” (page 224)

It turns out that all of American history is decided by Texas, the state that nobody’s supposed to mess with even though it used to get its ass stomped by Mexico. Last year the State Board of Education stunned America by suggesting that Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez be stripped from textbooks. Then, the governor got so mad about poor people maybe getting health insurance that he fantasized about secession, which sounds crazy only until you remember that in its first 15 years of statehood, Texas managed to quit both Mexico and the U.S., because that’s what patriots do.

Dentist Don McLeroy, of the Texas Board of Education, recently explained that his decision to edit brown folks out of textbooks has something to do with freedom: “We have an obligation to Texas to make sure [students] understand the original principles upon which America was founded.” The board votes this month on the changes.

To help them out, your Crap Archivist has boned up on how textbooks explained the principles upon which Texas was founded. Here’s how the The Lone Star State: A School History describes the early Texans’ conflicts with Mexico:

“It was impossible for two peoples of different racial origins, speaking different languages, and having different religious views and laws, to mix without trouble.”

And here is author C.R. Wharton on Native Americans:

  • “The Spaniards should have known from common sense that there was about as much possibility of civilizing the Indian as there was of taming lions and tigers.”
  • “The Indians were troublesome and stole everything they could.”
  • “The Indians did not like to work and often ran away or, in savage fashion, raided the missions and killed the priests… the Indians were lazy and neglected crops and herds.”

Wharton was wrong to write these things because today we know that Native Americans should not be mentioned at all.

Eventually, “people from the U.S. came and claimed the land after years of savagery.” Texas became a state, and then quit to be a Confederate state, and then became a regular state again. As the proposed schoolbook standards make clear, that meant only one thing: The federal government must be limited. For example, after the Civil War, Washington forced Texas’ Native Americans onto reservations, where they subsisted on meager government aid. Wharton made clear that this was unfair to everyone.

“Nor did this handling of the Indians suit the white people. They worked hard to make a living without the assistance of the government and they resented the government’s aid to the Indians.”

Damn that special treatment!

Wharton may complain about other races, but that doesn’t mean he’s interested in them. His first chapter concerns the earliest Spanish explorers and ends with this sentence:

“One hundred and forty-two years went by before a white man came again.”

The next chapter picks up exactly 142 years later. Some fifty pages after that, once he’s described the failure of Spanish missionaries to convert the natives, Wharton announces:

“We are now at the real beginning of Texas history. All that happened in the three hundred years after Pineda sailed our shores and Cabeza de Vaca tramped from Galveston Island to the Rio Grande was of little importance.”

The lesson is one the state board has taken to heart: The parts of history that bore you don’t matter.

That also applies to parts of the world your people haven’t made it to yet!

Anyway, the tyrannic federal government told Texans that the black people they could no longer own now had the right to vote. The results:

“The negroes had been given the right to vote and the ‘carpet baggers’ controlled them and their votes for selfish reasons.”


“When the ‘carpet baggers’ arrived, they deceived and pampered the negroes and soon had them loafing about the country in idleness, homeless and helpless. Southern farmers could not get them to stay at home and work.”

Why does this all sound so familiar?

Wharton believes things got worse.

“These ‘carpet baggers’ even gave the negroes uniforms and guns, thereby making the latter very impudent and causing whites much annoyance.”

The solution?

“Finally, a mysterious order of the southerners called the Ku Klux Klan came into existence to scare the negroes into behaving. They rode throughout the country at night clothed in white robes and high hats telling the negroes they were ‘haunts’ from the dead of the battlefields.”

The book’s one other Klan reference:

“The political situation was complicated by the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, a fraternal order organized in a system of secret clubs or lodges just after the World War. Hundreds of thousands of people had joined the order and it gave support to Judge Felix D. Robertson, of Dallas, for governor.”

Speaking of governors, the only explanation for these boys’ beards must be that the ZZ Top hot rod can travel through time.

Assorted Ironies:

  • Change “colonists” to “Texans,” and this statement could fit right in to tomorrow’s textbooks:

“The colonists hoped for a day when they would govern themselves and have their laws written in English.”

“The Mexican government was very liberal with the colonists, made them large grants of land, and did not require them to pay taxes. Commerce was unrestricted and special grants were made for gins, saw-mills and other special businesses.”

  • Tensions between Texan colonists and the Mexican government escalated when president Bustamante passed a cruel 1830 law “prohibiting further immigration from the United States.” Wharton gets so worked up about this he might as well work for La Raza:

    “Such an act would have kept relatives and friends of the settlers from joining them in their new homes.”