The Brooklyn Bridge is a majestic span with its elegant gothic towers and roadway suspended above the East River. Today we take it for granted, but at the time it was built it was called “the eighth wonder of the world.” However, the bridge never would have been built without major contributions from a Greenpoint shipyard and an engineer from Kent Street.

The first step in building the towers for the mighty bridge was designing caissons, or huge metal boxes, that were to be sunk to the riverbed so that diggers could dig down and find bedrock to plant the towers on. John Roebling, the chief architect for the bridge, designed these massive caissons in 1868 and gave the demanding contract to assemble them to a shipbuilding firm located at the foot of Milton Street: Webb and Bell.
Building these massive objects was a massive engineering feat. Nothing like these caissons had ever been built before. There was one for each bridge tower and they weighed an amazing three thousand tons each. In the history of human construction, nothing so large had ever been sunk into the earth. The caissons were 168 feet long and 103 feet wide, an area covering half a city block. These large boxes had 110, 000 cubic feet of timber and two hundred and fifty feet of iron with iron walls and a ceiling six feet thick.

Webb and Bell insisted on being paid $100,000 in advance for the complicated task of building them. To dig inside the caissons workers needed air—so the caissons were built with a revolutionary new technology: air locks made of one-half inch boiler plates, seven feet by six and a half inches in diameter. The massive caissons would be built in parts and then welded together at the foot of the bridge because of the enormous size of the caisson pieces.

Finally, the caissons were ready in May 1870 to be pulled down the river by two tugboats. The plan was to float them down the river, but launching such heavy objects into the East River was a major engineering problem. Webb and Bell had to build seven launch ways so that these massive objects could reach the river. There was great excitement locally and thousands of Greenpointers turned out to witness their launch into the river. Huge cheers arose from the throngs assembled along the East River as the caissons hit the water and did not sink. They were then towed the five miles down the East River to the Bridge site.

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A Greenpointer would also play a role in building the huge bridge: Colonel William Payne of Kent Street. Colonel Payne was an experienced surveyor, and when Chief Architect Roebling interviewed him he hired him on the spot for the hefty salary of ten dollars a day. A self-taught engineer, Payne had surveyed the Johnson Route across the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the Union Pacific Railroad. He had also built bridges for the union in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had personally made him a captain in the engineers after he had risked his life to slip behind southern lines and map out an attack route on Richmond.

There was one engineering task that was incomplete before bridge construction could begin. They needed to find a centerline for the bridge. In 1870 Roebling and Payne worked together to survey the site and draw out the centerline. Payne would continue to play a major role in inspecting the bridge because Roebling suffered a debilitating sickness during construction of the bridge. Payne became the chief inspector for the bridge. One of Payne’s major contributions was the discovery that a disreputable firm hired to create the span’s wire cable was using dangerous sub-standard cable. Payne also later designed the trolley system that allowed cable cars to travel safely across the bridge. Today Payne’s name is inscribed in a plaque at the center of the bridge for his huge contributions in building it.

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