The Chamber of Commerce of New York

Building the City > The North River Bridge - II

A suspension bridge that cleared the water in one great sweep would need a central span of at least 3,000 feet. Charles MacDonald, chief engineer for the Bridge Company, asserted that such a length was unfeasible. Determined to prove him wrong, the Chamber of Commerce sought testimony from the nation’s most-distinguished engineer, Washington A. Roebling, the man who had overseen construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Stricken with caisson disease while excavating piers in the East River, he was now bedridden and reclusive. He demurred, therefore, when the committee invited him to appear as an expert witness, writing, “I regret to say that my ill health prevents me from acceding to your request.” 

Nevertheless, he agreed with the Chamber that a suspension bridge “with a single span of 3,000 feet” was “feasible,” although that was twice the length of his Brooklyn Bridge, and would require enormous stone anchorages, iron towers of 400 to 500 feet, and “perfect cables.” As for Charles MacDonald, the bridge’s current engineer, Roebling ascribed his hesitation to professional incompetence. “If he had the necessary experience to build an iron cable Susp[ension] Bridge,” wrote Roebling, in a paragraph omitted from the Chamber’s official testimony, “I dare say he would build that, but as he has not, he falls back on the cantilever and pier.”

Though he himself was too fatigued to design the bridge, Roebling recommended the services of his first assistant, Wilhelm Hildenbrand, who sketched plans for the Chamber of Commerce and itemized a proposed budget. The Bridge Company’s cantilever and pier design would cost roughly 11 million dollars. To do it properly – the Roebling way – would add a mere two million dollars more.

For the men of the Chamber of Commerce this figure hardly figured. “[T]o permit the New-York and New-Jersey Bridge Company to carry out its project for the sake of saving a few million dollars,” Schwab testified, “would be simply suicidal on the part of the people of New-York.”

The Chamber’s voice, with the added emphasis of Roebling’s testimony, was enough to sink the Hudson River Bridge. More than enough, perhaps, considering that the nation was in the midst of the greatest industrial panic it had ever known. The Chamber was prepared to be patient, as was its engineer. “There are usually several periods in the course of a century, when it becomes possible to command the large capital required for such a single enterprise,” Washington Roebling wrote in a follow-up letter. “The time may not be ripe for it now, but when it does come it seems a pity not to preserve intact those magnificent waterways, which, in other countries, are guarded with such jealous care.”

For decades, city planners continued to agitate for a New York-New Jersey bridge. In the 1920s, the newly created Port of New York Authority finally agreed on a site, at 179th Street. There, in what would become the George Washington Bridge, the central span would stretch further than 3,500 feet; the eventual cost would be nearly sixty million dollars. More than a fifth of that price, spent on perfectly constructed wire cables, went to Roebling and Sons.

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