Part Two:  Faster, Higher, Farther

May 24, 1883. On this day, the Brooklyn Bridge opened for traffic. Over 50,000 pedestrians made an inaugural crossing over the East River on the Great Bridge, which now joined the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan.  It was an incredible engineering achievement.

From the drawing board, it would take 16 years to complete. It cost $15 Million dollars ($340 Million today).  At the time, and for many years thereafter, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50% longer than the next longest bridge—totaling nearly 6000 feet long over a water span of 1600 feet.  Each of its neo-gothic towers stretched well over 300 feet from foundation to top–taller than any other man-made structure in the world at the time.

Its structure and design was judged to be 6 times stronger than what it needed to be, allowing it to far outlast other bridges built during that time. The introduction of steel, instead of iron, gave the bridge added strength. (At that time, building metal bridges with iron was a standard practice.)   And it was built by men using picks, shovels, and hand tools.

The building of the Great Bridge had its problems. Several deaths occurred during its construction; workers had to grapple with a new sickness—known today as “the bends”—as they worked underwater inside air-sealed caissons; delays, political graft and cost overruns were commonplace; and a doubting public grew weary of whether the project was worth it.

But it was worth it. The critics were largely silenced after President Chester Arthur and many others first walked across the bridge 131 years ago today. And public confidence in the Bridge’s structure and strength grew, especially after P.T. Barnum, in one of Barnum’s publicity stunts, paraded Jumbo, a large elephant, who crossed the Bridge in its first year. The Bridge bolstered commerce in what would become the busiest city in the world. It joined two massive population centers. And it became a source of enormous local and national pride that such a massive structure could ever be built.

Below are some fairly rare photos of the bridge during and after construction.

Tower Construction

Tower Construction

1875 Photo showing the height of the towers compared to the Manhattan Landscape.

1875 Photo showing the height of the towers compared to the Manhattan Landscape.

Steel cables being attached.

Steel cables being attached.

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

1880 photo. Only three more years to complete!

1880 photo. Only three more years to complete!

Officials on a foot bridge.  Note the sign.

Officials on a foot bridge. Note the sign.

 

Pedestrians crossing May 24 1883.

Pedestrians crossing May 24 1883.

The Bridge today at sunset.

The Bridge today at sunset.

 

Faster Higher Farther

May 10, 1869. On this day, near the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, a large crowd had gathered to watch a significant historic moment. The crowd looked on as a symbolic “golden spike” was driven into a railroad tie. And with that, the nation’s first transcontinental railway system was completed.  Travel, commerce, and communications now spanned the entire continent, something that never had happened before on any continent in the history of mankind. It was a very big deal.

In America’s early days, explorers, traders, and entrepreneurs had long sought an easy passage to our West Coast. Indeed, Jefferson commissioned pathfinders Lewis and Clark to seek such a route via the waterways. But the northerly route Lewis and Clark had taken still involved travel over land, some of it very harsh, and winter travel along that route was especially inhospitable and impractical. Then, an innovation—the steam engine—ushered in the railroad industry. By the mid-nineteenth century, the development of a railroad infrastructure had quickly grown, especially along our eastern seaboard. Still, there was no major economic necessity or demand to travel westward to California, and, significantly, there was no “big money” to invest in such an infrastructure.

But in 1848, that changed. Gold was discovered in California. Gold seekers, merchants and Chinese immigrants from the Canton Province swarmed into California by the droves. Just two years later, California was admitted to the Union. Now, the United States government had legitimate assets to protect and a quicker route became a necessity. The alternatives—(1) sailing around the Cape of Good Horn in South America (5 months) or (2) boating down to Panama, crossing it via a 48-mile railway, and then boating up to California (35 days) or (3) traveling overland from St. Louis to San Francisco (30 days)—were not quick enough. In 1862, and despite the overwhelming distraction of the Civil War, Congress enacted and Lincoln signed an Act that financed a transcontinental land route to California via the rails.

By then, a central route was chosen for the railroad. On the eastern side, it would begin at Omaha, Nebraska (railroad lines from the East Coast then extended to Omaha) and it was to be built by the Union Pacific Railroad. On the western side, the Central Pacific Railroad would build a line beginning from Sacramento. The idea was to meet somewhere in the middle.

The work was hard. Armies of Irish and Chinese immigrants, some 20,000 workers in all, used shovels, sledgehammers, and sweat to build it. The summer heat was extreme and uncomfortable. And winter weather was abysmal, as workers had the double duty of shoveling both dirt and snow. Avalanches were not uncommon. And because dynamite had not yet been invented, workers used nitroglycerine—it was volatile and dangerous—causing many injuries and deaths. Working conditions were poor and the pay was low. But, they persevered.

The railway crossed deserts, bored through mountains, traversed rivers, and bridged gaps. The tracks crossed one river alone 31 times! At its highest, it reached nearly 8000 feet. In the end, it spanned an unbelievable 1900 miles.

At the time of its completion, it would become the longest railroad line in the world. The final hookup came at Promontory Point, Utah. Along with the building of the railroad, telegraph lines were also built. The telegraph operators signaled “DONE” when California Governor Leland Stanford (yes, Stanford University was named for him) drove in that final ceremonial spike.  A few months later, a line from Sacramento to San Francisco was completed which finally allowed coast-to-coast travel. In all, it took about 6 years to build a system that went from coast-to-coast.

Now, a trip from New York to San Francisco clocked in at about one week, down significantly from the old ways of traveling. Coast-to-coast travel, which cost $1000 in 1850, now cost $150 (still not cheap, but much less!). Most importantly, the railroad united the coasts, spurred incredible economic growth, and allowed for future development across the west. It was a great thing.

The pictures below show the building of this amazing achievement.

The Route. The Union Pacific portion (blue) ran 1087 miles. The Central Pacific segment (red) ran 690 miles.

The Route. The Union Pacific portion (blue) ran 1087 miles. The Central Pacific segment (red) ran 690 miles.

July 10, 1865. The first track is laid in Omaha as Union Pacific executives look on. It took several weeks to lay the first mile.

July 10, 1865. The first track is laid in Omaha as Union Pacific executives look on. It took several weeks to lay the first mile.

1866.  Bridges and tunnels had to be build. This is the North Platte Bridge over the Platte River.

1866. Bridges and tunnels had to be built. This is the North Platte Bridge over the Platte River.

Armies of Chinese immigrants dug, bored, and blasted their way through the Sierra Nevada mountains, across the desert, over rivers, and then eventually to the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

Armies of Chinese immigrants dug, bored, and blasted their way through the Sierra Nevada mountains, across the desert, over rivers, and then eventually to the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

1868: The Dale Creek Bridge, measured at 700 feet long, spanned a gorge near the railroad line's highest point in the Rockies.  The bridge was rendered obsolete about 30 years later in favor of a different route.

1868: The Dale Creek Bridge, measured at 700 feet long, spanned a gorge near the railroad line’s highest point in the Rockies. The bridge was rendered obsolete about 30 years later in favor of a different route.

Circa 1869. Central Pacific crews working somewhere in Nevada.

Circa 1869. Central Pacific crews working somewhere in Nevada.

1869.  This tunnel in Weber Canyon, Utah was one of the last hurdles the Union Pacific had to face towards Promonotory Summit.

1869. This tunnel in Weber Canyon, Utah was one of the last hurdles the Union Pacific had to face towards Promontory Summit.

May 10, 1869. The Golden Spike Ceremony at Promonotory Summit. No Chinese workers were allowed to be photographed in these photos.

May 10, 1869. The Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Summit. No Chinese workers were allowed to be photographed in these photos.

 

 

Crimea: Russia Covets It

March 30, 1856:  Crimea.  Russia’s takeover and annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine is certainly not the first time that Russia has exerted its dominance over this small peninsula.  For over 160 years, the port city of Sevastapol, located at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea,  has been of immense strategic importance to Russia due to its size and location.  This port, which is considered the “preferred” warm water naval port on the Black Sea, allows Russia to have easy access to the Balkan countries as well as strategic entry to the Mediterranean and to the Middle East itself.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia has been “leasing” the port of Sevastapol from the Ukraine for its Black Sea fleet, the latest agreement extending this lease until 2042. So when recent sentiment in the Ukraine became highly critical of this lease extension and of Russian influence itself,  Russia reacted accordingly. But Russia’s recent foray into the Crimean peninsula is not the first time they were willing to march in.

The Crimean War, now almost forgotten, pitted an alliance of European powers (Great Britain, France, Northern Italy, the Austrian Empire, and Turkey) against Russia in the 1850s.  Back then, Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire (i.e., Turkey).  In a nutshell, Russia wanted to “protect” Crimea’s Christian Orthodox population from the area’s Catholic population (supported by the European Alliance) in an area weakly controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  Behind the scenes, however, Russia wanted to exercise its dominance over this area and ultimately the Holy Lands, while the European powers said Nyet. Russia marched in, the European Alliance countered with their own troops, and a nasty three-year war ensued. Ultimately, Russia lost the war and their strategic Crimean perch.  On this date, Russia signed the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Crimean War.

It was considered the first “modern” war. The use of the telegraph in this war gave us the first war correspondents and battlefield photography. It gave us Florence Nightingale and introduced nursing care. It was the first time railways were used on a broad scale for military supply lines.  It introduced long trench lines. It gave us Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” And it began a series of future military events in Europe over the next 75 years.

You can click on each picture below to see a zoomed in view.

3rd Grenadier Guards with tents and hospital in background. Florence Nightingale worked here.

3rd Grenadier Guards with tents and hospital in background. Florence Nightingale worked here.

Cannons and firepower

Cannons and firepower.

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade was based upon what happened here on this spot.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was based upon what happened here on this spot. This is the Valley of the Shadow of Death