This unit is designed to be taught in U.S. History II. U.S. History II is a required course for graduation which covers U.S. history from the end of the Civil War to the end of the 20th Century. The unit will form the main focal point of study of industrial America at the end of the 19th Century. It will culminate with a field trip aboard a schooner down the East River for a close look at the bridges that will be the object of our study. With some expansion and alteration this unit could also form the basis for a half year interdisciplinary course to be team taught with another teacher who would cover the mathematical and engineering aspects of the topic in greater detail.
The great challenge of teaching a survey course like U.S. History II is to cover the vast amount of material required while still going into enough depth to make the subject meaningful and to engage a wide range of skills beyond simple retention and repetition of information. To accomplish this it is necessary to choose certain key focal points to be considered in some detail that pull together and illustrate a range of important curricular issues. These focal points may be important individuals or groups, key events, geographic locations or even trends. Each focal point should allow students to attain a deeper level of understanding of a range of interconnected historical issues. Using this method a survey course can cover the significant elements of a large span of history without sacrificing the development of skills that are the critical to the study of history.
The study of the design and building of New York City bridges in the late 19th Century accomplishes this end by pulling together numerous threads which run through American history at the peak period of industrial growth. It incorporates the issues of urban growth and the resulting changes in transportation needs that provided the impetus to build more bridges of higher quality. It includes consideration of innovations in industrial processes and the introduction of new materials for building such as the mass production of steel and the introduction of steel cable. The availability of these materials combined with the needs of an urban industrial society led to exciting innovations in design. The issues of immigration, social class and the experience of workers in the new industrial economy are also a critical part of the story. These patterns of innovation, invention, immigration, and social change were repeated throughout American society during this era.
The city of New York represents an ideal location upon which to focus an historical study on bridges for a number of reasons. No other American city grew faster, had a larger immigrant population or had a greater need for colossal bridges. Indeed by the late 19th Century bridges were critical to the city's continued growth and development. All this was a direct result of geography which must be fully appreciated if one is to understand the development of New York as a major urban center. New York's founding and rapid growth were a direct result of its fabulous harbor and the surrounding waterways. The influence of geography on history becomes therefore yet another key element covered in this unit. It will develop a deeper understanding of geography which is often given short shrift in survey courses when the pressure is always to rush on to the next historical event. Geography is in fact one of the primary factors determining the design and method of construction of a bridge.
New York also makes a good choice for a unit on bridges because of its proximity to New Haven which allows for the use of resources that are unique to the Sound School where I teach. The Sound School is a Regional Vocational Aquiculture Center which focuses much of its curriculum on the study of the marine environment. The school owns and operates a fleet of small vessels (both sail and power) which can be used by any qualified teacher within his curriculum. In addition, the school makes regular use of the Quinnipiack, a 91 foot schooner which is owned and operated by Schooner Inc. and is docked at the school's pier. Schooner's offices are located on Sound School's campus which makes coordination and planning of elaborate long range trips much easier and Sound School's budget has an automatic allotment each year for the use of the Quinnipiack so funding is rarely a problem. These circumstances present an opportunity for students to travel to New York and view the East River bridges from the deck of the schooner. This vantage point allows for an excellent perspective on the structure of each bridge and allows for an easy way to compare them as each is viewed in succession. In addition, Sound School's powered scows (which are large enough to carry an entire class) can provide excellent platforms to view the variety of bridges in New Haven over the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers. Such a field trip prior to the culminating trip to New York would be useful to get students to begin consideration of issues of geography, purpose and design in bridge construction and would also provide a valuable point of comparison with New York.
The Industrial Revolution and New York's Bridges: Background Information
Any general study of the 19th and early 20th Centuries in American history must consider the substantial impact of industrialization. Beginning in the early 19th Century with the development of mass production in textiles and powered by steam engines burning coal, the Industrial Revolution was set to begin a new phase by the end of the Civil War. This Second Industrial Revolution was based on three major developments all of which are central themes in this unit. The most important of these and one in which bridges played a critical role was the completion of modern transportation and communication networks to allow the high volume flow of goods. Second was the development of electricity as a more flexible source of power for industrial machinery but which also proved especially important in new forms of urban transportation. The third development was the beginning of the application of science to industry and to the creation of new and improved materials and products which were utilized in the new designs of ever larger bridges.
Since it began, the Industrial Revolution led directly to rapid urban growth that accelerated as the 19th Century wore on. Improved farming methods and increasing farm mechanization combined with the draw of industrial jobs led to a steady migration from rural to urban areas. When the Civil War began, only one American in five was living in a city. By 1915, half the U.S. population lived in cities. While the nations rural population doubled over this period, the urban population grew more than 700 percent. The new urban industrial economy led to a self generating growth in which a growing pool of cheap and available labor encouraged the formation of more and more industrial enterprises.
New York's growth during this era was based not only on these new economic forces but also on the fact that the city was already a great center for trade and commerce before the Industrial Revolution began. This was because the city was founded on the site of the best natural harbor on the North American continent. To be successful as a port, a harbor needs to meet several criteria. It should be large and deep enough to accommodate a significant number of ocean going vessels and provide protection from seas and wind in all directions. It must also have easy access to the open ocean. Most importantly, especially in the pre-industrial age, a successful port needed to have a navigable waterway to give access to the hinterland so that trade goods could be easily transported to the port for transhipment. A look at a map (or better yet a nautical chart) reveals that New York meets all these criteria extremely well. Located on an island in a deep bay near the mouth of the Hudson river with excellent protection from the open sea provided by Long Island and Staten Island it is easy to see why it became so successful as a port. This advantageous geography however had a great influence on the pattern of growth of the city and created a unique set of concerns in which bridges had to play a role.
Even at the start of the 19th Century New York's leaders were well aware of their city's potential for growth. In 1807 the state legislature appointed a special commission "to lay out streets, roads, public squares of such extent and direction as to them shall seem most conductive to the public good." The result was the "Commissioner's Plan," an eight foot long map which laid out the now familiar grid of streets and avenues onto Manhattan Island all the way up to 155th Street. For a city of about 100,000 that only just extended as far north as Greenwich Village it was an audacious plan indeed. The commissioners acknowledged as much in the accompanying report stating that "it may be the subject of merriment that the commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot this side of China." It certainly seemed at the time that this was all the planing the city would ever need and yet by the end of the century the plan was filled to the limit and beyond.
Another fact that the Commissioners did not foresee was that New York's growth was not going to be limited to the Island of Manhattan, but would in fact extend well into Long Island before even half of their plan was fulfilled. Rapid growth in Brooklyn right across the East River from the commercial center of New York was made possible by the introduction of the steam ferry in 1814. The Fulton Ferry took only twelve minutes to travel from the relative peace of Brooklyn Heights to downtown New York. By comparison the trip up to Greenwich Village at the northern edge of the city took an hour by foot or omnibus. For the next twenty years until the introduction of steam railroad service up 4th avenue, transportation technology provided commuters who could afford it a more attractive option in Brooklyn than uptown Manhattan. This was more than enough time for Brooklyn to get a good start down the path of urbanization as the industrial economy began to heat up.
The first half of the 19th Century therefore, was a time of unprecedented growth for both New York (which before 1898 included only the island of Manhattan) and Brooklyn. In 1825 the Erie Canal was completed which further established the city's status as the nation's premier port. Now mid-western produce that may have traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans, down the St. Lawrence to Montreal or down the Delaware to Philadelphia all came to New York. The city's population grew from 123,706 in 1820 to over 800,00 in 1860. In that year a new planning commission was appointed to lay out streets north of 155th Street. Brooklyn's growth was even more dramatic. In 1820, seven years after the Fulton Ferry went into service, the former village of Brooklyn had grown to 7,000 people. By 1860 the city had annexed Greenpoint and Williamsburg to become the third largest city in the country (after New York and Philadelphia) with a population of 267,000. By this time it was apparent that the ferries were not up to the task of connecting these two burgeoning populations; a bridge was needed. The Industrial Revolution, having created the need for a bridge, would also provide the solution.
Innovations and Inventions
Part of the solution would be steel, a material that would transform the building of large structures. The Second Industrial Revolution can aptly be called the beginning of the age of steel. New methods that would revolutionize the production of steel, the Bessemer process and the open hearth method, were developed in Europe in the 1850s and copied in America by the end of the 1860s. Steel, which was harder and stronger than iron, could now be mass produced at a far lower cost than ever before. Steel provided the bridge builder with a material that was extremely versatile in that it was strong in both tension and compression and yet comparatively light. Because it was so much stronger, steel allowed bridge builders to be more economical since less of it was needed. Innovative designs such as the suspension bridge that had been used in bridges of impressive size with stone and iron could now be fully utilized on an even grander scale. Even well established forms such as the arch and the truss could be utilized to their full potential. Examples of all of these can be seen in the East River bridges most of which were built just as steel was coming into its own.
Another innovation that is perhaps even more central to the story of the East River bridges was the development of wire to be used in construction and for other industrial purposes. John A. Roebling who was later to be the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, was the first in the United States to make iron wire rope which was laid up and twisted like that which was made from natural fiber. Based on articles he had read in a German periodical, it proved to be far stronger and longer lasting than the hemp cables it initially replaced. It was this type of wire rope - by then made of steel - that was used in the suspenders and stays of the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling was also a pioneer in the use of wire to make the cables to provide the primary support in a suspension bridge. His method of "spinning" the cables in place, with the wires laid up straight in parallel and then wrapping them in a skin of soft outer wire is still in use today. Inventions and innovations such as these were essential ingredients in the Industrial Revolution as they were repeated in a variety of fields and industries.
One final element essential to the Industrial Revolution which played an important role in the construction of the East River bridges was development of new forms of power. Without steam power, which had helped to bring about the First Industrial Revolution, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge would not have been possible. Steam engines were required to lift the stone blocks for the towers, power the air compressors for the pneumatic caissons, carry the wires for laying the cables and run the cable cars used on the bridge when it was first completed. By the time the second East River bridge - the Williamsburg Bridge - was under construction in 1897, all of those tasks were powered by electricity. By 1908 ( five years after the completion of the bridge) the electric powered cars of the Brooklyn Elevated System were running on the bridge. Electricity continues today as the source of power for urban mass transit.
Immigration and Issues Facing Workers
One of the most significant effects of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of a new social class of workers. The people who provided the labor for the new economy were usually poor and possessed few skills as few were required for most industrial jobs. They worked long hours at low pay often under appalling conditions. Increasingly viewed by their employers as merely cogs in the machinery of production, they had few rights and no effective way to fight for them. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the labor movement in the United States was weak and largely limited to the minority of workers who had skills. Efforts to organize and fight for humane treatment were usually beaten back with help from government which largely served the interests of the employers. To make matters worse the nation during this time had open immigration - a policy which was strongly supported by big business. The result was ever larger numbers of people looking for work which kept wages down and made it even more difficult to organize unions. Over time the working class, especially those without skills, was increasingly made up of the foreign born.
More than any city in the country, New York was a magnet for those arriving from other countries. As the nation's foremost port it was the entry point for over 70 percent of all immigrants many of whom chose to stay in the city. The immigrants came in two great waves, the first occurring in the mid-19th Century and made up mostly of immigrants from northern and western Europe. In 1820, 11 percent of New York's population was foreign born, but by 1860 that proportion had grown to 50 percent representing a total number of over 400,000 people. The largest immigrant group was the Irish who made up half of the foreign born living in New York in 1860.
Facing widespread discrimination in employment and housing the Irish struggled to survive especially in the years around mid-Century when they were just arriving. They were forced to settle in rundown areas inhabited primarily by people of their own nationality. One of the most notorious neighborhoods was just North of City Hall and was known as the Five Points. In the center of that neighborhood stood the Old Brewery, a decrepit old tenement where rooms could be rented for as little as two dollars a month. At one time it contained 1,200 people and was the most densely populated building in the city. Only the least desirable menial jobs were open to the Irish and they felt lucky if they could get a full time job in a sweatshop. When one understands the level of desperation that the immigrant working class faced, one can understand why so many would be willing to endure the horrendous conditions and high risk of working in the pneumatic caissons of the Brooklyn Bridge. By the end of the Century the Irish, having acquired job skills, respectability, and political power, were moving up and being largely replaced by the next great wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.