Brooklyn Bridge a Testament to American Ingenuity, Spirit

Photographer Todd Webb’s signed gelatin silver Brooklyn Bridge, NY, 1946, went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1966, the American Society of Civil Engineers started a new honor category, “Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.” The Bollman Truss Railroad Bridge in Savage, Md., was the first to receive this distinction and it remains the only example of an all-metal bridge design used on a railroad. Eventually, they got around to the Brooklyn Bridge and it was added in 1972 as the 27th project recognized.

There is something appealing about bridges and the Brooklyn Bridge surpasses them all. It was the biggest, most famous in the world and is an enduring testament to American ingenuity and spirit. More than a mile long and connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River, its enormous granite towers loomed higher than anything ever seen. Higher than any building in New York or any structure on the North American continent, it became “The Thing” every visitor to NYC craved to see and a spectacle that awed tens of millions of immigrants.

Its designer, the brilliant John Augustus Roebling, promised – with characteristic immodesty – a stunning example of great engineering combined with unique artistic visual effects. Roebling had perfected the suspension form, with bridges at Niagara, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and the masterpiece over the East River was to be his crowning project. Tragically, he died in 1869 before the design was complete after a freak accident crushed his toes. The amputation that followed exposed him to tetanus; another vivid example of the hazards associated with non-sterile medical practices combined with the absence of anti-bacterial drugs.

Fortunately, his son, Washington Roebling, possibly the only other person qualified to take over, was available. A Civil War veteran, he was admired for his intelligence, decisiveness and courage … qualities essential to surmounting the many obstacles ahead. His fearless dedication exposed him to all the potential dangers involved, but he too fell victim to a physical ailment that curtailed his involvement. He spent the next 14 years in confinement, watching over the work with a telescope from a window in his house.

Again, fortune prevailed as his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, visited the site several times a day to appraise the progress firsthand. She also handled the press and the project trustees, gradually becoming familiar with every detail and a remarkable asset for her husband. But because he was never seen, rumors were rampant that Washington had lost his mind and that this daring, great project was actually being run by a woman! In fact, when the towers were complete and the long span was safe, the first horse and carriage to cross included Emily Roebling carrying a rooster as a symbol of triumph.

The bridge opened on May 24, 1883, and President Chester Arthur rode in one of the 1,800 vehicles that crossed it, along with 130,000 people. The fireworks celebration that night was the most spectacular ever seen. The only major incident came six days later when a woman fell down some wooden stairs, causing a stampede that resulted in at least 12 deaths. P.T. Barnum tried to get permission to restore confidence in the bridge’s safety, but it would take a year until May 17, 1884, before he led his famous Jumbo and 21 other elephants across the bridge in a grand show of stability.

Initially, the bridge was designed to provide more space for Manhattan by boosting access to nearby Brooklyn. No one had thought about growing cities up instead of expanding out. As the amazing NYC skyline reminds us today, that was soon to change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Andrew Johnson Narrowly Escaped Removal From Office

A cotton bandanna made to celebrate the end of the Civil War, featuring President Andrew Johnson, sold for $9,375 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Andrew Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president after they won the 1864 election running on the National Union Party ticket (a one-time name change for the Republicans).

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was drunk at his own inauguration and later was the first U.S. president to be impeached. He was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote.

A classic Southern slavery advocate, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate after his presidency (a first).

This William Howard Taft and James Sherman jugate pocket mirror sold for $2,629.

James “Sunny Jim” Sherman was vice president No. 27 under William Howard Taft. He was the first VP to throw the first pitch on baseball’s opening day, and the last VP to die in office.

His death right after the convention on Oct. 30, 1912, didn’t give Taft a chance to select an alternate so Taft campaigned alone (finishing a weak third despite being the incumbent president). Taft and Theodore Roosevelt (who was attempting to make a comeback) split the vote, giving Woodrow Wilson the win.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for the WH five times (for VP in 1920) and was successful four times. His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was the first woman to cast a vote for a son in a presidential election (1920).

Roosevelt famously had White House matchbooks printed with “Stolen from the White House,” perhaps to cut down on souvenir-seeking guests.

Levi Parsons Morton, the 22nd vice president, missed the chance to be president when he declined James Garfield’s offer to be his running mate in 1880.

Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who accepted and became president upon Garfield’s assassination in 1881.

After his term as VP, Morton became the only one to then become a governor (of New York). He lived exactly 96 years – dying on his birthday in 1920 (another first and only).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

With Discovery of Gold, President Polk Opened Massive Migration West

half-plate-daguerreotype-of-california-gold-rush-mining-scene-ca-1850s
This half plate daguerreotype of a California gold rush mining scene, circa 1850, sold for $28,680 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Reports of gold in California came to the president as early as June 1848. Part of the talk was idle speculation; part was based on tales of settlers and soldiers plus myths of Spanish treasure troves. A succession of adventurers, spies and famous Western characters like Kit Carson had slipped quietly up the stairs into President James Polk’s office to tell of the vast domain far to the west.

The lost mines of El Dorado had long fascinated nearly everyone.

The first official report on “gold diggings” came to Polk in August 1848. Navy Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale showed the president some actual gold nuggets. Authoritative and “eyewitness” accounts of California gold started popping up in various newspapers. In a message to Congress on Dec. 5, 1848, Polk outlined the possible scope of the precious metal mines and the extraordinary potential that had been corroborated by authentic reports.

Two days later, a courier from California arrived at the War Department with a mysterious package and more dramatic evidence of western riches. As soon as Secretary of War William Marcy unwrapped the parcel, he took it directly to President Polk. It contained a tea caddy crammed full of gold nuggets and dust that weighed over 230 ounces.

They quickly decided to send the largest “lump” to Philadelphia to be minted into coins and put the rest on display in the War Office. Visitors of every class stood in long lines just to see it and it became the dominant subject everywhere. On Dec. 12, Polk predicted the coming 12 months would witness “a large population … attracted to California by its mineral wealth.”

In his History of California, historian Hubert Bancroft wrote of Polk’s prophecy. “The interest in California became all-absorbing, creating a restlessness which finally poured a human tide into San Francisco Bay, and sent hundreds of caravans over the plains and mountains.”

However, the Polks moved out of the White House on Saturday, March 3, 1849, to 10 rooms prepared for them at the Willard Hotel. He had promised to only serve one term and his time in the WH had taken an enormous toll on his health. He had the shortest retirement of any president and died of cholera 103 days after leaving office. Along with George Washington, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge and LBJ, he was one of six presidents to die while their direct successor was in office.

He totally missed the Gold Rush and the massive migration west he was responsible for.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].