Students Learn History By Building Brooklyn Bridge

Fri June 03, 2005 - Northeast Edition
Lisa Rathke

ESSEX, VT (AP) If the Brooklyn Bridge is considered the eighth wonder of the world, a replica of it built by a group of teenagers is the marvel of the Center for Technology at Essex High School.

It took five months for the students to construct the 27-ft.-long, 7-ft.-high model. And except for the scale, in the darkened classroom at the end of the day the string of miniature lights that extend along the bridge into the distance resembles the real thing.

“Turn the lights off, you swear you’re there,” said Tom Keck, who has been teaching kids in this hands-on way for more than 30 years.

Keck hoped the students have gained “an appreciation for early engineering techniques, the science behind suspension bridges, the period in time, the history and working with various materials.”

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” said Jesse Beane, who said he likes to see things come together.

Over the five months, the students learned how this amazing engineering feat came to be. They learned about John Roebling, a rope manufacturer, who built suspension bridges and proposed in 1869 to build over the East River what was to be the largest suspension bridge in the world. They became fascinated by Washington Roebling, who took over the project when his father became ill. And they learned about the thousands of Irish immigrants who worked on the bridge for 14 years until its opening on May 24, 1883.

What have some students taken from the experience? “It takes a lot of work,” said Robert Aube. “Don’t get a job building bridges,” said Traci Wojcik.

The students built a model of the caissons, the watertight structures used in construction under water. Approximately 60 workers at a time would work shifts digging into the river bottom to break up rocks and build the bridge’s foundation above it.

“Some guy referred to it as hell in Dante’s Inferno,” Wojcik said.

Some got sick, suffering from the bends because of the underwater pressure. A fire broke out in one caisson, and everyone had to be evacuated so that it could be flooded with water, Wojcik said.

The students also built replicas of the granite Gothic towers that rise 117 ft. above the roadway of the bridge. They cut them out of wood and covered them with gray textured spray paint.

Then they worked with concrete — Wojcik’s favorite task — building blocks at either end of the bridge.

They built a roadway of square tubing and welded 400 joints to place underneath it.

They strung four suspension cables along the bridge with turn buckles at each end to adjust the height of the bridge.

They added miniature cars and street lamps.

Keck, who in past years had students build a replica of the Titanic, and recreate President Kennedy’s assassination, said he got the idea for the bridge from a professor of his son’s at Columbia University.

And now Keck is looking for a new home for the bridge. “The New York Historical Society should have it,” he said.