Colonel Roebling's Friend

Howard watched men go into the caisson’s air lock at the beginning of the day and exit diminished — coated with mud, their skin a pale gray, so exhausted they stretched out on the ground as soon as they hit the open air. They looked shrunken, wrung dry

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OHOUSANDS paid a penny on Decoration Day to stroll along the elevated promenade of the week-old New York-Brooklyn Bridge. The crowds exulted in the view of New York Harbor, with its sparkling of ferries, lighters, barques, and excursion steamers, the stack puffs of coal smoke, the carefree geometry of sails. The ten-story Western Union Telegraph Building and the huge new post office were pointed out, as was Bedloe’s Island, where Liberty Enlightening the World would be unveiled in three years. It was exciting to be alive in 1883—alive in a city packed tight horizontally, and beginning to grow vertically in response. It was almost a blessing to walk in the salt breeze and sunshine, to be part of a world floating on a bridge suspended in midair.

Howard Alston was present, in his chair; his wife, Eva, pushed. Their son, William, brought up the rear. An old black silk hat covered Howard’s head: two fists of white whiskers were clenched at his cheeks. He was talking, and the crowds were so thick that he might have been addressing any of several dozen people all around him. Eva’s attention was elsewhere.

William did not even pretend to listen. He was a tall young man with a ruddy face and whiskers that declared his basic confusion: lopsided moustache, sideburns wildly out of balance. Even his eyes were slightly crossed.

The cause of William’s consternation, Dreamina Trobst, had set foot on the new bridge before almost any other “civilian” (the pejorative William’s father used for all who hadn’t helped to build it). Light on her feet, bold, the daughter of Wilhelm Trobst, a Brooklyn sand-and-gravel baron with a house on Columbia Heights, she had possessed two of the 7,000 specially printed blue tickets that provided access to the bridge hours before the masses were given permission to set foot on it, at midnight on May 24.

“Take me,” William had begged.

“No, sweet, I’ve promised someone else.”

Later she recounted how she had darted and cooed her way to the front. “There I was, practically the very first person onto the Great East River Bridge,” Dreamina said. “Certainly the very first young lady.”

William said, “My father, who is a personal friend of Colonel Roebling’s, asked that you accompany us when we make our first family visit.”

“Darling,” Dreamina said, “I’ve already seen it.”

The bridge’s river span had a gentle upward curve. At the approximate apex of this curve Howard held up a hand. Eva stopped. Howard shifted in his wicker seat so that his eye could follow the four bucket-thick cables as they descended from the top of the Brooklyn tower and swept down and up again in a catenary curve to the top of the New York tower. Howard waved William forward, urged him to appreciate the graceful cable line.

William dutifully followed the cable from one end to the other. The sensation was admittedly slightly thrilling—the plummeting and widening of the cable as it came toward him, the rising and threading away again almost to nothing. As for his father’s old story, his one story, Howard jabbered on but William declined to follow.

Eva looked back through the Gothic arches of the Brooklyn tower. Her beloved St. Ann’s Church had been used to sight the bridge’s center line. Her family’s old James Street apartment had been demolished to make way for the Brooklyn anchorage, where the bridge cables were rooted. Her husband sat talking to himself of past accomplishments, struck down by a job she had insisted he pursue.

Prior to that job Howard had not worked since returning home from the war. He provided the occasional string of fish from the river, and he kept an eye on young William when Eva needed to be away. She took in a little wash and sold sandwiches at the ferry-houses. When the Brooklyn Eagle carried an announcement of the need for men to help dig beneath the New York bridge-tower caisson, Eva waved the paper in her husband’s face. “Two twenty-five a day,”she said.

“Why don’t you just bury me alive?” Howard asked.

In 1870 he had watched the Brooklyn caisson being launched. He’d stood with the doubting mob at the Webb & Bell shipyard, and cheered when the caisson—like a mammoth upside-down box—slid smoothly down the ways and into the river. Weighing 3,000 tons, covering an area the size of half a city block, the caisson would be pumped full of compressed air to keep the water out while men excavated the riverbed from inside. The caisson’s sides narrowed at the bottom to a knife-like V designed to cut through the riverbed as courses of timber and stone were stacked on top and the men dug from within, down through mud and clay and basalt and sandstone until the caisson reached its final solid footing. It would then be filled with cement, and on this base the Brooklyn tower would rise.

Howard watched men go into the caisson’s air lock at the beginning of the day and exit diminished—coated with mud, their skin a pale gray, so exhausted they stretched out on the ground as soon as they hit the open air. They looked shrunken, wrung dry. As the caisson descended and the air pressure increased, the amount of time men were allowed to be inside was reduced. But with each additional pound of pressure the work squeezed them, and this winnowing process required the bridge company constantly to hire fresh workers. A line of men could always be found to take the place of workers who didn’t want to go back down.

Howard joined such a line a year later. A ferry conveyed him to the New York side; he carried a lunch pail and a quart of beer, fully expecting to be told to come back later, or not to come back at all, and thus to be set free to do as he pleased. Two dollars and twenty-five cents a day was a salary beyond anything he had ever earned, yet he delayed, idling away the morning in Franklin Square and considering his options.

He had taken a full two years getting home after the war. Shot through the leg near Vicksburg, he wrote Eva letters reporting on his convalescence along the way, as he rested his wound in places like Cincinnati, Charleston, and Pittsburgh. She saved the letters, possibly to chart his meandering course, possibly as evidence of his reluctance to return to his wife and son. Rereading his words at home, he was moved by how impressed and excited he had been by the people he met. Everywhere he stopped, men were building: houses, roads, bridges, railroads. He was offered more jobs in passing than he could count. If he’d been able to work without pain, he was sure he’d have taken some of them up on their offers.

But that inspiration was short-lived. Home was an enervating place, with a young, noisy son and a wife who worried about money. His wound was too fresh for sustained labor. He took to disappearing on long walks, to “build my strength,” he told Eva. She made him take William along, to discourage his stopping at taverns and joining clusters of ne’er-do-well friends. William was growing taller almost with each step, and Howard’s efforts to outwalk him, tire him out, failed, and in fact had the unintended consequence of actually improving Howard’s condition.

On one such walk he found a job for William: sweeping up after the carriage teams at Brooklyn’s Hotel Pompadour. It was a job William knew enough not to settle for. He worked up from horse tender to bellboy to bell captain by the age of fifteen. William saw the New York caisson ad in the Eagle and took it to his mother, wanting her to lie about his age so that he could get the job. As Hotel Pompadour bell captain, he made a dollar less a day, even with tips. Eva didn’t want her son in such a job, but she took the ad to her husband.

“Buried alive or living alone,” she said. “Those are your choices.”

HOWARD always said that the story of his life began when he saw Colonel Washington Augustus Roebling emerge from the New York caisson’s air lock.

His beard was speckled with mud and trimmed in the fashion made popular by President Grant. He was followed out of the air lock by three other men, each blinking and grimacing, each with an armload of documents. Roebling’s expression was a mixture of anxiety and excitement. His father, John Augustus Roebling, the millionaire wire manufacturer from Trenton and the designer of the East River Bridge, had died three years before. A freak accident had necessitated the amputation of toes, and because of John Roebling’s stubbornness and insistence on treating himself, lockjaw set in.

The son was left to carry on with the father’s project.

Roebling blinked and swallowed and made a face that registered an all-consuming pain. Its intensity frightened Howard so much that he nearly stepped out of the line. It was common knowledge in Brooklyn that Roebling had suffered horrible attacks of caisson disease—the bends—but that in his zeal to be near the work he continued to expose himself.

Roebling fixed his eyes intently on the first man in line.

“Are you sound?” Howard was asked.

“A slight limp, Colonel,” he began, “but otherwise—”

“Let me see,”

Howard self-consciously paraded in front of Roebling and the other men, a sudden intense desire to be part of the project forcing him to minimize the small hitch that had dogged his gait since that afternoon above Vicksburg.

“Roll up your pants leg.”

Howard did as ordered. The scar was a half inch to the right of his shinbone, a little white star that still ached to the touch. Roebling leaned down to inspect it closely.

“Where?” he asked.

“Near Vicksburg.”

“Heard it was bad down there,” Roebling said.

“Couldn’t have been worse than Antietam Creek, Colonel.”

Roebling gave him an appraising look. “Bring a big lunch tomorrow, Vicksburg. Working in a pneumatic caisson gives a man a powerful appetite.”

Howard Alston went with the other men down a spiral staircase into the caisson air lock. No one spoke. An attendant with plugged ears swung the hatch shut and secured it with turns of a wheel. All the men who had been down in the caisson put their fingers in their ears, so those who hadn’t did too. A valve was opened and a high-pitched, deafening shriek of air commenced. The attendant monitored the air pressure on a gauge near his station. As the whistling slowly died away, pressure began to squeeze Howard’s skull. A thread of lightning snaked through his brain from ear to ear. When the whistling ceased, a hatchway in the floor fell open. A whiff of warm sewage blew over the men. They went down a ladder into the New York caisson.

The walls had been whitewashed to improve visibility and the mood of the men, but Howard was not cheered by his first look underground. Ghostly blue-white limelight, fed by compressed oxygen and coal gas, threw shadows into every corner and across the roof, which hung oppressively low, a constant reminder of the thousands of tons of stone and wood bearing down.

The new men were herded into a knot and given shovels. The sewage smell was pervasive; the caisson was going down at the point where New York had for years dumped its waste, and as the shovels turned up the black muck, a stench almost visible in its intensity was set loose. A thin film of water was allowed in to damp down the stink.

Howard’s bad leg immediately began to throb in counterpoint to his pounding head. He took a moment to wipe away the sweat sluicing down his face, to look around and appreciate his situation. He was shoveling shit for a living. Something his own son had moved beyond.

A foreman jumped to his side. His voice had a highpitched, feminine tint in the compressed atmosphere: “Not what y’expected, old man? Think y’re too good t’be spading feces? Got twenty above waiting t’fill your boots.”

On Howard’s third day in the caisson Colonel Roebling noticed him earnestly digging, working bare-chested like nearly everyone else.

“Hello, Vicksburg.”Roebling said, his voice also squeezed high. “Leg holding up?”

“Thank you, sir. Yes.”

“What do you think of our man-made pit of Acheron?”

“A little warm, sir. Smells a bit.”

“Our borings show we’ll be through the sewage field in a day or two. Any other complaints? Any pain? Cramping? Nausea? Even when you’re at home?”

“My wife can be an irritant, but otherwise I’m fit,” Howard said.

In a week they were through the sewage and into river sand and gravel. Pipes in the ceiling which released compressed air were also employed to suck away the excavated sand. Men who had dug the Brooklyn caisson worked with chipper good humor; the New York caisson, by comparison, was practically falling toward bedrock. It descended nearly a foot a day for weeks at a time. On the Brooklyn side, where boulders had to be removed, the average rate of descent had been not even a half foot a week. The old hands would have whistled, if whistling were possible in the compressed air.

William met his father’s ferry at the end of the day and they walked home together, William in his coat and bowler, Howard in his mud-spattered clothes. William was troubled by the exhaustion in his father’s face. Great gray half moons hung under his eyes, and he carried himself with a stooping limp that appeared one stumble away from total collapse. He complained of never being able to feel completely washed and of not sleeping. But at the dinner table he ate as much as three men, and his salary had given Eva the freedom to dream of a new apartment. She had never liked their current tworoom home; it always felt forced upon her, as if they’d had to grab the first thing available when the bridge came through and their building was torn down.

Eva had been the beautiful girl on her block, a fact that felt important until her father ran away. He was a handsome, wideshouldered man, only a bit of a drinker, the favorite of women up and down James Street. He worked twelve hours a day in a glue factory and hauled ice in the summer to make extra money. The mixture of physical attractiveness, industriousness, and relative sobriety made him too irresistible to other women for Eva’s mother to counter it. He went to Long Island with an ice customer’s wife and was never seen again.

The young Dock Street man who would become Eva’s husband took his lunch at noon on a porch facing the second-story window where she hung her mother’s wash. They talked to each other across this distance for weeks before they met on the street. He wore the filthy apron of a blacksmith’s lackey. Her mother said this was good; the young man was open-minded about hard work. On occasion Eva’s mother sat back out of the young man’s line of sight to feed her daughter questions. He didn’t pursue her, although at times she wished he would; he seemed content to see her face in the window. She was flattered that he could get so lost in their conversation that the blacksmith had to scold him for wasting time.

HOWARD undressed out in the hall, mud-caked pants crackling as they fell. Neighbors watched; he didn’t care. The caisson was now forty feet down. Climbing out against all that weight was real torture. At dinner one evening he lifted a spoonful of soup to his mouth and then flung it away like an impish child, his body gripped, scalp to toenails, by a pain that took such hold of him it did not even permit him to scream. Only his shoulder blades and the backs of his thighs were touching the chair. His mouth was wrenched open in a silent snarl of pain. A drop of soup fell from the ceiling and splashed on his forehead.

Eva and William carried him to bed, and he remained in deep pain for three hours. Howard described it as cramps of the worst magnitude, burning clenches of muscle deep in his legs, thighs, and abdomen. Other men in the caisson had talked in whispers about the bends. A restless fraternity of frightened men was going deeper each day. As the caisson descended, the attacks increased in frequency and intensity. Howard said nothing at work about his own attack. He had never been in a job where sickness was not counted a liability.

Several days afterward William was late to meet his father and found him laid out on a bench in the ferry-house. He was being attended to by a man who didn’t look so good himself. A small, respectful crowd stood watching the man force sips of coffee through Howard’s clenched teeth.

William lifted his father under the arms, the man took his feet, and they carried him home.

“I am Colonel Roebling,” the man said to Eva. “I was on the Fulton Ferry, coming over to address a problem at the Brooklyn tower, when your husband was stricken by the caisson disease. I’ve had bouts myself. Coffee might help. A vigorous rub with a solution of salt and whiskey may restore sensation.”

We have salt,” Eva said. “But no whiskey.”

Roebling took William by the arm. “Your son will bring you back a bottle.” He knelt by Howard’s head and said. “Come back to work only when you’re able. Vicksburg.”

As it happened, he never was.

The salt-and-whiskey rub returned some muscle control, enough for Howard to swing his legs off the bed and sit up. But he could not stand. He said that pain of exquisite precision pierced his joints. He reported, almost with pride, that the core of his spine bubbled like a tube of molten metal. At night he shivered and vomited. Eva stayed by his side to hold the bowl, or to wipe his face with a cool cloth. Howard’s eyes never left her, never let her forget that this had been her idea.

What little money they had saved dwindled away. William, in his role of bell captain, was able to extend his own hours, for the extra money and for the freedom from witnessing his father’s agony. Work and his personal pursuits kept him away from home for all but the deepest hours of the night.

Eva announced one morning that she was going to the bridge office on the Brooklyn side. “We must apply for your disability payment,” she said.

“Don’t you dare trouble Colonel Roebling with our problems,”Howard said. “He has a bridge to build.”

When she was gone, Howard stood up. He was three steps from the window, no handholds on the way. He reached that goal and leaned on the sill. Below was a policeman having a smoke with a ring of layabouts. Howard’s legs and feet felt prickly with blood sensations. He’d been standing up once or twice a day in secret for a good two weeks. One morning the certainty of his being able to stand was just there. Eva was in the next room, so he had had to wait to test his new power. Dizziness almost knocked him over the first time he stood. Shuffling followed, and then steps. He was undecided about when to tell his family.

Rumors about Colonel Roebling’s deteriorating health were commonplace, but Eva found him at his desk in the bridge office. He looked even more tired than her husband. A knot of assistants hovered as if to catch him when he fell.

“I’ve come to apply for my husband’s disability,” she announced, and in ways she couldn’t help, she felt ashamed.

Someone placed a checkbook in front of Colonel Roebling. It was the size of an accountant’s ledger, with a goldembossed green-leather cover, containing pages of checks as stiff as slock certificates. Eva was impressed at the speed of service as Roebling took a pen and signed his name. The check was torn from its binding and set aside. Eva glimpsed it: $77,500, payable to a stone company.

“And your husband is . . . ?” an assistant asked.

Eva said Howard’s name. Colonel Roebling did not look up from his work.

“And how was he disabled?” the assistant asked.

“Caisson disease,” Eva said.

“Disability payment for the bends is a hundred dollars,” the assistant intoned.

“That’s all? He may never walk again.” Eva said.

A form was presented to her. “Fill this out, please. In the outer room.”

She did so, sitting alone at a desk covered with blueprints, paperwork, and a box of bridge-company stationery. Eva took a fresh sheet and calculated that with the disability, Howard’s total pay for his work on the bridge had come to not quite $170. She saw Colonel Roebling for the last time as his office door closed on her. He was at his desk, pen set down, rubbing the bones in his writing hand.

William’s last look at him had been the evening when Colonel Roebling walked him down the block in search of whiskey. The citizens of Brooklyn made a fuss over the famous bridge builder, and by extension over the young man worthy enough to merit his company. At a tavern two blocks from home Roebling introduced William to the barkeep, a small man in a dirty blue shirt and green bow tie, who never took his eyes off the colonel.

“This young man has my permission to purchase a bottle of whiskey,” Roebling announced. “For today, and for any time in the future. His father is a most excellent and industrious bridge worker and a war veteran who has been struck down by the caisson disease. The whiskey is strictly for massage purposes.”

William and Colonel Roebling parted with a handshake in the street. William hurried home that night to mix the rub that would bring feeling back to his father; he was entrusted with its composition day after day, his mother with its application. William could no longer recall the moment in his preparations when he set a cupful of whiskey aside to assuage his curiosity, but he never forgot the first taste. He was one of those poor souls who had no choice and no chance. He gladly put up with the barkeep’s same joke each time he came in to buy: “Your pa must be rubbed clear away by now.”

IN August of 1876, four years after Howard’s attack of the bends, a note on bridge-company stationery arrived at the Alston apartment. It was from Colonel Roebling, to Mr. Howard Alston at their address, requesting Howard’s presence at the first crossing of the bridge. The two imposing stone towers, each rising 276 feet six inches above the water, had been completed, and a “traveler” wire had been strung between them. The traveler was driven by a steam engine mounted on the Brooklyn anchorage. This wire link would open the way for the bridge’s succeeding strands of cable and connection. The bridge’s master mechanic, E. F. Farrington, was selected to ride the traveler in a boatswain’s chair and become the first man to cross the East River in such a fashion.

A holiday excitement coursed through Brooklyn’s streets the morning of August 25. The city, both cities, had grown accustomed to the slow rise of the huge stone towers. But the project had already taken seven years—so long that the actual goal seemed almost to be forgotten; two cities were building opposing, mirroring structures for no apparent reason. Political corruption, the hand of William Marcy Tweed, bad weather, lack of money, Colonel Roebling’s increasing absence from the job sites—each problem was solved and the towers kept growing. Then the traveler wire went across in early August and filled a gap in the public’s imagination. Suddenly they saw what was possible.

Eva rolled her husband through the streets that day. Colonel Roebling’s invitation had been little more than a reminder that the crossing was to be made; no special seating was set aside, and the colonel himself would not be present. Howard insisted that they leave especially early to get a riverside vantage, but by eight o’clock the best seats were long taken. They had to settle for a spot in the sun two blocks from the river, halfway between the Brooklyn tower and the anchorage.

Eva had packed a lunch of cheese and eel sandwiches, deviled eggs, apple quarters, and a bottle of water. She stood directly behind Howard, shielding her eyes with her hand. The day was quite hot. The last four years showed more on her than on her husband; he had transformed himself into the figure of the invalid bridge builder, the close friend of Colonel Roebling. He had become his story. She was left with the adjunct role of provider and realist. But when their circumstances made her blue, she felt ashamed; Howard was resolutely cheerful even in the face of his helplessness. He encouraged her to have hope, and to get out more, out from under the dead weight of his situation.

At noon Eva and Howard ate their sandwiches and drank half the water, following the example of the workers they could see on the tower. They would have an excellent view of the first leg of Farrington’s ride. Hundreds of people milled in the street, all of them walking with their eyes raised, afraid of missing something. Roofs were jammed, and Eva worried that someone would get bumped over the edge in all the excitement. She waved to friends from St. Ann’s. Men stopped to have a word with Howard. A woman whose son had been killed with Custer that summer in the Montana Territory waved hello. Eva said a prayer for William, who more and more bore the fruit stink of whiskey, but was alive.

A blessed shadow grew over them from behind; the shade’s coolness raised her spirits. She could see women spinning parasols on the Brooklyn tower, and men in high silk hats, and a little after one o’clock an outsize American flag was unfurled, and then another just like it was unrolled on the New York tower. Men with red signal flags sent messages across the river.

“It’s E.F.,” Howard said, and pointed above.

E. Frank Farrington, a strong, wiry man almost sixty years old, was being strapped into a boatswain’s chair on the lip of the Brooklyn anchorage, eighty feet above the street. The crowd went dead quiet for just a moment’s anticipation, and then the engine revved and Farrington was sent swinging out over Brooklyn. A cannon went off nearby. Halfway between the anchorage and the Brooklyn tower Farrington unlashed himself and stood up on the chair’s narrow board seat to wave and doff his hat to the thousands of cheering people following him at a run through the streets. He got very small from Howard and Eva’s perspective as he rose toward the tower. Minutes passed as his chair was transported across the tower and onto the wire spanning the river. A trumpeting of boat whistles, bells, and horns was heard off that way, almost loud enough to bear Farrington across on the longest segment of his journey. By the time they could see him out over the river, he was just a dot in the sky, the street was empty in front of them, and it was nearly quiet.

COLONEL Roebling moved to a house at 110 Columbia Heights, in Brooklyn, southwest of the bridge, with a perfect view of his creation. He was still in charge, but from a distance; his assistants and his wife, Emily, carried out his instructions. Few people saw him; he was variously reported to be insane, physically debilitated, emotionally exhausted, or even dead. Yet the bridge was his presence. The four cables, each fifteen and three quarters inches in diameter, were strung from the anchorages, over the towers, and across the river, and then wire was wrapped tight around them from end to end. The roadbed was hung from suspenders affixed to these thick cables. Diagonal stays fanned from the tops of the towers down to the bridge floor and were fastened every fifteen feet. The wood planking for the elevated promenade was put down. The day of the bridge’s opening approached.

Howard wanted Eva to push him to Columbia Heights, so that he could sit in the shade across the street and imagine Colonel Roebling upstairs, a fellow caisson invalid, scanning the progress of his bridge through a powerful spyglass.

But Eva had taken a job at the Kings County public library, and was so good at her work that she was allowed to perform most of the duties of the head librarian, a Mr. Tetter, all for forty cents a day. She was thus away from home for long hours, and so Howard had to get William to push him to 110 Columbia Heights.

William had plenty of time. His clothes were secondhand grand, befitting a down-at-heel hotelier between postings. On just such a visit Dreamina Trobst first appeared, rolling past in a gleaming victoria; five minutes later she walked out the front door of her father’s mansion, leaving on a feigned errand simply to get a closer look at the tall, handsome, dissolute male nurse who had nipped unashamedly at a silver flask as her coach had carried her past. Dreamina was shapely, petite, auburn-haired, and had only that morning entered the brief phase in a rich girl’s life when she wishes to dally with a man beneath her station just for the experience.

She forthrightly approached the tall man and his wheelchairbound charge. The nurse’s eyes were attractively dismal with drink and disappointment. She chatted as if talking to strangers were the most normal thing for her. The encounter was doubly exciting because she was hidden by parkway trees from the windows of her father’s house; she nudged the nurse into a blind spot behind the man in the chair and mimed tipping a flask to her lips. She had no idea what to expect. The flask was utilitarian in the extreme, without filigree or monogram; the taste burned her throat and made her cough a mist out over the head of the cripple.

“You must call upon her,” Howard said later. “It would be a profitable match.”

William asked Dreamina if he might accompany her to the city. She had other plans until William explained that the city he had in mind was New York, not Brooklyn. The evening itself was heartbreaking: the waiters all knew Dreamina’s name, and bussed her cheek as if they were listening to her purr. At the end of dinner she displayed two blue tickets to the special pre-opening celebration of the New York—Brooklyn Bridge. William waited to be invited.

“My father built the bridge,” he said with empty conviction. “He’s a close friend of Colonel Roebling’s.”

“I’d love to meet him someday,” Dreamina replied. “And your father, too.”

HOWARD was awaiting his own blue tickets. A story was going around that every man who built the bridge, along with the families of the more than twenty men who had been killed on the job, would be invited to the opening ceremonies.

“Colonel Roebling invited me to Farrington’s crossing,” Howard said. “Certainly he’d invite me to the grand opening.”

On May 22, two days before the event, Eva was at the library and Howard was alone when a messenger arrived, not with blue tickets but with a hatbox. Inside was a high black silk hat, a bit worn around the inner band, but otherwise in excellent condition. It fit Howard as if it had been made for him. A piece of yellowed bridge-company stationery in the box read, “This hat, like you and me, is as old as the bridge. Your friend, Colonel Roebling.”

It was the finest hat Howard had ever owned. He was standing before the mirror, admiring himself, when William came home. Whiskey made William’s crossed eyes fall in farther toward each other, as if his body had to decide whether to keep him standing or keep his eyes marginally aligned. He was already falling toward the bed in his room when he went past his father.

On May 24 Howard asked Eva to push him to 110 Columbia Heights. The street was being swept clean by a phalanx of city workers, and well before noon a crowd had gathered. The front door of the Roebling house never quite closed entirely, as florists and caterers and uniformed police officers and expensively dressed men and women rushed in and out. A special canvas canopy was erected from the door to the street. The front of the house was caked with flags, flowers, and the coats of arms of both New York and Brooklyn. Howard napped in the shade, and as he slept, Eva negotiated his chair across Columbia Heights to a point she hoped would be at the front of the crowd.

Late in the afternoon President Arthur arrived with Seth Low, the young mayor of Brooklyn who had tried unsuccessfully to have Colonel Roebling removed as chief engineer from the bridge project. Arthur was a former customs collector who had been thrust into the presidency when Garfield was assassinated. Even after two years in the job beseemed uncertain he belonged there. He had a big doubtful smile on his face as he proceeded from his coach and through the cheering crowd to the Roebling house, passing within an arm’s length of Howard but declining to shake his hand. New York Governor Grover Cleveland, however, not far removed from his political roots as mayor of Buffalo, paused in his arrival to take Howard’s hand in a sweaty, fleeting grip. But he heard nothing that Howard said.

A WEEK later, at four o’clock on Decoration Day, Eva and Howard and William finally made their way to the narrow stairs leading down from the elevated promenade to the New York end of the bridge. Crowds moving in both directions were packed so tight that Eva despaired of ever getting home that night. She looked longingly down at the ploughing ferries, crowded but moving. Howard sat with his face turned out toward the river, fighting the impulse to stand and push his way through the mob so that he could breathe.

A woman screamed just ahead, and Eva felt the thousands packed behind her surge forward to see. A girl in a bluebird hat was knocked off balance and fell in slow motion under the wheels of Howard’s chair. William tried to reach for her, but his arms were pinned. .She was suspended by the crush at an approximately forty-five-degree angle in front of Howard’s legs. Eva saw frightened children bobbing to the top of the crowd like corks and then being passed hand to hand over the heads. People screamed hopelessly at those behind to go back, turn back. The friction of the mass shredded clothing. People were sanded like wood against the promenade’s sides. Others fought against the press at their backs to keep from being pushed downstairs, and then went over with a cry. Eva saw a woman up ahead, blue-faced, blood running from her ears, die. One of twelve to be killed, she woidd prove to be. William’s flask cap was popped off and whiskey squirted onto his shirt. Howard felt the sides of his chair collapsing in on him with a crackling of wicker. He jumped up to get free but could only half stand, for Eva was pressed against him over the back of the chair.

She gasped in his ear. “William said he saw you standing up. I thought he was drunk.”

“It’s a miracle,” Howard declared.

Eva’s hands were trapped, so she bit the brim of Howard’s silk hat and worked it like a dog until it came off his head.

He fought her for it.

“That hat is a gift from Colonel Roebling,” Howard said, hoping to be overheard.

“No.”Eva said. “It was from me.”