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Frank Harris and the Brooklyn Bridge


What links Frank Harris, the Brooklyn Bridge and a recently published novel? It is a tale of one city and two - or is it three? - Frank Harrises.

The Bomb

In Frank Harris's novel The Bomb (1908), his hero, Rudolph Schnaubelt, works for a while on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge:

I suppose every one knows what working in a caisson on the bed of a river, fifty feet under water, is like. The caisson itself is an immense bell-shaped thing of iron; the top of it is an apartment called "the material chamber," through which the stuff dug out of the river passes on its way to the air. High up, on the side of the caisson is another chamber called "the air-lock." The caisson itself is filled with compressed air to keep out the water which would otherwise fill the caisson in an instant. The men going to work in the caisson first of all pass into the air-lock chamber, where they are "compressed" before they go to work, and "decompressed" after doing their shift.

Of course, I had been told what I should feel; but when I stepped into the air-lock with the other men and the door was shut and one little air-cock after another was turned on, letting in a stream of compressed air from the caisson, I could hardly help yelling--the pain stabbed my ears. The drums of the ears are often forcibly driven in and broken; some men not only become deaf, but have the most intense earache and sympathetic headache, attended with partial deafness. The only way to meet the pressure of the air in the ear, I quickly found, was to keep swallowing the air and forcing it up the Eustachian tubes into the middle ear, so that this air-pad on the internal side of the drum might lessen or prevent the painful depression of the drum. During "compression" the blood keeps absorbing the gases of the air till the tension of the gases in the blood becomes equal to that in the compressed air; when this equilibrium has been reached men can work in the caisson for hours without experiencing serious inconvenience.

It took about half an hour to "compress" us, and that first half-hour was pretty hard to bear. When the pressure of the air in the lock was equal to that in the caisson, the door from the caisson into the air-lock opened by itself or at a touch, and we all went down the ladder on to the river bed and began our work, digging up the ground and passing it by lifts into the material chamber. The work itself did not seem very hard; one got very hot, but as one worked nearly naked it didn't matter much; in fact, I was agreeably surprised. The noises were frightful; every time I stooped, too, I felt as if my head would burst. But the two hours will soon pass, I said to myself, and two shifts for five dollars is good pay; in fifteen days I shall have saved the money I came to New York with, and then we shall see; and so I worked on, making light of the earache and headache, the dizziness and the infernal heat.

At length the shift came to an end, and one by one, streaming with perspiration, we passed up again into the air-lock to learn what "decompression" was like. We closed the door; the air-cocks were turned on, letting out the compressed air, and at once we began to shiver, the ordinary air was so wet and cold. It was as if a stream of ice-water had been turned into a hot bath. I had noticed when we got in that the others began to dress hastily; I now knew why. I hauled on my shirt and then my other clothes as quickly as I could; but the air grew colder and colder, damper and damper, and I began to get weak, giddy and sick. I suppose the gases in the blood were leaving it as the tension got less. At the end of an hour we were "decompressed," and we all stepped out shivering, surrounded by a wet, yellow fog, chilled to the heart.

Think of it; we had been working hard for two hours in a high temperature, and after our work we had this hour of "decompression," an hour of rapidly increasing cold and damp mist, while even the blood pressure in our veins was constantly diminishing. What with the "compression" and the "decompression," the two hours' shift lasted nearly four hours, so that two shifts a day made a very fair day's work--and such work! Most of the men took a glass of hot spirits the moment they got out, and two or three before they went home. I drank hot cocoa, and very glad I am that I did. It revived me as quickly as the spirits, I think, and took away the terrible feeling of chill and depression. Should I be able to stand the work? I could only go on doggedly, and see how continuous work affected me.

My Life and Loves

Subsequently, in the first volume of his notoriously unreliable autobiography, My Life and Loves (1922), Harris claimed that he had based Schnaubelt's experiences on his own:

I've told about the work and its dangers at some length in my novel, The Bomb, but here I may add some details just to show what labor has to suffer.

In the bare shed where we got ready, the men told me no one could do the work for long without getting the "bends"; the "bends" were a sort of convulsive fit that twisted one's body like a knot and often made you an invalid for life. They soon explained the whole procedure to me. We worked, it appeared, in a huge bell-shaped caisson of iron that went to the bottom of the river and was pumped full of compressed air to keep the water from entering it from below: the top of the caisson is a room called the "material chamber", into which the stuff dug out of the river passes up and is carted away. On the side of the caisson is another room, called the "air-lock", into which we were to go to be "compressed". As the compressed air is admitted, the blood keeps absorbing the gasses of the air till the tension of the gasses in the blood becomes equal to that in the air: when this equilibrium has been reached, men can work in the caisson for hours without serious discomfort, if sufficient pure air is constantly pumped in. It was the foul air that did the harm, it appeared. "If they'd pump in good air, it would be O.K.; but that would cost a little time and trouble, and men's lives are cheaper". I saw that the men wanted to warn me thinking I was too young, and accordingly I pretended to take little heed.

When we went into the "air-lock" and they turned on one air-cock after another of compressed air, the men put their hands to their ears and I soon imitated them, for the pain was very acute. Indeed, the drums of the ears are often driven in and burst if the compressed air is brought in too quickly. I found that the best way of meeting the pressure was to keep swallowing air and forcing it up into the middle ear, where it acted as an air-pad on the inner side of the drum and so lessened the pressure from the outside. It took about half an hour or so to "compress" us and that half an hour gave me lots to think about. When the air was fully compressed, the door of the air-lock opened at a touch and we all went down to work with pick and shovel on the gravelly bottom. My headache soon became acute. The six of us were working naked to the waist in a small iron chamber with a temperature of about 180° Fahrenheit: in five minutes the sweat was pouring from us, and all the while we were standing in icy water that was only kept from rising by the terrific air pressure. No wonder the headaches were blinding. The men didn't work for more than ten minutes at a time, but I plugged on steadily, resolved to prove myself and get constant employment; only one man, a Swede named Anderson, worked at all as hard. I was overjoyed to find that together we did more than the four others.

If Harris did work on the bridge, this would have been probably in the autumn of 1871, when he was aged 15. It seems a little unlikely that an undersized youth of that age would have been taken on for such strenuous and dangerous work, but no records exist to prove the matter either way. You might care to note how the young Harris is portrayed as much more virile and heroic than poor Schnaubelt was.


Not long ago I came across a synopsis of Elizabeth Gaffney's recent novel Metropolis. The novel which is set in New York circa 1870 has as its protagonist a man named Frank Harris, who also works on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Naturally, I was interested to learn what, if any, connection there was between Gaffney's hero and the Frank Harris, so I obtained a copy of her book.

Somewhat disappointingly, although Gaffney's book is an entertaining read, there is no link between the two Harrises. Her man is actually a German immigrant who comes to use the name "Frank Harris" as an alias through a series of complicated plot developments, In neither character nor physique does he resemble his namesake and he is somewhat older than Harris was at the time he arrived in America.

Helpfully, however, Gaffney provides some notes at the end of the book which set out the historical basis of her story, and in these she mentions that the reason she chose to call her character "Frank Harris" was that there was actually a man of that name who worked on the bridge: another one. This Frank Harris was notable because he fell from one of the towers under construction but survived thanks to a miraculous piece of good fortune: an incident which was fictionalized by Gaffney in her story.

One of the newspapers that reported the accident at the time, the Brooklyn Eagle, has been digitized and I have been able to locate the relevant article. Unfortunately the owners of the site, Brooklyn Public Library don't permit the direct linking of their pages (in a tiresomely bureaucratic misunderstanding of the nature of the web); but a keyword search of the site for '"frank harris" bridge' will return amongst its results an article from the 29th July, 1872, entitled "The Shore Line", which is the one of interest. Here's the relevant part of the text, which is written in a clumsy style typical of the journalism of the period:

The tower, which is 136x51 feet and 107 feet high, has two openings, each 32.9x22 feet. It was down one of these "well" holes that Frank Harris, a laborer, fell, a few days since, a distance of 103 feet. There is about three feet of water at the bottom, and he happened to strike a barrel floating on the water. When he missed his footing, and realised in an instant that he was falling, he believed that he would be dead in an instant - so he afterward said - but, singular as it may seem, he was only slightly injured, and will soon be at work again.

There is no chance that this was Harris the future editor and author, since he was almost certainly in Kansas by this date and he was anyway still using his given name of James Thomas Harris, as he did until he enrolled for a law course in 1874. One must wonder though whether, during his research for The Bomb, he ever happened upon the story of Frank Harris, the man who had the lucky escape. My suspicion is that he did not, for if he had, it would surely have appeared as one of "his" adventures in My Life and Loves.

Working as hard as two normal men in a caisson at the bottom of the river is impressive, but falling 100 feet and surviving? That's truly worthy of the name Frank Harris.