New-York Historical Society

William H. Paine: assistant engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge

May 24th marks the 128th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. While the name John Augustus Roebling is widely associated with the bridge’s design and production, the contributions of the six other men involved in the bridge’s engineering is rarely acknowledged in popular history.

Paine (believed to be second from right), pictured on the Brooklyn Bridge during construction, undated. (William H. Paine Papers, MS 475)

One of those men is William H. Paine, an assistant engineer for the project, whose papers reside at the New-York Historical Society. For 14 years, Paine worked on the engineering and construction of the bridge’s cable railway system, obtaining 14 patents for new or improved technologies.

In 1848 Paine began a career as a land surveyor in the young state of Wisconsin and shortly after, tried his hand at gold mine engineering in California at the height of the Gold Rush.

“Map of the Gold Regions of California”, 1852. (William H. Paine Papers, MS 475)

He joined the Union Army in 1861, as a topographical engineer and served in this position for the entirety of the Civil War, mapping land in Washington D.C. and Virginia. Post-war, Paine settled in Brooklyn and worked as a consulting engineer for major projects, including the Niagara Suspension Bridge, the 10th Avenue Railway line and the Hudson River Tunnel.

Paine in military uniform, undated. (William H. Paine Papers, MS 475)

Taken as a whole, the William H. Paine Papers document his diverse interests and involvement with modern innovations of his time, as well as his accounts of major events, particularly the Gold Rush and the Civil War. It is not often that we investigate the little-known names associated with major projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, but when we do, the results can be rich and exciting — as they are with the papers of William H. Paine.

Cassie Brewer is in the Archives and Public History Program at NYU and has spent the spring semester as an intern in the Manuscript Department of the N-YHS Library. You can see the product of her hard work by clicking here to view the finding aid she produced for the William H. Paine Papers.

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