Emily’s great bridge

Constructed in the 1870s, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York is legendary for several reasons, one being the pivotal role Emily Warren Roebling held in its construction. By MARY SEARLE BELL.

IN THE 19TH CENTURY gender stereotypes were clear: men were the thinkers, the explorers, the discoverers, the shapers of the world, and women kept house.

It was a time of great innovation and rapid technological and scientific advancement. Naturally, men held the monopoly on the big achievements, with a few notable exceptions and one of these was Emily Warren Roebling.

Emily’s journey into the history books, and into the field of engineering itself, was accidental. Literally. An accident leading to the death of one man and the crippling ill health of a second left Emily in the role of chief engineer for most of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling – Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. Brooklyn Museum.
Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling – Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. Brooklyn Museum.

Her father-in-law, John Roebling was the designer and original chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Connecting New York’s boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, it was the first steel-wire suspension bridge ever constructed. One of the largest engineering projects in American history, the bridge is 1825 metres long, with the main span stretching 486 metres. It soars 84 metres above the East River.

John Roebling began design work in 1867 but two years later, while doing some surveying work for the project, his foot was pinned against a piling by a ferry. This injury required his crushed toes to be amputated and he subsequently developed a fatal tetanus infection. However, before he died, he placed his 32-year-old son, Washington Roebling, in charge of the project. Under Washington’s leadership construction began in 1870.

Washington had been working as assistant engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge at the time of his father’s death, and he designed the two large pneumatic cassions that became the foundations for the two towers. However, in 1872, Washington developed decompression sickness (the bends) from working in the cassions (along with at least 110 of his workers). This ruined his health and left him physically unable to supervise the project. Enter his wife, Emily Warren Roebling.

Bedridden, blind and partially paralysed, Washington was confined to his apartment and he relied on Emily to carry out his plans for the completion of the bridge.

Washington writes of his illness: “I thought I would succumb, but I had a strong tower to lean upon, my wife, a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.”

Brooklyn Bridge looking east from Manhattan, 1899.
Brooklyn Bridge looking east from Manhattan, 1899.

Until its completion in 1883, Emily’s dedication to the Brooklyn Bridge was relentless. As well as being Washington’s nurse and confidant, she became secretary, answering mail and keeping records, and acting as messenger for the remainder of the bridge build. She took it upon herself to learn about bridge construction and took over much of the chief engineer’s duties, including the day-to-day supervision and project management.

With her husband confined to his bed, she also became the face of the project, representing him at all official engagements.

It is hard to distinguish where Washington stops and Emily starts when it comes to the Brooklyn Bridge. To some, she was merely Washington’s mouthpiece, relaying his wishes. And to be fair, given the thinking of the time, Emily possibly encouraged this view as people were unlikely to entrust such a significant task to a woman, especially one without formal qualifications or experience. Others were convinced she was the brains behind the project.

As David McCullough writes in his 2007 book, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge: “It is not at all surprising that the stories spread. As was apparent to everyone who met her, Emily Warren Roebling was a remarkable person.

“Since every piece of written communication from the [Roebling] house … was in her hand, there was, understandably, a strong suspicion that she was doing more than merely taking down what her husband dictated.

Construction of Brooklyn Bridge, ca 1872-1887.
Construction of Brooklyn Bridge, ca 1872-1887.

“But by and by it was common gossip that hers was the real mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous.

“In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years [Washington] had been incapacitated.”

McCullough writes that when bridge officials or representatives for various contractors visited the Roebling house in Brooklyn, it was seldom Washington Roebling they saw. Instead Emily would undertake the interview on his behalf, “asking questions and answering theirs with perfect confidence and command of the facts”. Apparently, some left convinced Emily was in fact the chief engineer after all and “their future correspondence was addressed directly to her”.

Emily was born on September 23, 1843 in Cold Spring, New York, to state assemblyman Sylvanus Warren and his wife Phoebe. She received a well-rounded education, most unusual at the time, attending the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington DC from the age of 15. There she studied a range of subjects including history, geography, rhetoric and grammar, algebra and French, along with the more ‘ladylike’ housekeeping, tapestry and piano.

C_March_2015_Pg50_1In 1864, during the American Civil War, Emily visited her brother Governor Warren who was then commanding the Fifth Army Corps. There she met Washington who was serving on staff as a civil engineer. The pair immediately fell in love and on January 18, 1865 got married.

In the early years of their marriage they travelled to Europe for Washington to study bridge construction and cassion foundations. When he became chief engineer on the project, Emily studied the bridge’s construction. She developed an extensive knowledge of strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculating catenary curves through Washington’s teachings.

Emily worked tirelessly on the Brooklyn Bridge until it was finally completed in 1883. In advance of the official opening Emily was the first to cross the bridge by carriage. She carried a rooster with her as a sign of victory.

Her dedication to and work on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was honoured by Congressman Abram Hewitt at the opening ceremony. He said the Brooklyn Bridge would be, “an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred”.

Today the Brooklyn Bridge holds a plaque dedicated to the memory of Emily Warren Roebling, her husband and her father-in-law.

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