Nothing spells romance like newlyweds taking an extended European trip to study suspension bridges and caisson technology. That’s exactly what Washington Roebling and soon-to-become Field Engineer Emily Warren Roebling did shortly after their wedding in January 1865. It was that trip that forged their lifelong bond. In November of 1867 they had their only child. On May 23, 1883 “their” Brooklyn Bridge was dedicated.
New York and the surrounding areas were growing rapidly. Talk of bridging the East River to connect Manhattan to Brooklyn began in the early 1800s. It remained a dream due to the width of the rough tidal waterway that was one of the busiest in the world. Any bridge spanning it would have to be extremely high to allow ships to pass beneath. It would also have to be the largest suspension bridge ever built.
Despite these monumental challenges, it was a time of optimism when Americans believed all things were possible. Emily Warren Roebling’s story remains an amazing adventure born of that era. Following are just a few of the highlights.
Emily Warren Roebling’s new father-in-law was the famous bridge designer, John A. Roebling. He had designed heralded bridges. Among them was a bridge over the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh (1860) and one over the Ohio River in Cincinnati (1867).
In February 1867, the New York State Senate passed a bill that allowed the construction of a suspension bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It was then known as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. The New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company was incorporated and John Roebling was awarded the contract. In a matter of months he designed the specifications for the bridge.
Shortly into the project, Roebling was scouting construction sites when a barge crushed his foot, severing several toes. He died less than a month later in mid-1869 from tetanus. His son Washington Roebling succeeded him as Chief Engineer of the project. Roebling made several important refinements to his father’s bridge design. Among them were two enormous granite foundations to anchor the towers.
To place these foundations, he designed enormous timber caissons or watertight chambers that were sunk to depths of 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the New York side. They were filled with compressed air, thus allowing laborers to work deep below the East River.
As the men went deeper by the day, many began coming down with a mysterious disease that they called caisson disease. Later known as the “bends,” it is caused by the appearance of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream that result from rapid decompression. More than one hundred men were affected.
Washington Roebling worked shoulder-to-shoulder for long hours with his men below the river. In a short time, he too developed the sickness. He became paralyzed and was unable to continue on-site management of the project. He was confined to his home in Brooklyn Heights. Emily Warren Roebling took the reins while he watched the progress through binoculars from a second-floor window.
Her official title was “assistant to the chief engineer” who was her paralyzed husband. In addition to serving as her husband’s nurse, companion, and confidant, Emily Roebling took over all of her husband’s duties on the job site. These included day-to-day supervision and project management. She negotiated the supply materials, oversaw the contracts, and acted as liaison to the board of trustees.
During the course of construction, she developed extensive knowledge of engineering factors including strength of materials, cable construction, calculating catenary curves and stress analysis. At one point, officials questioned her husband’s position as Chief Engineer due to his physical limitations. she successfully lobbied for formal retention of his right to retain his title.
Over time, Emily earned the respect and admiration of the engineers, politicians and construction workers. She became a “surrogate chief engineer.” According to David McCullough in The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge many of them began to believe that much of the engineering prowess behind the bridge was from Emily.
“By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great 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.”
On May 24, 1883, after more than 13 years of construction, the New York and Brooklyn Bridge was opened for public use. It made international headlines, as the largest suspension bridge in the world. Approximately 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed the bridge that first day.
Emily Warren Roebling was given the first ride over the completed bridge with President Chester Arthur. She carried a rooster as a symbol of victory in her lap. Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony with bands and a fireworks display. The East Bay was crowded with ships and boats.
At the opening ceremony Abram Stevens Hewitt, known as the father of the New York subway system, spoke:
“The name of Emily Warren Roebling will…be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature and all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art.” He called the bridge “…an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”
To this day a plague on the Brooklyn Bridge pays tribute to Emily, Washington and John Roebling.
On Memorial Day 1883, a few days after the grand opening of the bridge, tragedy hit. A woman tripped and fell down the narrow stairway on the Manhattan side, causing a stampede. The public was already skeptical about the strength of the bridge and its ability to support a large number of people. Thousands were on the promenade as a rumor that the bridge was collapsing spread rapidly. At least twelve people died.
In 1884, one year after the Memorial Day tragedy, P.T. Barnum walked 21 of his largest elephants across the bridge. His elephant walk included 7 camels and 10 dromedaries. Jumbo, his beloved seven-ton African elephant brought up the rear.
With his usual crowd-pleasing showmanship, he was able to squelch doubts about the strength of the bridge and publicize his circus.
A New York Times article published May 18, 1884 said, “…it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself onto Long Isalnd.”
It has been said that the bridge was capable of easily supporting more than 2,500 large elephants. P.T. Barnum had originally offered to take his elephants across on opening day but authorities refused. Had they taken him up on it, the stampede might have been avoided.
Emily Warren Roebling was formally presented to Queen Victoria in 1896. Court protocol required formal attire for the event. The lavish embroidery, sumptuous textiles and long train are characteristics of Roebling’s formal gown, making it appropriate for the occassion. She wore this dress, now held in the permanent collection of the MET from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection.
She wore the same ensemble for her portrait by Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran (1838–1917). It is now part of the Brooklyn Museum collection.
Upon completion of her work on the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily Roebling continued to break records. Following are just a few of her achievements. S
She also continued her education and received a law certificate from New York University. She authored a highly acclaimed essay titled, “A Wife’s Disabilities” in which she argued for women’s rights and criticized discriminatory practices against women.
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