One of the most iconic silhouettes of New York City is the majestic Brooklyn Bridge, suspended more than one hundred feet above the East River and linking the borough of Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn. Designed by German engineer, John A. Roebling, this ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ owed its final completion to Roebling’s daughter-in-law, Emily Warren Roebling.
Manhattan is situated less than half a mile west from the borough of Brooklyn, but across the cold murky depths of the East River. Before the bridge existed, the only way to get across the river was on a passenger boat churning through choppy water.
By the 1860s John Roebling had already built other bridges, but no one before him had ever dared conceive of building a cable suspension bridge that would span half a mile over water. Plans were drawn, money was secured and then in 1869 when construction was about to start, Roebling had his foot crushed in a freak accident. Tetanus set in, and he died three weeks later.
His son, Washington Roebling, also a first rate engineer, took up the project.
The distance to be covered and the necessity of setting the bridge foundations in sandy soil along the river shore posed the greatest challenges. After many setbacks and accidents, Washington Roebling and several of his workers suddenly became ill with caisson disease, or ‘the bends’ as it is known today. The men had to enter underwater caissons (pressurized compartments) deep below the East River to ensure that the construction process was being followed correctly. Today we know that after breathing compressed air under water, one must return slowly to the surface to prevent gas bubbles from forming in the bloodstream. In 1871 this scientific knowledge had not yet been discovered and so although Washington Roebling survived numerous bouts of caissons disease, the after-effects left him a permanent invalid.
His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, instantly took on the role as his nurse, and then quickly became his professional assistant and secretary. Already well versed in mathematics and science, she insisted that her husband teach her every necessary component about the bridge engineering. She wrote out his construction directions, helped with his drawings, and together they discussed the various technical issues involved with the bridge. Each day she met with the contractors on the building site and came home to report on the progress. The original concept may have been her father-in-law’s, and then taken over by her husband, but Emily Warren’s dedication to the dream was unwavering and she became her husband’s virtual foreman. She attached herself to the project with such fervor that some newspaper reporters speculated that she was the real engineer behind the venture.
Although Washington Roebling remained in poor health for the rest of his life, he watched the progress of the mighty endeavor with his binoculars from their home in Brooklyn Heights. By May of 1883 the bridge was complete, having taken 14 years from conception to completion. A few days before the official opening, a horse driven carriage approached the bridge carrying a sole occupant. As the carriage pulled closer to the entrance, workers all along the route stood and removed their caps in respect to Emily Roebling, who had been awarded the honor of being the first passenger to travel the marvel linking the island of Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn.
A few days later on May 24, 1883 tens of thousands of New Yorkers crowded both shores and flotillas of boats paraded in the East River. American President, Chester A. Arthur, along with New York Governor, Grover Cleveland and Franklin Edson, Mayor of New York City, led a delegation of dignitaries to walk across the span. When they reached the Brooklyn tower, it was Emily Roebling who greeted them and walked with them into Brooklyn. Later the dignitaries attended a party at the Roebling home, orchestrated by Emily, so that her husband could revel in the achievement started decades ago by his father, and helped to completion by his own wife.
During the years that Emily worked with her husband to ensure the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, she became more desirous of a college education. She enrolled at New York University and in 1899, at the tender age of 56, graduated with her law degree. ‘Savvy’, must surely have been her middle name.
In a twist of fate, Emily died of stomach cancer four years later at the age of 60, while her husband lived on for an additional 23 three years.
In a rare instance in the Victorian Age of giving credit where it is due, a plaque on the Brooklyn Bridge commemorates the three people whose intelligence, perseverance, and fortitude made it a reality: John Roebling, Washington Roebling, and Emily Roebling.
Thank you to Glenda Childs, owner of the Doylestown Bookshop in Doylestown, PA for alerting me to Emily Roebling. If you know of a particular woman who deserves to be featured on this blog, please email me: email@example.com. My two criteria are that the woman be deceased and that her exploits are not well known to modern readers.
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