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The Secret Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge: Emily Roebling

Who are the hidden women behind some of the iconic structures of New York? Who was the secret engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge? How many people–of the hundreds on the bridge at any moment on a summer afternoon–know the name Emily Warren Roebling?

Every day, more than 150,000 commuters rely on the Brooklyn Bridge for their journeys. Since 1883, the Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan has been iconic, changing the New York landscape, inspiring popular images/culture and simplifying inter borough transit. The Brooklyn Bridge is recognized across the world as a work of genius, but sometimes the most recognizable, famous structures have hidden histories and unsung heroes.

The Bridge was designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who moved to the United States at 25 to pursue a career in farming. By the 1830s, he was based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, running a wire-cable factory. He became known in the engineering community for his suspension bridge designs; suspension bridges generally had a bad reputation for falling apart in tough conditions. But Roebling, an innovator and suspension bridge enthusiast, designed the web truss – an add-on to each side of the bridge’s roadways that improve its safety immensely. With this design, Roebling built bridges across the Ohio River and Niagara Falls, establishing himself as the suspension bridge expert by the mid-19th century.

John Roebling submitted plans in 1867 for a 1,600 foot suspension bridge over the East River in New York City. It would be the longest in the world. Roebling, with his recent successes, had proven he was the man for the job. NY Legislators approved the plan.

Right before construction began in 1869, Roebling was taking some final measurements. His toes were smashed by a passing boat, and he died from tetanus three weeks later. In the wake of this tragic and untimely death, his son Washington A. Roebling, a 32-year-old engineer with some experience helping his father on suspension bridges, took over the project.

Laborers–mostly immigrants–earned $2 a day for their very dangerous work. To create the bridge’s foundation, the riverbed was excavated and pressurized airtight chambers, called caissons, were pinned to the floor of the river by granite. The workers used shovels and dynamite to clear the bottom of the river–78 feet deep on the Manhattan side, 44 on the Brooklyn side, traveling to the river’s floor in airtight iron containers. The perilous journey under water caused a host of severe and debilitating medical conditions – dissolved gasses made their way into the workers’ bloodstreams, causing Caisson disease. Caisson disease triggered excruciating joint pain, paralysis, speech impediments, and sometimes death.

Washington Roebling, as well as hundreds of his workers, contracted Caisson disease in these early days of construction. Washington, bound to a bed, was forced to either ask for help as he watched construction through a telescope, or forfeit his father’s dream completely. Washington’s wife Emily Warren Roebling, who he later called “a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel,” took over the Brooklyn Bridge Project.

Emily learned on her feet, developing a quick and extensive understanding of the construction materials, responsibilities, and engineering strategies. She became the chief engineer, supervising daily construction and managing the workers. Emily made speeches at events and gatherings full of politicians and engineers, almost always the only woman in the room. When the American Society of Civil Engineers heard the rumor that Washington Roebling was nearly non-functional and they threatened to re-assign the project to a different engineer, Emily made a fearless and impassioned speech defending her husband.

Emily Roebling cared for her husband every day. She wrote his correspondences, worked alone when he was entirely catatonic, and oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as the chief engineer for 14 years.

One week before the bridge was open to the public in the late spring of 1884, PT Barnum walked 21 elephants across the bridge, proving it was stable enough to bear many tons. The next week, thousands of New Yorkers gathered for the dedication ceremony. In one of the speeches, Representative Abram Stevens Hewitt called the bridge, “an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman [Emily Roebling] and of her capacity for that high education from which she has been too long disbarred.”

Emily was the first to cross the bridge, with a rooster in her lap–behind her was President Chester Arthur. Throughout the next 24 hours, a quarter of a million people crossed the bridge on the pedestrian roadway, designed by John Roebling specifically for commuters on foot. At the time, the Brooklyn Bridge was the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere and if you were in the crowd at the dedication ceremony, you’d hear people calling it “eighth wonder of the world.” Emily Roebling went on to receive a law degree from NYU and became of the first female lawyers in New York history. 

How much history is hidden in architecture? When visiting New York City, think about the architects, the engineers, the pioneers of the structures you admire. What do those stories tell us about the importance of capturing the whole picture?