The cables and choiring strings Hart Crane salutes in To Brooklyn Bridge were made in Trenton, where a humble truss bridge over the Delaware still unhumbly claims TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES. Since the main cables and suspension ropes for two other great American bridges were made by John A. Roeblings Sons, not to mention the elevator ropes used in the worlds most famous skyscraper, the world also has taken what Fortune magazine called the vitals of the George Washington, the Golden Gate, and the Empire State Building.
In the tenth and closing chorus of his Brooklyn Bridge Blues Jack Kerouac writes, John S Roebling/and Washington Roebling/built it and it does one good to cross it everyday. If Kerouac had known the whole story, as Clifford W. Zink elaborately documents and illustrates it in The Roebling Legacy (Princeton Landmark Publications $50), he might have mentioned the third force behind the building of the bridge, Washington Roeblings 29-year-old wife and guiding star, Emily. The wording of Zinks dedication (To my wife Emily Davis Croll, my own guiding star) suggests why he feels responsive to the crucial role Emily Warren Roebling played in the building of the bridge celebrated in verse by Crane and Kerouac, as well as by Brooklyns own Walt Whitman and Marianne Moore.
The poetry of the Roebling story is expressed in the companys How Far That Little Candle Throws Its Beams advertisement marking its hundredth anniversary in 1941. Shakespeares line from The Merchant of Venice accompanies a brilliant design highlighting the candlelit moment John Augustus Roebling transmuted hemp into steel. Candlelight and poetry aside, the 13 year period of mere toil it took to align the Brooklyn Bridges choiring strings was massive and humanly expensive, with 27 lives lost before construction was completed in 1883. What makes the Roebling story all the more compelling is that both father and son were among the casualties.
In fact, Roebling seniors death could count as the 28th, although it occured the year before construction began. Father and son were inspecting the eventual site of the bridges Brooklyn tower when a ferry slammed into the slip theyd been standing on the outer edge of; before John Roebling could get out of the way in time, his right foot was crushed. Ignoring a doctors advice, Roebling, ever the engineer, took command of his own case, calling in a tinsmith to assemble an apparatus consisting of a big tin dish and a hose to create a sort of water therapy. The doctor warned him that in so doing he was inviting sure death, and 24 days later Roebling was dead from tetanus.
The account of those terrible days excerpted by Zink from Washington Roeblings biography of his father is painful to read. After a harrowing passage worthy of Edgar Allan Poe at his most macabre, Washington, who had seen action at Antietam and Gettysburg in the Civil War, writes, Hardened as I was by scenes of carnage on many a bloody battlefield, these horrors often overcame me. When he finally died one morning at sunrise, I was nearly dead myself from exhaustion. Now that the prop on which hed leaned had fallen, the son took stock Here I was at the age of 32, suddenly put in charge of the most stupendous engineering structure of the age!
The biographys concluding words illuminate the next phrase of the Roebling adventure: At first, I thought I would succumb, but I had a strong tower to lean upon, my wife, a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.
Readers of The Roebling Legacy are given an intimate glimpse of the relationship between Washington and Emily through letters written soon after they were engaged in March 1864. In a letter from April 2, Washington sees Emily (the guardian angel of my existence) as something grander and stronger than a lover or mate: Pray dont fail me, darling...I put my faith in you. Then: six years ago I dreamt three nights in succession of a veiled lady, who the spirit of my dreams told me would be my helpmate during life...Need I say that I feel more and more convinced that you are the one thus foreshadowed.
Whats actually being foreshadowed, inadvertently, is Emilys role as helpmate and guardian angel during the crisis that befell the Roeblings in 1872, two years after construction had begun. Like his father, Washington was injured on the job. The amount of time he spent overseeing work in the compressed air of the caissons (watertight structures under the river that became the foundations for the two towers) caused him to suffer the paralyzing effects of decompression sickness, which disabled him to the extent that he was forced to oversee the project from that time on from his Brooklyn Heights residence. Emily not only became his assistant engineer directing the work on site on his behalf, she fought for his right to remain in charge when the mayor of Brooklyn claimed that his illness had delayed construction and tried to replace him. It was Emily who convinced the Bridge Company trustees to retain him and on May 14, 1883, the glorious spring day the bridge opened with parades, speeches, and fireworks, it was Emily, his strong tower, who made the ceremonial first crossing while her husband watched from his Brooklyn Heights study.
In Specimen Days in America, first published in 1881-2, Walt Whitman describes the view as he saw it in June of 1878 when the bridge was still very much a work in progress: the grand obelisk-like towers...one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defind, giant brothers twain, throwing free, graceful, interlinking loops high across the tumbled, tumultuous current below. In the next entry (Hours for the Soul), from July 22, he sees beyond the unbuilt bridge to the grandest physical habitat and surroundings of land and water the globe affords–namely, Manhattan island and Brooklyn, which the future shall join in one city.
Too bad the Good Gray Poet couldnt have sat beside Emily Roebling during the first crossing, or walked at the head of the procession, he who had already built a bridge of words to men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
Among those men and women some four generations hence, another poet was working out a vision of the bridge from his room in Brooklyn Heights, the only poet who attempted to physically and aesthetically inhabit the very essence of the structure, its bound cable strands, its flight of strings, telepathy of wires, and through that cordage, threading with its call/One arc synoptic of all tides below.
According to Waldo Franks introduction to Hart Cranes Collected Poems, before Crane completed The Bridge in 1929, he learned that the house where the vision had first come to him and where he would finish his poem was once the property of Washington Roebling, and that the very room in which Crane had lived had been employed by the paralyzed engineer of Brooklyn Bridge as an observation tower
to watch its construction.