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Building Bridges

 

Emily Roebling’s Invaluable Contributions to the Brooklyn Bridge and Women’s Rights

By Wendy Greenberg

A bronze statue of John A. Roebling in an armchair, with a diagram of a suspension bridge on his lap and books and blueprints beneath his chair, sits in the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood of Trenton. On one side, a relief panel depicts the Brooklyn Bridge — his masterpiece, referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

But the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, with its iconic suspension cables and arches, its design inspired by a church in Germany, is not one man’s work. In fact, its story also involves a woman: Emily Warren Roebling, the wife of Roebling’s son Washington.

Emily Warren Roebling in academic dress after receiving her law certificate, 1899. (New York Historical Society Library)

Even before viewers of HBO’s The Gilded Age series saw Emily Roebling depicted this past season, she was the subject of many books and articles heralding her role in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the HBO series, a young architect and heir to a railroad fortune is surprised to learn that she worked behind the scenes during bridge construction, and he toasts her during a bridge opening celebration. Another male character had earlier warned that her involvement must be kept a secret because if it were revealed “that the Brooklyn Bridge was largely the work of a woman,
it would make men afraid to cross it.”

Thousands of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians now cross it every day, and Emily’s indispensable role is better known, although it has been both overlooked and occasionally aggrandized in the past. Although the history of the Trenton Roeblings, for the most part, is about the men and their company, John A. Roebling’s Sons, makers of steel and wire rope, Emily is the subject of several children’s books emphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). David McCullough’s book Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge includes a chapter titled “Emily,” and she is the subject of Silent Builder: Emily Warren Roebling and The Brooklyn Bridge by Marilyn Weigold. She is noted in The Roebling Legacy, by Princeton historian Clifford W. Zink, and in The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History by Richard Haw. Emily Roebling is also the subject of the historically based novel The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Emerson Wood.

There is no question she was involved in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, but sources differ on the magnitude of her role. A plaque on the bridge honors Emily Warren Roebling, “whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband, Col. Washington A. Roebling, C.E. (1837-1936) complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father John A. Roebling, C.E. (1805-1869), who gave his life to the bridge.” The plaque also says, “Back of every great work we can find ‘the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.’” Zink considered why Emily Roebling is more appreciated now. “She was a very accomplished woman in her time, in areas where women rarely had any roles. People have known a little about her, but her visibility in the last 15 years, and relevance, has grown,” said Zink, who also wrote Spanning the Industrial Age: The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Trenton, N.J. 1848-1974, among other books, most recently The Princeton Eating Clubs.

Emily Warren was born in 1843 in Cold Spring, N.Y., to a middle-class family, the second youngest of 12 children. She attended a private secondary boarding school, enrolling in 1858 at Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she studied geometry, history, astronomy, and algebra — subjects not typical for women of that day.

“Being the second to last of 12 children, she must have gotten vast amounts of attention. Her brother was a strong figure in her life, and I think all that contributed to her self-confidence,” said Zink.

It was unusual for her to attend Georgetown, now Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, Zink noted. “There were very few women who went to that school on that level, and it was a big boost for her in knowledge, social interactions, and poise.”

While visiting her brother Gouverneur, who was serving as the commander of the Fifth Army Corps., she met Col. Washington Roebling, whom she married in 1865. Letters between Emily and Washington, many of which are in the Rutgers University Library Special Collections and cited in books about her, show mutual admiration.

Bird’s-eye view of the Great New York and Brooklyn Bridge and the grand display of fireworks on opening night. (Brooklyn Museum/Wikipedia)

“TWO DOWN”

In 1867, John Augustus Roebling embarked on building a 1.1-mile bridge across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, which, at its opening, would be the longest suspension bridge in the world. But a series of misfortunes occurred. Construction was planned for 1869, however, after a ferry crashed into Roebling’s foot, some of his toes had to be amputated and he died of tetanus in July of that year.

His son Washington, at age 32, was to fill his father’s role, but he became incapacitated by decompression sickness, which came from working in caissons — the watertight retaining structures needed to work under the river. Decompression sickness can involve partial paralysis and loss of senses. The McCullough book states that Washington was “in constant torment, his work a nightmare instead of the inspiration and source of pride it had been for them both.”

Richard Haw, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at City University of New York, who wrote several books about the Roeblings, summed up the situation in an interview: “Two Roeblings down two years in. Washington is the only person who can pull off the bridge. In the Roebling family, between them, no one was better at building suspension bridges and having them stay up.”

Emily Roebling then sprang into action. She was her husband’s emissary with contractors, officials, and engineers. Those writing about Emily credit her quick intellect, her charm, and her ability to pivot to whatever was required.

“The story of building the bridge is irresistible,” said Haw. “People love it, they keep writing about it.” The idea that she was the “secret engineer” is not true, he said, “but it is inspiring, and she was very important in Washington Roebling’s life.”

OVERLOOKED?

In the New York Times series “Overlooked,” belated obituaries of underappreciated persons, Jessica Bennett wrote of Emily Roebling, “It was not customary for a woman to accompany a man to a construction site in the late 19th century.” When her husband became ill, said the 2018 writeup, “she went back and forth to the construction site. She negotiated the supply materials, oversaw the contracts, and acted as liaison to the board of trustees.”

“I don’t think that the Brooklyn Bridge would be standing were it not for her,” said Erica Wagner, as quoted in “A Mighty Girl,” a collection of materials about accomplished females. “She was absolutely integral to its construction.” Wagner is the author of Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

“The chief engineer was off the scene,” said Haw. “But you had a mastermind in a house in Brooklyn Heights. Emily was a go-between. She passed messages, and learned to speak to the engineers.” He noted that Washington needed an interlocuter, and as changes were made in the construction process, Emily was a trusted aide-de-camp.

Emily’s most significant contribution, Haw said, was that “when the board of trustees occasionally got the idea to fire him, Emily ran interference. Emily was good at politics. She did a lot of politicking. Through her machinations he was able to stay on through the battles to stay as chief engineer — a final attempt to remove him would mean he would not be the engineer of record. She kept the bridge project on track.”

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1883. (Wikipedia)

The limestone, granite, and cement bridge of nearly 6,000 feet opened for traffic May 24, 1883. It is well known that Emily Roebling rode with President Chester Arthur across the bridge. The New York Times published a sidebar story with the headline: “How the Wife of the Brooklyn Bridge Engineer Has Assisted Her Husband.” The New York Times article (published on May 23, 1883, and datelined Trenton, N.J., May 22), states: “While so much has been written about the Brooklyn Bridge and those who have had a share either in planning or building it, there remains one whose services have not been publicly acknowledged.” The article stated that Emily Roebling had “applied herself to the study of engineering,” and says she was able to “assume the duties of chief engineer.”

Another New York Times article, published on September 25, 1983, and headlined “A Roebling is getting her due,” summed it up this way: “Were it not for the determination of Emily Warren Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge might not have been built according to its chief engineer’s master plan.”

Emily’s visibility has increased, but some of the myths around her have also grown, Zink noted. For example, she did not replace Washington Roebling as chief engineer. “She was his assistant and liaison and was knowledgeable about engineering to ask questions and answer,” he said. To her credit, Zink said, she learned quickly and could competently discuss the engineering issues.

Portrait of Washington A. Roebling by Théobald Chartran. (Brooklyn Museum/Wikipedia)

AFTER THE BRIDGE

When the bridge was completed, Emily turned her attention to advocating for women’s rights and speaking publicly for equity in marriage. The Roeblings moved to Trenton, where the Roebling wire rope company business was located. Their mansion on the banks of the Delaware River on West State Street, near Washington’s brothers’ homes, is now the site of the New Jersey State Library. Zink noted that Emily and Washington’s grandson Siegfried had offered the house as a governor’s mansion in 1929, but Gov. Harry Moore turned it down. It was demolished in 1946.

“Emily built the grandest house that was ever built in Trenton, and it’s terrible that the state tore it down,” said Zink. The house of Ferdinand. Washington’s brother, remains on West State Street, and is now the office of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Charles Émile Auguste Carolus Duran. (Brooklyn Museum/Wikipedia)

Emily flourished in Trenton society and was active in women’s clubs, including the International Council of Women and Daughters of the American Revolution. She also had a board appointment in Princeton at the Evelyn College for Women, open from 1887 to 1897. She lectured at clubs and organized a camp on Long Island for cavalrymen coming home from the Spanish American War. But her letters often referred to a need to escape Trenton and she did, meeting Queen Victoria and traveling to attend the coronation of Czar Nicholas II in Moscow in 1896.

In 1899, at age 56, she enrolled in New York University’s Woman’s Law Class, which issued a university certificate. At the graduation, she read her award-winning essay, “A Wife’s Disabilities,” which garnered publicity in the Trenton newspaper and beyond.

Emily died at home on February 28, 1903, it is said, of stomach cancer. She is buried not in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton or the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing, where other family members’ gravesites are located, but in Cold Spring, N.Y., where she was born, and Washington followed in 1926. (Washington remarried in 1908; his second wife is buried in her native South Carolina.)

When she died The Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a long obituary and photo. The obituary credited her with “superintending the detail work connected with the bridge,” but called her “one of the best-known club women in the country” and noted her “prominence among the women of the country in all movements which looked toward the so-called emancipation of the sex.”

On May 29, 2018, a block of Columbia Heights between Pineapple Street and Orange Street in Brooklyn was officially renamed Emily Warren Roebling Way. (She lived on the block with her husband from 1869 to 1883.) New York City Councilmember Stephen Levin co-sponsored the renaming and posted it on social media, saying that “the legacy of Emily Roebling endures as an example of perseverance, aspiration, and dedication to fighting for equality.”

Of her life, Zink said, “My impression is that she was a very strong women, with a strong sense of self confidence. She took on challenges unusual for a woman of her time and achieved success with her own personal style.”

Said Haw, “It is fascinating to think about what she could have been today.”

Brooklyn Bridge looking East, New York City side, July 7, 1899. (Wikipedia)

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