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Washington and Emily Roebling


Fortunately, his son, Washington Augustus Roebling, was determined not only to follow his father’s plans but was flexible enough to modify them as unanticipated problems occurred. And in turn, he had the support and the partnership of his wife Emily Warren Roebling. Together they were able to finish one of the most ambitious architectural feats in history.

You may ask who was Washington Augustus Roebling the son? John Augustus Roebling. The father had taught his son to work hard and to be self-reliant. He had trained Washington Roebling to follow in the family business as both a businessman and as an engineer. Washington studied engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Washington Roebling fought for the Union in the Civil War. He reconnoitered by air balloon, constructed pontoon bridges as an engineering officer, and was the first man on top of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.


Washington met Emily Warren at the Second Corps Officers Ball given by her brother, the commanding general, Gouvernor K. Warren. Warren had ordered the Union troops to occupy Little Round Top. After they married in January 1865, Roebling resigned from the army. They accepted the elder Roebling’s offer to pay for their honeymoon if they would observe the latest bridge-building techniques in America and Europe.   Upon his father’s death, Washington Roebling became the chief engineer of the bridge.


Dredging was completed in the spring of 1870. A caisson, designed by the Roeblings and the largest ever built, was used to build the Brooklyn Tower. Imagine a submarine open at the bottom. It sinks as the mud is dug out through a series of pressure chambers. At the same time, construction of the tower is begun on top of the submarine. Once the submarine hits bedrock, it is filled with concrete. This then becomes the solid foundation for the tower.


Like his father, Washington worked closely with the men and shared their hardships and dangers. The air inside the caisson was stuffy. Temperatures reached over 100 degrees. The bends was a great hazard.  Since its medical cause was not yet understood, it posed a great danger. As the men went deeper, nitrogen would accumulate in the blood. If they went up too fast without allowing time for decompression, nitrogen bubbles would disrupt the body. There were casualties among the workmen. Washington got the bends for the first time when he saved the Brooklyn caisson when it caught fire in December 1871. The Brooklyn caisson reached a depth of 45 feet, equal to five stories, before hitting bedrock. This is also known as Manhattan schist, the ideal foundation for skyscrapers.


The New York caisson proved even more dangerous. On May 1872 Roebling ordered the digging to stop at a depth of 78 feet 6 inches to avoid further loss of life. By this time, Roebling had suffered his second and most disabling attack of the bends. His eyes, muscles and vocal cords were permanently damaged. He remained in pain the rest of his life and became a recluse. Roebling decided to risk his reputation and career on the decision not to reach to bedrock, which was another 30 feet down. Since the Brooklyn Bridge has not yet fallen down, apparently he made the right decision. The 13 years it took to build the bridge witnessed the death of only 20 workers, a remarkably low casualty rate for the time.  Thanks to the assistance of his helpmate, Emily Warren Roebling, he was able to complete the bridge.


Part IV: Emily Warren Roebling


You may ask who was Emily Roebling? Emily Warren Roebling is the undersung, under-appreciated heroine of the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily was born and raised in the Upper Hudson River Valley at Cold Spring, New York. Although Emily had no formal training, she learned engineering from her brother and from her husband. Emily was fantastic in supervising people, whether they were office workers or construction laborers, and dealing with the politicians and the press. It was a most remarkable achievement at a time when the number of women who were lawyers or doctors in America could be counted on one hand. There were no women engineers at all.


Together, husband and wife would become an unbeatable team. Washington solved the engineering problems; Emily implemented the solutions. Washington was the engineer, the number-cruncher; Emily, the good manager, was the people person. She also handled her husband’s correspondence. When the mayor of Brooklyn tried to fire her husband from the project because he would not finish as quickly as the mayor wanted, she rallied the board of trustees to her husband=s side.


Ironically, Emily would not have become the world=s first woman engineer if her husband had utilized the newly invented telephone. J. L. Haige became the first paid telephone subscriber in the city for a telephone. A five mile-long wire was laid across the half finished Brooklyn Bridge, connecting this office to his steel-wire plan in Brooklyn


Haige was the one who put rotten cable into the bridge before he was caught. The inspectors observed that the bad pile of steel kept on getting smaller instead of bigger.  They followed a wagon full of approved steel to a warehouse and saw that a switch was being made.  Haighe was made to put extra steel cable onto the bridge and he was replaced as the contractor for this operation by John August Roebling and Sons.

NYC Blog 72 The Brooklyn Bridge Washington and Emily Roebling © 2017 by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg #ghost

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