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Emily Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge

Emily Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge

By Luke Carothers

The Brooklyn Bridge looms eternally large over New York City’s East River.  Since it opened in 1883, it is a vital artery between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it has witnessed its fair share of history.  From champagne cellars carved into the foundation, through trendy social clubs underneath its span, to Cold War bunkers hidden deep within, the Brooklyn Bridge is a tapestry covered in the history it has lived.

None of this would exist without Emily Roebling, the daughter-in-law of the bridge’s original creator.

It seemed fitting that John Augustus Roebling would be in charge of spanning the East River.  After all, he had already bridged the Niagara Gorge and the Ohio River.  Soon after the first boats began to lower caissons into the water of the East River, tragedy struck, and John succumbed to tetanus as a result of an accident at the worksite.  It was left for his son Washington to take over as chief engineer.

Washington picked right up where his father left off, working alongside his men inside the pneumatic caissons.  These caissons were lowered into the river and constantly pumped with pressurized air so that workers could drive the foundation deep into the bedrock.  An incredibly dangerous place, engineers detonated explosives within these caissons, which was a first in the engineering world.

The danger of explosives in confined places was obvious, and scores of men were maimed or killed by explosions and falling equipment.  However, the more serious danger was invisible and far more insidious.

After coming to the surface from the bottom of these caissons, workers complained of pain in their joints and nausea, while some became paralyzed and others died.  Little was known about Decompression Sickness at the time of the bridge’s construction, and workers were rightfully inclined to rush to their surface after their shift was done.  The result was a host of terrible cases of what they deemed “Caisson Disease”, including those sustained by Washington himself.

Washington’s bout with Caisson Disease left him paralyzed and bedridden for the rest of his life.  Being unable to tend to the physical challenges presented by being chief engineer of such a large project, Washington knew he could turn to his wife to get the job done.

Emily was tasked with relaying Washington’s orders to the men as he sat, overlooking the project from his bedroom window.  Emily wasn’t just a messenger, though.  She was also an expert in the construction of suspension bridges and spent her honeymoon with Washington traveling around the world to study caisson technology.  Before that, Emily had spent time studying various aspects of tension on bridges, and she would resume that study with fervor when Washington fell ill.

Eventually, after it became clear that Washington Roebling would not recover from his brush with decompression sickness, Emily assumed the day-to-day role of chief engineer for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge although her husband still held the nominal title.

When word eventually spread that Washington Roebling had become fully incapacitated by his sickness, Emily met with local officials to secure her and her husband’s continued work on the bridge.  Officials tied to the infamous corrupt political circles of 19th century New York City tried to argue that the project was too much for Emily with her husband’s condition.  Emily disagreed, making an impassioned plea before them, and was able to convince the city officials of her position.

When the Brooklyn Bridge was finally opened in 1983, Emily was one of the first people to triumphantly cross the bridge, riding in a horse drawn carriage alongside President Chester A. Arthur.  The crossing and completion was also marked by a speech, given by one of her competitors named Abram Hewitt.  In it, Hewitt’s praise rings with gratitude towards a life spent dedicated to a purpose, calling the Brooklyn Bridge “an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred”.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.