FreightWaves ClassicsInfrastructureInsightsNews

FreightWaves Classics/ Infrastructure: Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was overseen by a woman

FreightWaves Classics celebrates Women's History Month

The Brooklyn Bridge connects two boroughs of New York City – Manhattan and Brooklyn – by spanning the East River. Looming majestically over the river, the bridge, with its granite towers and steel cables, was designed by John A. Roebling. Construction began in 1869 and was completed in 1883. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The cost to build the bridge was $15 million (the equivalent of more than $320 million today). 

Known for its imposing stone arches, the Brooklyn Bridge supports six lanes of vehicles (no trucks) and also has a shared pedestrian and bicycle path. Because of the elevation of its span above the East River and the relatively low-lying shores, the bridge extends quite far inland on both sides of the river as it slopes down to ground level.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1880. (Photo: J.A. LeRoy/Museum of the City of New York)
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1880. (Photo: J.A. LeRoy/Museum of the City of New York)

The total length of the bridge and its approaches is 6,016 feet. Its main span is 1,595.5 feet long, and the bridge’s clearance at its center is 135 feet. An average of 150,00 vehicles, 30,000 pedestrians and 3,000 cyclists travel over the Brooklyn Bridge daily.

John A. Roebling. 
(Image: Public Domain/National Park Service)
John A. Roebling.
(Image: Public Domain/National Park Service)

The designer/first chief engineer

As noted above, German immigrant John A. Roebling designed the Brooklyn Bridge. He had previously designed several suspension bridges, which in the 1850s-60s were widely used but known to fail under strong winds or heavy loads. Roebling addressed these issues by combining structural elements from previous bridge designs, including cable arrays and stiffening trusses. Using these elements, Roebling successfully bridged the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls, New York, and the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio.

On the basis of Roebling’s previous designs and achievements, New York’s Tammany Hall political leaders approved his plan for a suspension bridge over the East River to link Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge would be the first suspension bridge built using steel cables, and would have the longest span in the world at that time – nearly 1,600 feet from tower to tower.

Roebling was also hired to be the bridge’s chief engineer and to oversee its construction. However, just before construction began in 1869, he was injured when a boat smashed the toes on one of his feet; three weeks later he died of tetanus. Roebling’s 32-year-old son, Washington A. Roebling, assumed the role of chief engineer. He had worked with his father on several bridges and had helped design the Brooklyn Bridge.

Washington A. Roebling

During the Civil War Washington Roebling served as an engineering officer in the Union Army. In 1864 he was working under Gouverneur K. Warren, an 1850 graduate of the United States Military Academy, who was a corps commander. Roebling met Warren’s younger sister, Emily, and the two were married in 1865. 

The Warrens were a socially prominent family that traced their roots to the Mayflower. The father of Goueverneur and Emily was a state assemblyman and town supervisor.

Washington A. Roebling and his wife Emily Warren Roebling on their wedding day. (Photo: blogs.libraries.rutgers.edu)
Washington A. Roebling and his wife Emily Warren Roebling on their wedding day. (Photo: blogs.libraries.rutgers.edu)

At the age of 22, Emily accompanied her husband to Europe. Washington Roebling’s father had sent him to study the latest techniques of constructing foundations underwater by using sealed and pressurized caissons. Emily learned as well; she had developed an interest in, and knowledge of, bridge construction prior to her husband’s appointment as Chief Engineer. To help and support her husband even more, Emily immersed herself in civil engineering, studying topics such as strength of materials, stress analysis and cable construction. 

After assuming direction of the Brooklyn Bridge project following his father’s death, Washington suffered severe attacks of decompression sickness (the “bends”) as a result of prolonged exposure to pressurized conditions in the caissons at the bottom of the East River. 

As the disease progressed, he became increasingly disabled, which forced Emily to fulfill most of his engineering duties during the construction of the bridge. From 1872 onward, Roebling was essentially an invalid. Emily cared for him in their home in Trenton, New Jersey (where the Roebling family’s steel cable factory also was located), and in a residence in Brooklyn Heights (from which Washington could observe work on the bridge through a telescope).

Originally named the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, this photo dates from 1883. (Photo: Silas A. Holmes/Museum of the City of New York)
Originally named the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, this photo dates from 1883.
(Photo: Silas A. Holmes/Museum of the City of New York)

Emily Warren Roebling

With her husband, she planned the bridge’s continued construction, and actively managed the day-to-day construction activities. Serving as her husband’s liaison with the engineering team working on the bridge, over time Emily displayed such knowledge and proficiency in the issues of construction, materials and cable fabrication that some concluded she had become the chief engineer. 

During the bridge’s construction, she actively engaged with politicians, engineers and others associated with the project. In addition to serving as the de facto chief engineer, Emily Roebling served as an advocate and spokeswoman for her husband. She reassured officials that he remained capable of overseeing and managing the project. Nonetheless, many recognized her as the engineer largely responsible for guiding construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on May 24, 1883. (Image: Museum of the City of New York)
The celebration of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on the evening of May 24, 1883. (Image: Museum of the City of New York)

At the grand opening of the bridge in May 1883, Emily Roebling rode with President Chester A. Arthur in the first carriage to cross the bridge from the Brooklyn side. In his dedication speech on opening day, the philanthropist, political reformer and steelmaker Abram S. Hewitt declared that the new bridge would “ever be coupled” with the thought of Emily Warren Roebling. He also said that the bridge was “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.”

1896 portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. (Image: Brooklyn Museum)
1896 portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran.
(Image: Brooklyn Museum)

Life after the Brooklyn Bridge

After the bridge was finished, Emily spent much of 1884-88 in Troy, New York, where her son attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She then supervised the construction of a new family home in Trenton, where her husband went back to his family’s business and pursued other interests as his health permitted. Meanwhile, Emily became active in several social and philanthropic organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Huguenot Society.

She also traveled extensively; she attended the coronation of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II, and was presented to Queen Victoria in London in 1896. Emily Roebling also served as both a nurse and construction foreman at a Montauk, Long Island camp that was established to house soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War.

She also received a certificate in business law from the Woman’s Law Class at New York University in 1899 (at that time NYU did not admit women into its law school). Until she died in 1903, Roebling traveled and lectured widely.

Emily Warren Roebling. (Photo: asce.org)
Emily Warren Roebling.
(Photo: asce.org)

Legacy

The Brooklyn Bridge is considered a 19th century marvel of engineering. At least two dozen people died during its construction, including Emily Roebling’s father-in-law, the bridge’s designer. Hundreds of others were hurt during construction, including Emily Roebling’s husband. But her knowledge and determination meant that her husband continued to be the project’s chief engineer, despite becoming an invalid during construction.

Today, Emily Warren Roebling is rightfully regarded as the female engineer who was largely responsible for guiding the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, she was an American socialite, wife, mother, builder and businesswoman.

 In the abstract for her book, “Silent Builder: Emily Warren Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge,” Marilyn Weigold stated, “Emily Warren Roebling’s career as a silent builder and organization (wo)man was terminated by death in 1903, but her achievements, not the least of which was the Brooklyn Bridge, have endured.”

The Brooklyn Bridge towers over the two New York City boroughs in the 1880s. 
(Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
The Brooklyn Bridge towers over the two New York City boroughs in the 1880s.
(Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.