By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.
The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.
It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.
It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.
Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.
Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.
Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.
As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.
In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).
Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.
Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."
McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."
While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.
Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."
But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.
For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.
After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.
At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.
It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:
THE BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF EMILY WARREN ROEBLING 1843 - 1903 WHOSE FAITH AND COURAGE HELPED HER STRICKEN HUSBAND COL. WASHINGTON A. ROEBLING, C.E. 1837 - 1926 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 “BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN"