Emily Warren Roebling - The Woman Behind the Brooklyn Bridge
"Some people's beauty lies not in the features, but in the varied expression that the countenance will assume under the various emotions. She is...a most entertaining talker, which is a mighty good thing you know, I myself being so stupid." - Washington Roebling on his wife Emily, in a letter to his sister, 1865
Emily Warren was born on September 23, 1843 in Cold Spring, New York. She was the second youngest of a dozen children (only six of whom lived to adulthood) born to New York State assemblymen Sylvanus Warren and his wife Phebe. Although the family wasn’t wealthy, they were one of the most prominent families in Putnam County. Her father Sylvanus had been a close personal friend of the writer Washington Irving. Even though he was fourteen years older than her, Emily was incredibly close to her eldest brother, Gouverneur Kemble Warren, (known to his family as GK) who would eventually become a general in the United States Army during the Civil War.
GK had just returned to take up an appointment teaching as an assistant professor in Mathematics at West Point when their parents died. Her brother took a deep interest in his younger siblings including Emily. He encouraged her interest in science, particularly botany. GK enrolled her in the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington D.C. to further advance his favorite younger sibling’s education. Emily studied a wide variety of subjects including history, geography, rhetoric and grammar, algebra, French, as well as housekeeping, tapestry, and piano. By the time of her graduation, Emily had grown into a tall, handsome young woman with dark hair and deep brown eyes, a graceful carriage, and a button nose. She was considered an exceptional horsewoman.
It was also through her brother GK that Emily met her destiny. Despite the war, she managed to convince her siblings to let her visit GK at his military camp in Virginia. In February of 1864, Emily met Colonel Washington Roebling at a military ball. The young man had been serving on her brother’s staff. It was love at first sight, at least on his part. Six weeks after they had met, he’d bought a diamond and after 11 months of constant correspondence, she and Roebling were married in January of 1865 in a double ceremony with her brother Edgar and his bride Cordelia. Washington’s father, John A. Roebling, was an engineer, responsible for building the wire rope suspension bridges across the Niagara River as well as across the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, PA. Among his many achievements was the first company to make wire rope. Washington followed in his father’s footsteps, studying engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.After the war, Emily traveled with her husband to Cincinnati where he worked with his father on the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge (now the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge) and then to Europe on a mission to study the construction of pneumatic caissons. While overseas, she gave birth to her first and only child, John A. Roebling II, on November 21, 1867. He was born in the same town where Washington Roebling's father had been born, Muhlhausen, Germany. There would be no other children. Emily suffered a bad fall before her son was born, and nearly died.
It was at this time that Washington’s father was undertaking his dream project, constructing a bridge that would connect Brooklyn to New York. It would be the longest bridge to date and cost millions of dollars. But the project seemed both impossible and cursed from the beginning (Twenty men would die over the fourteen years that it took to build the bridge). Three days into construction, one of John Roebling’s feet was badly crushed in a freak accident; he died in agony two weeks later of tetanus. As a result Washington took over the role of Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. However in 1872n Washington suffered several attacks of decompression sickness or “the bends” while working in the caissons for the bridge piers, deep beneath the river’s surface. Soon the illness became so debilitating that he was unable to go down to the building site to oversee the work.His illness would leave him bedridden for the remainder of the bridge construction. Emily and Washington spent time abroad in Germany hoping to improve his condition. After six months they returned, but his condition was no better. He suffered from headaches, nervous exhaustion, his eyesight grew poor, and the only person he could stand to see was Emily. Returning to New York, the couple moved from their home in Trenton to a house in Brooklyn Heights, where Washington could see the building site from his bedroom window. About his illness Washington stated, “I thought I would succumb, but I had a strong tower to lean upon, my wife, a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.” Emily Warren Roebling would prove her husband’s praise to be true by undertaking multiple roles to ensure her husband would remain the Chief Engineer. Her first task was to convince the president of the New York Bridge Company, Henry C. Murphy, that Washington could continue his duties as Chief Engineer despite his illness. Fortunately he agreed.
With Washington confined to his sickroom in their Brooklyn Heights home and fearing he wouldn't live to finish the project, Emily began taking down copious notes on what he said remained to be done. She also began a crash course in engineering, learning everything she could about strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculation of catenary curves. Over the next 11 years, Emily played pupil, secretary, and messenger throughout the remainder of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Every day without fail, she went to the site to convey her husband's instructions to the workers and to answer questions. She kept records, answered the mail, and represented her husband at social functions. When bridge officials or representatives for the various contractors called on the Roebling house, it was Emily who received them on her husband’s behalf. Despite the heavy burden, Emily never once complained or succumbed to the pressures that she faced. She was his eyes, ears and legs and the more she did, the more people talked. Rumors abounded that Emily had actually taken over her husband’s job as Chief Engineer, that she was the real brains behind the bridge.
Emily Warren Roebling painted by Carolus Duran (Brooklyn Museum)
As David McCullough wrote in his book, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, "By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous. In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved." As the project faced delays and cost increases, skepticism mounted that the bridge could be completed under Washington Roebling and it was proposed that he be removed as chief engineer. Emily Roebling wrote down her husband's statement, citing the reasons why he should not be replaced. She delivered it as an address before the American Society of Civil Engineers, becoming the first woman to address the group.Due to her dedication to the construction of the bridge, Washington asked that Emily be the first one to cross the Brooklyn Bridge as a test. Carrying a rooster as a sign of victory, Emily rode in a carriage from the Brooklyn side of the bridge to the Manhattan side without incident. The dedication and hard work put into the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge by Emily Warren Roebling was noted by Congressman Abram S. Hewitt at the dedication ceremonies prior to the opening of the bridge on May 24, 1883. Hewitt determined the Brooklyn Bridge to be, “An everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of woman” and stated “The name of Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling will thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature.” Today the Brooklyn Bridge holds a plaque dedicated to the memory of Emily, her husband and her father-in-law.
Emily began her married life expecting to honor the traditional Victorian values that a woman’s greatest accomplishment was to be a wife and mother. But when life gave Emily lemons, she made lemonade becoming the public face of the era’s most massive construction project In doing so, she helped to forge a new path for women on the road to equality. It was a role that she never dreamed of or planned for but she took up with courage and determination.
Further Reading:David McCullough, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Simon & Schuster, 1983.
Antonia Petrash, More than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women, Globe Pequot Press, 2001.
Marilyn Weigold, Silent Builder: Emily Warren Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, Associated Faculty Press, 1984