It will not only be the greatest bridge in existence,
but it will be the greatest engineering work of the age.
John Augustus Roebling
John Roebling had come a long way to make this statement. From his birthplace in Prussia (1806) where the philospher Hegel told him, America was a land of hope for all who are wearied of the historic armory of old Europe, to the East River of New York City, whereupon he would envision and design a bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn appropriately named the Brooklyn Bridge. But there were many rivers to cross before that day came to be.
First, crossing the Atlantic would be necessary to escape the political and religious tyranny taking place in his homeland. Having studied archtecture, bridge construction, hydraulics and philosophy (under Hegel) at the Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, Roebling graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1826. He was now obliged to give three years service to the state, which he spent on road building in Westphalia. In 1831, John and his brother Karl organized a group of people to come to America; they eventually settled on the outskirts of Pittsburgh where they founded the town of Saxonburg as a utopian farming community. But farming could only hold his interest so long; he had bridges to build.
And so, John Roebling's work began on the Sandy and Beaver Canal, a project intended to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River. This project fell through, but many "slack-water" and canal improvements were underway at this time and he moved on to an Allegheny River contract, trying to locate a "feeder" for the Pennsylvania state canal. Now working for the state, Roebling began to survey and locate railway lines across the Allegheny mountains, which led to his innovative manufacuring process of twisted wire-rope cable, an invention that would soon serve him well. Now it served him to replace tow-rope and make the process of towing canal boats across the Allegheny, an easier and much more proficient endeavor. Roebling was the american pioneer in wire cable manufacturing, and today, the Roebling Company, in Trenton, New Jersey, is still considered by many, to be the best in the business.
Next, wire rope would serve John Roebling in his endeavor
to replace the wooden aqueduct
of the Pennsylvania canal across the Allegheny River. Against disbelievers, Roebling completed this suspension aqueduct in 1845; an aqueduct which consisted of seven spans of 163 feet each, each span, a wooden trunk to hold water, and each supported by a continuous wire cable on each side. Now Roebling was on a roll
. In 1846, Roebling engineered and directed the construction of the Monongahela suspension bridge
. Consisting of eight spans of 188 feet each and supported by two four and one-half inch cables, it replaced the old bridge destroyed by fire. Without a pause, Roebling went on to construct a series of four suspension aqueducts on the Delaware and Hudson Canal line, one of which, now known as the Roebling Bridge, is the oldest wire suspension bridge in the United States.
Now we arrive at Mr. Roebling's biggest challenge yet; to build a railway suspension bridge across the Niagara River. The New York Central Railroad and the Great Western Railway of Canada needed to connect and the most viable option for this consisted of building a bridge. It turned out to be a four year project, uninterrupted even through the coldest of days, and completed in March of 1855, engineered and directed by none other than, you guessed it, John Roebling. The finished product has a clear span of 825 feet and is supported by four, ten-inch wire cables. It has two floors, one for cars, one for trains, all weight supported by the cables. And elsewhere, at the same time, Roebling was commencing work on a railroad suspension bridge across the Kentucky River. Here was a deeper gorge than the one spanned at Niagara, requiring a span of 1224 feet. The only thing that collapsed here was the financing and the project was never completed.
In 1856, work began on the Ohio Bridge in Cincinnati, but it too was postponed due to financing failures. So from 1858 to 1860, Roebling worked to replace an old wooden bridge in Pittsburgh; one requiring two spans of 344 feet each and two side spans of 171 feet each. This would provide for two ten foot wide sidwalks and a carriage way, all supported, once again by four cables, two seven inch diameter cables and two four inch diameter cables. Completed in 1860, all work ceased for a while; It seems there was a Civil War going on. But not waiting too long for anything, in 1863, work began on the Cincinnnati project again, and that bridge (Originally the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge, renamed "The Suspension Bridge" in 1984, in honor of Roebling) was finished in 1867. It was now, it was here, that John Roebling's final project began.
Plans and estimates for a bridge connecting Manhatten and Brooklyn, across the East River were finalized and John Roebling was chosen as chief engineer
of the project. In 1869, during initial
operations, Roebling was surveying near the Fulton Ferry dock, on the Brooklyn side of the river when an errant
ferry boat collided with the dock, crushing one of Mr. Roebling's feet. In a short time lockjaw
set in, and John Roebling died two weeks later, on July 22, 1869. John Roebling's son, Washington
, upon his father's death, took the reins and guided this monument to his father, to completion. The Brooklyn Bridge
opened on on May 24, 1883.