Washington Roebling almost died while trying to engineer and build the Brooklyn Bridge. John Roebling, Washington's father, did die, a bit earlier, trying to accomplish the same feat. Emily Roebling, Washington's wife, would, in essence, finish the job.
It's hard to fathom
, that the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, fought in the Civil War
. It seems like a more recent phenomenon
, but it isn't. It began a long time ago, when John Roebling came to America (1831), trained as a civil engineer
and began building bridges. He ended his illustrious
career with the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge, the only project he never finished. Death will intercede at times. Fortunately, his son, Washington, had been primed since childhood for just such a job. Born on May 26, 1837 in a town
his father founded, Washington Augustus Roebling seemed destined for greatness. Following years of academia
at both Trenton
Academy and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
, Washington entered the bridge building business in 1857. Initially an assistant to his father on the building of the Allegheny
Suspension Bridge in Pittsburgh
, Washington's career would be interrupted by the civil war
Initially assigned to the 6th New York Artillery, Washington eventually built bridges; what else? Well, there was much else, it seems. Besides constructing two strategically significant suspension bridges (one across the Rappahannock River and one across the Shenandoah River at Harper's Ferry, Virginia), Washington did a little survey work. Each morning, in a hot air balloon, Washington would observe the Confederate position and it was from that lofty perch, that Washington spotted General Robert E. Lee heading towards Gettysburg. With this knowledge, Washington was able to help prevent defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg and at the Battle of Little Round Top. He also assisted in the seige of Richmond and the destruction of the Weldon Railroad in December 1864. When all was said and done, Washington was given three gallant conduct medals as well as the rank of Colonel. It was time to go home.
Behind every great man is a great woman, or so the saying goes. In Washington's case, he would soon need one and unbeknowst to him, she had arrived. Emily Warren and Washington Roebling met through a war time connection and married after the war. Washington went back to building bridges and helping to run the family wire business. An innovative manufacturing process for twisted wire-rope cable had enabled the Roebling Company to dominate the world of suspension bridges and their biggest project to date was about to commence. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which John Roebling had orchestrated so well, was about to begin construction in 1869. But fate had different ideas. While attempting initial surveys, the senior Roebling was critically injured in a ferry/dock collision and in two weeks time, Mr. Roebling was no longer with us. Without hesitation, Washington Roebling took the reins and drove construction forward, temporarily at least.
Relinquishing the Presidency of Roebling Wire, Washington needed total focus for this unprecedented project. Unfortunately, once again, fate would decide how involved one could be. Foundations for the bridge towers were being constructed in the caisson method, with cassion chambers under compressed air allowing workers the ability to work under water for long periods of time. A debilitating side effect was the dreaded "bends" or caisson disease and hardly anyone spent more time "below" than Washington Roebling himself. So it came as a shock, but no great surprise, when he too was affected by the "bends" and was taken from the job, unconscious, in the spring of 1872. For a short time, Washington returned to work, but his health continued to decline until he was unable to leave his home. A view to the bridge emanated from his home as did all directives, correspondence and inspiration, in the form of a Mrs. Emily Roebling, whose time had come.
Emily Roebling had, in essence, become the Chief Engineer for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. But certainly competition and criticism would deny her this opportunity for she really had no credentials. That is to say, other than the fact that she had been privy to every decision ever made, had discussed detailed blueprints with her husband, and had shared all of John Roebling's plans and dreams before his death. So, when a board of inquiry questioned the competence of the Roeblings to finish the job, they reported to the American Society of Civil Engineers, that Mrs. Roebling's competence in managing the work to date was convincing enough and the Roeblings should and would remain in charge. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World, by President Chester A. Arthur, the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883.
Washington Roebling eventually regained his health, outlived his wife and even remarried. He even became president of his wire company again and in 1900, John A. Roeblings and Sons was the largest wire business in the world, eventually "hanging" the George Washington Bridge, as well. Between that business and his lifelong passion for collecting rocks and minerals, Washington remained an energetic force until the day he died (July 21, 1908). His priceless 16,000 piece mineral collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and became the cornerstone of their gem collection. On a daily basis, thousands of people cross the other gem he left behind, into a world he could only imagine.