Image Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum and Wikimedia Commons
By Jessica Li
The Brooklyn Bridge owes its existence to Emily Roebling. While many would name John Roebling or Washington Roebling as the creator of the bridge, Emily Roebling was the actual driving force behind most of the operation.
Emily Roebling was born Emily Warren in 1843 in Putnam County, New York. Although she had almost a dozen siblings, Emily was especially close with her older brother, Kemble Warren. He was instrumental in her career by enrolling her in the Georgetown Visitation Covenant when she was 15 years old to further her education.
Washington Roebling, whom Emily met on a visit to her brother in the army, was a soldier in the Civil War serving with Kemble. A year after their first meeting, Washington and Emily were married.
Before the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily and her husband traveled to Europe to study decompression sickness, a common disease among bridge builders. Around the time of the birth of her son, Emily’s father-in-law John A. Roebling was given the position of chief engineer in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge that would connect Manhattan to Brooklyn.
A couple years after he was given this position, John passed away from tetanus, so the chief engineer position was given to Washington. In an ironic twist of fate, Washington became ill with decompression sickness, the same disease he studied in Europe, only a few years into the project. He did not pass away immediately from the illness, but he was physically unable to leave his home because of his health.
After Washington became ill, Emily took over his responsibilities so that Washington could continue to be chief engineer (at least by name). Emily went to great lengths to make sure that Washington retained this title. She conveyed his instructions to the workers at the site while also answering their questions.
In addition to acting as a liaison, Emily studied technical information on subects like stress analysis and cable instruction. Not only did others see her as an excellent go-between, but many people believed her to be the brains behind the operation. Despite all the efforts she put into the construction of the bridge, Emily was never given a high title as recognition for her integral part in the successful construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Some history textbooks neglect to mention her at all and attribute the success of the bridge construction entirely to John and Washington Roebling.
Emily’s contributions did not go entirely unnoticed. Congressman Abram Hewitt recognized her consistent work for the Brooklyn Bridge construction at a ceremony honoring the opening of the bridge in 1883. As a way to commend her dedication, Emily became the first person to cross the Brooklyn Bridge after its opening.
While Emily is known mostly in the context of the Brooklyn Bridge, she also managed the construction of the Roebling mansion in Trenton, New Jersey where she moved with her family after the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Emily Roebling is a role model for many people, especially girls and women, globally. Through her actions, even during a time when women were solely expected to manage domestic affairs, she has shown the world the brilliance and capabilities of women and their unwavering determination and courage.
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