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A Woman, A Bridge, and A Law Degree

It was certainly not customary for women to accompany their husbands to construction sites during the nineteenth century, or to ever go to a construction site for that matter. For one thing, their long skirts and multiple layers of petticoats would certainly get in the way. For another thing, it just wasn’t done. However, Emily Warren Roebling was an exception, in many ways.

Emily Warren Roebling was born on September 23, 1843 in Cold Spring, Putnam County, New York. She was one of a dozen children born to New York State assemblymen Sylvanus Warren and his wife Phebe Lickley Warren. Emily was unusually close to her older brother, Gouverneur Kemble Warren, who was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and would eventually become 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. Emily was intelligent and curious from a young age, loved to learn, and wanted to pursue a formal education. When she was fifteen her brother, Kemble, enrolled her in the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington D.C. to support and further advance his favorite younger sibling. There she studied a wide variety of subjects including history, geography, rhetoric and grammar, algebra, French, as well as housekeeping, tapestry, and piano.

In February of 1864, while visiting her brother, Kemble, and his family, Emily met a young man by the name of Washington Roebling, who had been serving under her brother during the Civil War and was currently working on his staff. It seems that Roebling was very taken with her, one might even say it was love at first sight. Nearly a year later, on January 18, 1865, Emily Warren and Washington Roebling were married.

At this time, Emily’s father-in-law, John Augustus Roebling, who was a prominent civil engineer, had conceived, planned and was undertaking the immense task of constructing a bridge that would connect Brooklyn to New York. It would be the largest suspension bridge in the world up to that point (main span of 1,595.5 feet). He designed it to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning New York City’s East River.

John A. Roebling sent his son Washington and his new wife Emily to Europe in 1867 to study the devastating caissons disease, often called “the bends,” which was a common disease amongst bridge builders. Also to explore caissons, the watertight structures filled with compressed air that would later enable workers to dig beneath the East River. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction. They also studied 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. While overseas Emily gave birth to her first and only child, John August Roebling II, on November 21, 1867.

They learned that they 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.

While surveying the construction site, back in New York, the elder Mr. Roebling had his foot crushed in the pilings of a Brooklyn pier when a barge came in to dock; he contracted tetanus and died less than a month later. His son succeeded him as chief engineer — only to later become incapacitated by a mysterious illness that left him partially paralyzed, blind, deaf and mute, according to reports at the time. (It was later believed that Mr. Roebling suffered from “caisson disease,” or the bends, a kind of decompression sickness caused by changing air pressure not uncommon on bridge-building sites the very thing they had attempted to learn about while in Europe.) He was left bedridden for the remainder of the project. He said: “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.

Emily Warren Roebling was not an engineer. But she was a woman of “strong character” with an “almost masculine intellect,” as the biographer Hamilton Schuyler once described her, who was instrumental to one of the greatest architectural feats of the 19th century. For the next eleven years, Emily took over for him as the “first woman field engineer”. She would go onsite daily to give his orders to the crew, communicating with assistant engineers, funders, and the press, keeping records, and answering mail. To better manage the project, she studied strength of material, street analysis, cable construction, and other engineering issues. She used her “superb diplomatic skills” to manage competing parties — including the mayor of Brooklyn, who tried to have her husband ousted from the project.

She not only managed, but also liaised and politicked between city officials, workers, and her husband’s bedside to see the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge to completion. She would become the first person to cross the bridge, too riding in a carriage and carrying a rooster with her, as the story has it, as a sign of victory. Fourteen years in the making, its construction was complicated by corrupt politicians and crooked contractors. Upon completion, it was immediately proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It has been reported that at least two dozen men died before the bridge was completed.

“I don’t think that the Brooklyn Bridge would be standing were it not for her,” said Erica Wagner, the author of “Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge,” a biography of Emily Roebling’s husband. “She was absolutely integral to its construction.”

She traveled widely in her later life. In 1896 she was presented to Queen Victoria, and she was in Russia for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. She also continued her education and received a law certificate from New York University in 1889 and argued in an Albany law journal article for quality in marriage. She lectured widely until her death.

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