(In honor of Women’s History month, I am posting a series of articles I wrote, Women You Should Know.)
Emily Warren Roebling is a woman I’d be willing to bet you’ve never heard of.
But you’ve heard of the Brooklyn Bridge, right?
Well, without Emily Warren Roebling, the Brooklyn Bridge would not exist as it does today.
It all began when Emily Warren met and fell in love with Washington Roebling, while visiting
her brother at his headquarters during the Civil War. Emily and Washington married in 1865.
In 1867, Emily’s father-in-law, John A. Roebling, began work on the Brooklyn Bridge. Unfortunately,
tragedy soon struck, and one day when John Roebling was supervising construction on the bridge, his
foot was crushed in an accident and he died of tetanus shortly thereafter.
Washington Roebling took over his father’s work on the bridge, but once again, the bridge took its
toll. Roebling developed caisson disease, also known as decompression disease,from working too long at
high atmospheric pressure. He became paralyzed, and could only supervise construction from his balcony
by the use of binoculars.
At this point, Emily, who had studied such subjects alongside her husband as mathematics, cable
construction, and material strength, took over the day-to-day supervision of the work on the bridge.
The contractors and assistant engineers came to her for advice and took her suggestions. To them, she
was the Chief Engineer.
In 1882, eleven years after Washington and Emily had begun work on the bridge, the Mayor or Brooklyn
resolved to replace Washington on the grounds of physical incapacity. Emily requested permission to
address the American Society of Engineers, the first time a woman had ever done so. She spoke so
eloquently that Washington remained the Chief Engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge until its completion
in 1883. At the opening ceremony, speaker Abram Stevens Hewitt said that the bridge was
“…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”
After the completion of the bridge, Emily went on to serve in the Relief Society during the Spanish-American War and in civic organizations, as well as to gain a law degree from New York University. She died in 1903.
Howells, Trevor:The World’s Greatest Buildings,Fog City Press, 2002.
Emily Warren Roebling: Wikipedia
Emily W. Roebling-Engineer Girl: Engineergirl.org
Wilmshurt, Paul:The Brooklyn Bridge and a Marriage of Equals, BBC.co.uk