The Brooklyn Bridge and the Woman Who Made It Happen
By Karen and Erica
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most beautiful in the world. Washington Roebling is given credit for building the bridge. However, without his wife Emily, who oversaw the work for fourteen long years after he was taken ill, it might not have happened.
Her story is included in a new biography of Mr. Roebling: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, by Erica Wagner. Maybe the title should be: The Couple Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.
At the time the Brooklyn Bridge was proposed, New York and Brooklyn were two separate cities. Roebling's father John proposed a bridge to connect them. John died suddenly before the work began and his son, only 32 at the time, was chosen to take over. Three years later, Washington himself was taken ill with caisson disease, a decompression condition he contracted working in the compressed air of the bridge's foundation. The disease did not kill him (he lived til he was 89), but it incapacitated him. He could no longer be present at the site. He could not see. He could not stand the company of anyone but his wife.
And so, while he was still in charge of the build, Emily became his surrogate. She learned the technical aspects. She dealt with city politics. She cajoled, and wheedled, and used her female intelligence to bring warring factions into line. She was the first person to cross the bridge, not only as her just reward but also to test the effect of a horse walking on the suspension. The bridge was fine. Elephants came next. The bridge was fine with them too.
Emily Warren Roebling was a woman not behind the man but beside him as his equal. We like too that she was one of the first women to study law at our alma mater, NYU. The story of the building of our famous bridge is a very New York one. And like many of the best New York stories, a woman played a major role.