New York Post

Brilliant son who emerged from father’s shadow to build the Brooklyn Bridge HE WAS A MAN WITH A SPAIN


OF all the people who worked to build the Brooklyn Bridge, none was as crucial as a man named Roebling. Those casually acquainted with the history of the bridge often think that man was John Roebling, who was something of a celebrity in the mid19th century. A brilliant engineer, he had grown wealthy by inventing wire rope. In the years before the Civil War, he had designed and overseen the constructi­on of two important bridges — the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge. (At the time, Covington-Cincinnati was the longest suspension bridge in the world.) And he was slated to be chief engineer for an ambitious new bridge spanning the East River between the cities of Brooklyn and New York.

But in June 1869, before constructi­on could begin, John Roebling was in a small riverside accident that crushed his foot. That led to a tetanus infection. Lockjaw twisted his body in painful contortion­s, and within a month, he was dead.

Present at John Roebling’s bedside was his son Washington. A Rensselaer Polytechni­c Institutet­rained engineer in his own right, Washington had worked closely with his father on the other bridge projects. Washington didn’t have the flash or fame of his father, but he was talented, thoroughly dedicated and selfless to a fault.

Now his father was gone. Washington Roebling was 32 years old. And he had a bridge to build. Over the next 14 years, through debilitati­ng health problems and political squabbles and a host of technologi­cal challenges, he did just that.

The impressive career of this admirable man is well told in Erica Wagner’s captivatin­g new book, “Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.” (Bloomsbury).

‘WASHINGTON Roebling was a tenacious man and a determined man,” Wagner tells The Post. “I really find in him an inspiring figure. He was someone who would not rest, no matter the cost to himself.”

Throughout his life, Washington was presented with challenges that might have felled a less resilient person. Although his father was wealthy from his engineerin­g projects and his wirerope business, he was heartlessl­y stingy toward his own family. And worse: Washington and his siblings were routinely beaten by the senior Roebling. They and their mother lived in constant terror of his violent outbursts.

Washington was sent away to a kind of private boarding school at the astonishin­gly young age of 8. But the school wasn’t exactly Hotchkiss. He was forced to fend for himself, begging for scraps on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Later, he was sent to RPI — a well-regarded engineerin­g school with a punishing curriculum. It’s hard to see how Washington had any fun at all in his youth.

It was not long after finishing at Rensselaer that Washington — on his father’s orders — joined the National Guard of Trenton, to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War. Later, he transferre­d to the Ninth New York State Regiment.

By any account, Washington served well. He witnessed the famed battle between the ironclad ships the Monitor and the Merrimac. He piloted surveillan­ce balloons as a member of the Army Corps of Aeronautic­s. He saw action at Second Bull Run and the Battle of the Wilderness, and he helped seize Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. He rose from private to the rank of colonel, and would be known as Col. Roebling for the rest of his life.

IT was Washington’s great good fortune during the final months of the war to marry Emily Warren, the sister of his commanding officer, Gen. G.K. Warren.

Emily and “Washy,” as she called him, were intellectu­al equals, and their marriage would become a partnershi­p critical to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The newlyweds were sent to Europe by John Roebling. It was not so much a honeymoon as an extended tech scout. Washington

visited factories, bridges and constructi­on projects, keeping up on European engineerin­g innovation­s. It was all informatio­n that would serve him well in his next big project.

Building the Brooklyn Bridge — known then as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge — was an awesome technologi­cal feat. Because John Roebling had been the first chief engineer on the project, many believed that Washington rotely followed his father’s blueprints. Not so, claims Wagner. “This was a dramatical­ly innovative bridge, and those innovation­s were Washington Roebling’s,” she tells The Post.

There were countless calculatio­ns to be made at every step. It would be the longest suspension bridge in the world, and the first to use steel. And it’s magnificen­t, too.

ONE of Washington’s most extraordin­ary feats as chief engineer would be the successful use of caissons. Caissons were massive, highly pressurize­d, airtight and watertight wooden boxes. Laborers (and supplies) would enter through airlocks, and would work in the chambers of the caisson, building the bridge foundation­s. Meanwhile, the bridge’s 30,000-ton stone towers were constructe­d on top of the caissons. As designed, the weight of the towers would cause the caissons to sink to the bottom of the river.

Washington himself would venture into the caissons to supervise the work. He was even inside one during a terrifying “blowout,” when workers carelessly allowed all the compressed air to escape through a supply shaft. It shot dirt and stones sky high into the air, while the interior of the chamber was plunged into darkness. Washington was unfazed, and wrote his brother, “Had a little accident this morning, all the air blew out of the caisson while I was in it . . . No harm done beyond a scare.”

But working in the caissons did take its toll. In 1872, Washington was stricken with the bends, also known as decompress­ion sickness or caisson disease. The bends is a painful, sometimes fatal, condition in which bubbles of dissolved gases form in the blood as a result of rapid decompress­ion.

His illness forced Washington to his bed, and he stayed there for months on end. Even in this state, working through pain, he led the bridge project. If he didn’t, who would? Wagner tells The Post that Washington Roebling did “always what he felt was right and what he thought should be done, against tremendous odds.”

During his extended convalesce­nce, Washington was ably assisted by his wife. In a later age, Emily Roebling might have been a law partner or a CEO. Indeed, later in life, she would advocate for women’s rights, and even attended NYU Law School. But in the 1870s, she was a highly competent helpmate to her husband. She managed his bedside communicat­ions, served as his “eyes” on site and even negotiated vendor contracts. In acknowledg­ment of her contributi­ons, Emily was the first person to drive a team of horses across the new bridge.

Washington Roebling lived well into the 20th century, almost long enough to see Roebling steel cabling used in Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. In his later years, he managed his family’s steel-rope business, built an enormous mineral collection (now owned by the Smithsonia­n) and penned a funny, honest and revealing autobiogra­phy that is as much about his father as it is about him.

For all his success, Washington could not escape his father’s shadow. “Fathers and sons — it’s never not complicate­d,” Wagner quips.

A monument honoring John Roebling stands in Trenton’s Cadwalader Park. It was sculpted years after the elder Roebling’s death, and since there were few good photos of the father, his son Washington posed for the artist. As Wagner writes in her foreword, “For all his long life, Washington suffered in comparison to his father, that powerful presence.” Forever tethered, as if by their family’s metal cabling.

John Roebling may have the statue. But Washington Roebling has the bridge.

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 ??  ?? WHAT A FEAT: Washington Roebling (large portrait) took over the Brooklyn Bridge project from his abusive, overbearin­g father, John (far left inset) with the help of wife Emily (next to John). At right, an 1883 engraving showing the raising of...
WHAT A FEAT: Washington Roebling (large portrait) took over the Brooklyn Bridge project from his abusive, overbearin­g father, John (far left inset) with the help of wife Emily (next to John). At right, an 1883 engraving showing the raising of...

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