January 18, 1865 Washington Roebling, a colonel in the Union army and a trained engineer, married his sweetheart Emily Warren. Then when the war ended, the two went on a honeymoon tour of Europe with a slightly nerdy twist.
Washington’s father, John Augustus Roebling, had built a pretty big name for himself in the field of suspension bridge construction and his plan to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn had been given the green light by the State of New York. Washington and his new bride decided that while they were honeymooning, they might as well do some research into the newfangled caissons that were all the rage among European engineers.
In case, like me, you didn’t spend your honeymoon studying engineering, a caisson is a watertight container that allows work to be completed underwater by pumping in compressed air and keeping water out. It’s awfully useful for building the foundation of a bridge over a river.
While the newlyweds picked up some pointers, the elder Roebling worked on finishing up his measurements before construction could begin. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury in the process and required amputation of a foot. And that led to the tetanus infection that quickly killed him.
It also brought an end to a fairytale engineering tour of Europe. Washington rushed home to take his father’s place as head engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project. He was great at it, too, leading his men by working alongside them, even taking his turn in the caissons, where he soon realized that working in compressed air can prove dangerous.
He suffered with what divers, and presumably also those in the bridge construction business, now know as the bends, or decompression sickness, in which your body doesn’t react particularly well to the large amount of nitrogen dissolved in your blood after breathing compressed air for a while.
Decompression sickness can be prevented, now that we know what it is and what causes it, but Washington didn’t have the benefit of that information and wound up partially paralyzed, most likely the victim of multiple strokes, and unable to fulfil his role as lead engineer on the project.
That left only one Roebling, armed with a pretty good education for a woman of her day (which still wasn’t a great deal of education) and what relevant bridge-building knowledge she had managed to pick up on her honeymoon, to take up the charge.
Emily accepted the challenge.
She became the chief engineer, allegedly relaying daily instructions from her husband to the job site, updating and schmoozing with politicians, defending her husband’s position from competing engineers angling to take the project over, and soaking in all the knowledge she could about stress analysis and cable construction.
When the Brooklyn Bridge finally opened on May 24, 1883 the first carriage to cross it carried Emily Warren Roebling with a lucky rooster held on her lap. Though she never publicly claimed to be anything more than a mouthpiece for her husband, in a private letter to her son she wrote: “I have more brains, common sense, and know-how generally than any two engineers, civil or uncivil, that I have ever met.”
And she was probably right. In the years following the Brooklyn Bridge project, Emily Roebling earned a law degree and became active in numerous organizations, always seeking ways to promote women’s education and women’s equality.
But I came across her while researching the opening location of my novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which occurs briefly in the shadow of a burgeoning bridge that would become, for a time, the longest structure of its kind in the world. I first met Emily Roebling as the Chief Not-Technically-An-Engineer who successfully completed the project begun by her father-in-law and who now has a street block in Brooklyn named in her honor.
She was my kind of woman—the kind who does what she needs to do to get done what needs to get done and doesn’t bother asking anyone whether or not she can. She’s the kind of woman I want to be and the kind I want to celebrate this upcoming Sunday March 8 when we recognize International Women’s Day. Fortunately, I know a lot of women like her.