On Tuesday, May 29, 2018, one block of Columbia Heights between Pineapple Street and Orange Street in Brooklyn was officially renamed in honor of Emily Warren Roebling. Roebling lived on the block with her husband, Col. Washington Roebling, while he served as Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1869 to 1883. City Council Member Stephen Levin, who co-sponsored the renaming and shared quotes and photos from the ceremony on Twitter, explained Roebling’s significance. “It’s thanks to Emily Warren Roebling that the Brooklyn Bridge is what it is today,” Levin wrote. As he told the crowd,”the legacy of Emily Roebling endures as an example of perseverance, aspiration, and dedication to fighting for equality.” It seems only fitting that a woman who did so much to shape Brooklyn should see her own name inscribed into the borough’s streetscape.
Of course, Brooklynites have long known that Emily Warren Roebling was a key player in the building of the their bridge, which was the longest, tallest suspension bridge in the world when it opened on May 24, 1883. Still, the naming of “Emily Warren Roebling Way” comes as Roebling herself enjoys a moment in the limelight. Last Thursday, the bridge celebrated its 135th birthday, which generated fresh discussions of Roebling’s essential role in the project. Roebling was also recently featured in the launch of the New York Times‘ “Overlooked” project, which chronicles the lives of women overlooked by the Times‘ obituary section. And, for the past year, Roebling has appeared in our Women’s Voices interactive exhibition at the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society.
As the “new” obituary of Roebling explained to the Times‘s international readership, “It was not customary for a woman to accompany a man to a construction site in the late 19th century … But when Washington A. Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, fell ill, it was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who stepped in — managing, liaising and politicking between city officials, workers, and her husband’s bedside to see the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge to completion.” Roebling never held any official title, and thus went “overlooked” in official records, but her contributions were clear to everyone around her at the time, and have, in the course of time, come to be properly acknowledged in both scholarly accounts and public memory.
As the Brooklyn Paper noted, New York’s “paper of record” may have missed Roebling’s death in 1903, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle did not, publishing a long, laudatory obituary and a photo the day after she died at home in Trenton, New Jersey. The Eagle dutifully described “the part which she took in superintending the building of the Brooklyn Bridge” as Roebling’s “chief claim to fame.” However, it also described her as “one of the best known club women in the country” and cited her “prominence among the women of the country in all movements which looked toward the so-called emancipation of the sex.” The first twenty years of Roebling’s adult life were dedicated to building the Brooklyn Bridge alongside her husband. In the twenty years that followed, she made another career for herself as a voice for women’s equality. If a part of Emily Warren Roebling’s legacy has been overlooked, it is her latter contributions to a movement that was taking flight just as she passed away in 1903.
“A woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel”: Emily, Washington, and the Great Bridge
Emily Warren was born in 1843 to a prominent family in Cold Spring, New York. Her father, Sylvanus, was a New York State Assemblyman, and her brother, Gouverneur K. Warren, was a West Point graduate and civil engineer. Thirteen years her senior, Gouverneur helped fund Emily’s tuition at the Georgetown Visitation Convent, an elite preparatory school for girls, and after he led the successful defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg during the Civil War, he invited Emily to join him and some of his officers in camp. There, she met Col. Washington Roebling. The two quickly fell in love (their romance is captured in their letters, archived at the Brooklyn Historical Society), and were married in 1864, when Emily was just 21 years old.
After the war, Washington and Emily embarked on a European honeymoon, with a twist. Washington’s father, John Augustus Roebling, was a wire manufacturer and the world’s leading architect of suspension bridges. In 1867, he was commissioned to build a bridge spanning the East River between New York City and Brooklyn. Not only would such a bridge have to be the longest ever built, but it would have to sail over one of the busiest ports in the world. While in Europe, the young couple visited construction sites to learn of the latest engineering techniques, including the use of “caissons” – pressurized watertight chambers – to build underwater foundations. Washington planned to work alongside his father, but the elder Roebling contracted tetanus during a construction accident in 1869 and died less than a month later. All of a sudden, at the age of 32, Washington A. Roebling became the Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Like his father, Washington was a hands-on engineer, and he joined his workers in the caissons that sank below the East River to create stable foundations for the bridge’s towers. At the time, the dangers of working under compression were not understood, and Washington, like many others, was stricken with “caisson’s disease,” known today as decompression sickness or “the bends.” Due to the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream upon decompression, the bends can cause all manner of life-threatening conditions. In Washington’s case, the sickness nearly paralyzed him, and what may have been a series of minor strokes left him unable to endure bright lights, loud noises, or chaotic scenes for years. Though he remained Chief Engineer, he could scarcely leave the house, and it was Emily Warren Roebling who began to oversee the day-to-day construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
This part of Emily Warren Roebling’s story is well known, despite the fact that she herself worked carefully to keep the extent of her husband’s illness, and her involvement in the project, a secret (in part because the Mayor of Brooklyn, Seth Low, sought to replace Washington with a friend in 1881). However, Roebling’s constant presence at the construction site, board meetings, and all other functions could not be ignored. By the end of the project, as David McCullough wrote in The Great Bridge, E. F. Farrington, the chief wire engineer on site, was referring to Roebling as “the first female field engineer” and announcing to audiences at the Cooper Union that he spoke from her notes. She was the first to cross the completed roadway when it was ready, and at the official opening, on May 24, 1883, New York City Congressman Abram Hewitt thanked her extensively. As he put it, “The name of Emily Warren Roebling will … be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature and all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art.” The Brooklyn Bridge itself would stand as “an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman” declared Hewitt, and to “her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.” At a moment of triumph for the Brooklyn Bridge and its builders, the Congressman’s comment foreshadowed Emily Warren Roebling’s later work on behalf of women’s equality.
While Emily Warren Roebling was never officially employed as an engineer or architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, and never claimed any such title, it was clear to everyone involved that her knowledge of engineering, as well as her political acumen, were essential to its completion. In 1951, a plaque was dedicated to the “Builders of the Bridge” on the bridge’s South Tower; Emily receives top billing. Today, she is acknowledged by the American Society of Civil Engineers (founded in New York in 1851) and the Scientista Foundation, among others, as a pioneering woman in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.
Publicly, Roebling never acknowledged that she was more than a vessel for her husband’s ideas, but in private, she asserted the importance of her role. Writing to her son, John, in 1898, she averred “I am still feeling well enough to stoutly maintain against all critics (including my only son) that I have more brains, common sense, and know-how generally than any two engineers civil or uncivil that I have ever met, and but for me the Brooklyn Bridge would never have had the name of Roebling in any way connected with it! It would have been Kingsley’s Bridge if it had ever been built! Your father was for years dead to all interest in that work.” Roebling’s “tact,” in public, was a tactic, designed to preserve her family’s role and prominence in the greatest public-works project of the age. In private, she made sure that her family knew just how much they owed her.
“One of the best-known club women in the country”: Emily Warren Roebling’s Life Beyond the Brooklyn Bridge
Though the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, Emily Warren Roebling continued to focus on her family’s needs for the rest of her decade. Her son, John Roebling, suffered from a heart condition, which Roebling monitored closely. She moved with him to Troy, New York, while he attended college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Washington’s alma mater, as well), from which he graduated in 1889. When John married and moved to Oracle, Arizona after college, Roebling turned, for the first time, to public life on her own terms. As Roebling’s biographer, Marilyn Weigold, writes, “For three-quarters of her life, Emily Warren Roebling was a veritable stranger to the world of women” — specifically, the world of wealthy, society women — but “in the 1890s, she emerged as a prominent figure in women’s organizations.”
As Weigold chronicles, Roebling became deeply involved with women’s clubs both in Trenton, where she lived with her husband near the family’s wire-production facility, and in New York City, where she joined the legendary club Sorosis. She put her skills as an organizer and manager to use with the New Jersey chapter of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, helping create materials for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. In 1896, she traveled alone to Europe (Washington was ill), where she was received by Queen Victoria at the Court of St. James and attended the coronation of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. She returned and gave lectures on her experience in Russia, traveling with the Federation of Women’s Clubs to Nashville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver in 1897 and 1898. In the same years, she became involved with the Daughters of the American Revolution, and was nominated for the presidency of the national organization in 1901, before withdrawing due to her declining health.
“A Wife’s Disabilities”: Emily Warren Roebling as an Advocate of Women’s Equality
Roebling’s travels and commitments were not atypical of an active society lady of her generation or standing, but as Roebling deepened her involvement in these organizations, she began to articulate a vision of women’s equality. In 1899, she took and passed the Women’s Law Course at New York University, a semester-long course of study that offered a certificate for women in business or other fields in which a knowledge of law might be useful (the regular law course, at that time, was only four semesters). Many elite women merely audited the course, but Roebling insisted on studying for the exams. She also entered the program’s essay contest, which she won at the age of 56 with a piece titled “A Wife’s Disabilities.”
At the graduation ceremony, Roebling’s essay was read aloud. She opened by arguing that women wished “to avail themselves of the possible rights given them under the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution” in order “to have a voice in deciding questions of interest to them in laws made by the legislatures of different states.” Turning to marriage law and inheritance, she noted that male lawmakers were “unwilling to make laws which add to the independence of wives or the freedom of action of widows.” Citing the British jurist William Blackstone, who claimed such laws “favored” women, she wryly remarked “favoritism of women was a pretty compliment which had little foundation on facts.” The rest of her essay enumerated the inequalities in married women’s and widow’s property rights, as well as a broader set of inequalities in the ways in which criminal law was applied to men and women. While the focus on property demonstrated Roebling’s station in life, her broader critique focused on the need for women to shape the laws that affected them.
Roebling’s health began to deteriorate in 1901, but for two years, she expounded on these themes to audiences across the country. At Sorosis, as the Atlanta Constitution reported, she read three papers as she stood for president of the DAR. One, on “Philanthropy,” emphasized the need for women “to be your own executor and giv[e] your money to charity while you were still on earth to see that proper use was made of it.” Another described her work with settlement houses and urged “better homes for the poor.” A third, unsurprisingly, was on the “Advantages of Legal Education for Women,” a lecture that she gave several times in these years, according to Weigold.
Across a range of themes and topics – education, property, the law, and philanthropy – Emily Warren Roebling advocated women’s equality at the dawn of the twentieth century. She died of stomach cancer in 1903, just as the suffrage movement and women’s activism more broadly was beginning to rise again to prominence in American politics. As Weigold writes, “had she lived well into the next century, she might have become a leader in the fight for the women’s suffrage amendment.” While we will never know what Emily Warren Roebling herself might have said or done, we do know that a new generation of well-educated, professional women — lawyers and engineers among them — joined the march for suffrage in the 1900s and 1910s. Roebling might well have smiled at the sight of women engineers, in academic dress, parading down 5th Avenue to assert their rights.
The Brooklyn Bridge stands as Emily Warren Roebling’s best-known and greatest achievement, and for good reason. However, when we remember Roebling, we would do well to remember the woman beyond the bridge. In the decades that followed, she put the talents that served New York City so well toward the cause of women’s equality. The fullness of her legacy includes both her example as an “unofficial” engineer and her willingness to speak out so that other women might one day be officially recognized in all professions.
– Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: The Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn, New York, 1885 (detail). Charles Magnus & Company, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Daniel Parish, Jr.