Library hosts story of Brooklyn Bridge

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Carol Simon Levin performed as Emily Roebling on Saturday, March 16, at the Bloomfield Public Library. Roebling played a crucial role in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The monthly concert series at the Bloomfield Public Library, usually highlighting a holiday or current event in song, switched gears Saturday, March 16, and presented a storyteller for Women’s History Month.

The storyteller was Carol Simon Levin and her subject was “Emily Warren Roebling: Bridge Builder in Petticoats.”

Simon, who has developed biographies for 11 women, wore a period dress for her performance and illustrated it with projections of 19th century newspapers, letters and pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge at various stages.

The bridge was designed by her father-in-law, John Roebling, but by twists of fate, its construction was largely overseen by Emily. Levin said she avoids historical novels about the people she brings to life to keep herself honest.

“I do deep dives into research and make it into a one-hour performance,” she said.

The gist of her Roebling presentation was that Emily, unbeknownst to the public, managed the construction of “the eighth wonder of the world” after her husband,
Washington Roebling, became bedridden from decompression disease commonly called the bends.

Her husband had been forced to assume the duties of his father when the senior Roebling suddenly died as construction began.

The bridge was built 1869-1883 and Emily supervised construction for the last 10 years.

Learning on the job, she quite possibly became the country’s first female civil engineer.

“When I was born almost 180 years ago, no one would imagine I would build a bridge,” Levin as Emily began her story.

The girl grew up in Cold Springs, N.Y., and by the time she was 13, was running out of educational material to absorb. But her brother, Gouverneur Kemble Warren, paid
for her to attend Georgetown Convent School.

“In the Civil War, he was the ‘hero of Little Round Top,’ at the site of Gettysburg.’” she continued.

Her brother’s aide-de-camp was her future husband. The two met at a dinner party and began a daily letter correspondence. Washington’s letters are preserved at Rutgers University. Emily’s were destroyed by Washington under her orders.

“Shortly after our marriage, my husband sets off for Cincinnati to help his father build a bridge,” she said. “The bridge in Cincinnati looks very much like the Brooklyn Bridge.”

After two years, her husband returned. The couple reside near Trenton as the senior Roebling occupies himself with a bridge design connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan.
At the time, 1,000 ferry crossings were needed to accommodate the daily traffic.

Emily said the problems confronting her father-in-law were multiple.

There were no cliffs on either shoreline to provide a bridge with support. Two cable suspension towers, which would be the tallest structures in Manhattan and Brooklyn, had to be built. And the waterway was a major shipping lane.

“My father-in-law worked on the Erie Canal,” Emily said. “John saw an accident using hemp ropes and began working on the development of cable. He began to build aqueducts and became successful.”

She said her father-in-law sent her and her husband to Europe to collect technical data on pneumatic caissons.

These are bottomless boxes sealed at the top and filled with compressed air. The pressurized air keeps the inside of the box dry. Men worked at the bottom of these huge structures, under water, digging into bedrock.

The boxes would then be filled with concrete forming a foundation for the bridge. Bedrock was reached at 44 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the Manhattan side.

Leaving the pressurized caissons required workers to decompress to avoid serious physical injury or death from the bends.

On June 25, 1869, final approval for his bridge was given to John Roebling.

“But John’s foot was smashed in an accident,” Emily said. “Tetanus develops and he dies. The project is thrust into Washington’s hands.”

Over 100 men at a time went down into the caissons. They felt it was like going into Dante’s Inferno.

“There was no electricity and a fire happened,” Emily said. “Washington goes down to see and when he comes up, he gets the bends. He became an invalid.”

Emily asked the bridge company to keep her husband in charge and they agreed, but only on a temporary basis.

“It lasted 10 years,” she said.

It was during those years the bridge was completed. With her husband incapacitated, Emily learns engineering.

“Was I the first civil engineer or just a manager?” she asked. “Whatever, it was unprecedented.”

On May 24, 1883, the bridge had its grand opening. Washington is hardly mentioned and Emily not at all.

In 1931, the Brooklyn Engineers Club dedicated a plaque to Emily Warren “whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father.”