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Chief Engineers

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Chief Engineers

The contrasting personalities of the chief engineers—John and then Washington Roebling—epitomize the notion of tensions working in tandem: the idealistic yet stoic father provided the vision, while the pragmatic and amiable son sustained it to fruition.

David McCullough describes John Roebling as "a man of iron" who was "poised," "confident," "yielding," "imperious," "severe," and "proud" (39). Despite his scientific training, John practiced hydropathy, or the "therapeutic use of water," and allegedly emerged unscathed from a cholera epidemic in Niagara by sheer force of will (McCullough 38). According to a witness in Niagara, John simply "determined not to have it" (qtd. in McCullough 295). John's professional resolve eclipsed all other aspects of his life. As David McCullough remarks:

[John] was living in a time characterized by extraordinarily industrious men, when hard work took up most of everyone's life and was regarded, as a matter of course; but even so, his immense reserves of nervous energy, his total devotion to the job at hand, whatever it might be, seemed superhuman to all who came in contact with him (51).

Thus, the engineer's relationship with his first wife and their children was often strained. In fact, when Washington, the oldest Roebling child, was born on May 26, 1837, his father was working on the Allegheny Mountain.

Washington, however, somehow related to his exceedingly driven and intellectual father. From a young age Washington, demonstrated the same studiousness, if not innate genius and vision, as his father; he also demonstrated the elder's calm composure, though Washington was generally regarded as more personable. According to McCullough, Washington "was consistently more interested in his fellow man, in the flesh rather than the abstract, and though he never managed his father's commanding presence, he was really far better at working with people" (145). John sold the bridge project to New York in a manner Washington probably could not have mustered, and credit for the extraordinary design of the arched towers must be given to the elder Roebling, as well. In the end, however, Washington's technical knowledge surpassed that of his father, and he, not John, actually erected the tremendous structure over the East River.

John Roebling did not live to see his dream a reality. He died, in fact, before construction even began. On June 28, 1869, he stood surveying the site of the Brooklyn tower from the vantage point of the Fulton Ferry slip. As a boat approached, he tied to step out of the way, but his foot was crushed. Tetanus quickly set in. After weeks of physical and mental agony, John died on July 22 (McCullough 88). Thus the structural details of the bridge, which the elder Roebling had not yet worked out, the plethora of daily decisions that accompany a building project, and the title of chief engineer fell to Washington. As the son later explained: "I had assisted my father in the preparation of the first designs—he of course being the mastermind. I was therefore familiar with his ideas and with the whole project—and no one else was" (qtd. in McCullough 98).

Washington watches the
construction from his window

Washington, however, also endured physical suffering and mental frustration for his sense of duty to the bridge project. On December 1, 1870, while fighting a fire that broke out within the roof of the Brooklyn caisson, Washington suffered a minor attack of the bends. During the final days of work on the New York caisson, however, in 1872, Washington suffered a more acute attack from which he never recovered. He retained his post as chief engineer but directed the work from his bedroom window in Brooklyn Heights. He remained in constant contact with his engineers thanks to his wife's role as liaison (McCullough 213-214, 295-296).

The respective choices in wives of John and Washington, in fact, well reflected the nuances in their personalities; John's unrelenting tenacity prevented him from enjoying family life while Washington not only accepted but sought his wife's assistance with the greatest work of his life. Johanna Herting, while loving, could not match John's quick intellect, though the opportunity never seems to have been offered her. He spent the greater part of their marriage away on building projects and missed not only a number of his children's births, but also Johanna's death. Washington, on the other hand, incorporated his wife into his professional life. She accompanied him to Europe after their wedding while he studied caissons and then joined him in Brooklyn during the work on the "Great Bridge." After her husband fell ill, Emily, though not as well schooled as Washington, gleaned a good deal of technical knowledge from the letters he dictated to her. She soon could speak nearly as intelligently as he on all matters concerning the bridge, and the entire engineering staff accepted her word without hesitation. Moreover, some of the younger engineers, who had never met Washington in person, believed him to be mentally incapacitated and Emily—a woman—to be running the show (McCullough 421-423). Emily's name even adorns the bridge today, a plaque in her honor having been placed on each of the two towers.

Emily Roebling

The plight of the Roebling wives adds women's issues to the list of social phenomena represented by the Brooklyn Bridge. According to social historian Anne Rose, "Emily Roebling battled critics to retain her effective role as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, a post inherited from her husband." She offers Emily as an example of "growing numbers of Victorian wives [who] assumed that their work could be tailored to satisfy their inclinations" (Rose, 180). Whether Emily consciously sought personal achievement through her husband's work remains debatable, but the degree of influence that the two Roebling men allowed their wives to exert in professional matters still demonstrates the changing roles of women within the scope of a generation. The world will never know, for example, whether Emily possessed a greater capacity to learn or desire for professional participation than did Johanna. Only one was offered only one the opportunity to be tested.

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