Saturday, April 11, 2015
Emily Warren Roebling - The Lady Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge
It really began on December 6th, 1989, when I was listening to National Public radio’s “Early Morning Edition” and heard the news about the murder of 14 young college women engineering students and wounding of eight others (four women, and four men who attempted to stop the attack) at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. With all the publicity over the last few years, hearing the news about students being killed may seem like another senseless episode in American education—but this took place in Quebec, Canada. Furthermore, there was a heinous motive for the slayings: they were committed by Marc Lepine, an engineering student who did not want them to graduate and potentially compete with him for a job in the field. Later, a letter was found on Lepine's body, revealing a virtual hit list of fifteen high-profile, high-power women. Among them were the first woman firefighter in Quebec, the first woman police captain in Quebec, a sportscaster, a bank manager, and the president of a teachers' union. Though none of these women were ever targeted after the letter was found, the existence of the list itself brought to further light the rage Lepine bore towards women for daring to be leaders in society.
The news shocked me, especially at the announcement of the killer’s confession for a motive. I was not unaware of the concept of femicide; that is, the deliberate slaying of women, but the horrific idea that a man would use lethal force to keep a woman, or several women, from trying to achieve their academic merit unnerved me. The thought reverberated from within: he had committed murder for the sake of stopping a woman from receiving her education. What was worse, it was in a domain that requires extensive critical thinking and planning skills, mathematical prowess, and visionary planning: the field of engineering, which has been dominated by men. This atrocity burned in my thoughts for days, and kindled a memory of a story that I could not quite remember. In my mind, I found myself trying to recall something that I had heard years before, about a lady who had to undertake a monumental task. I didn’t know her, aside from her married surname, but I knew what she had done: in the face of great tragedy and setback, she had undertaken and finished the most impressive and dynamic feat of engineering the 19th century world had seen. The lady had finished a project that took the life of her father-in-law and crippled her famous husband: she had supervised the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge still is a beautiful and brilliant structure of engineering. When it was completed, it was hailed as the 8th Wonder of the Modern World, and the credit has mainly gone to the man who stepped in to complete a grand idea that was conceived by his father, another genius in the field. The father, John Roebling, and the son, Col. Washington Roebling, both were masters of designing and undertaking to completion the logistics of large suspension bridges. Sadly, John Roebling was injured on location by an accident on a pier while doing surveying during the preliminary planning phases of the Brooklyn Bridge and eventually succumbed to infection, and his son also suffered a career-ending, crippling injury while surveying an underwater excavation site. When Washington Roebling was brought to the surface, disabled and wracked with deadly nitrogen bubbles in his bloodstream, the great plan to link Manhattan and Brooklyn was at its nadir. But the Roebling family had one more member from whom to call upon, and she met the challenge with the firm determination that earned her the respect of the hard-working, tough Irish crews, as well as the cunning schemes of the New York Tammany political machine. They would soon come to say with hard-won admiration, the name of Emily Roebling.
Emily had grown up in a well-to-do good family on the banks of the Hudson River in New York, and she took seriously the idea that a woman was entitled to an education. A married woman was not considered appropriate for law school, but when she enrolled, she applied herself to her studies with a sense of responsibility that earned her valedictorian honors. More significantly, when her husband was carried to the home that he would be unable to leave (due to his illness), she was the only logical person who would be able to assume the awesome construction project that would link up the two boroughs. In spite of having no previous engineering background (other than reading the textbooks of her elder brother), Emily was the only person who could act as a trusted liaison between her husband and the project foremen and crews--she had to clearly supervise, oversee and act totally in his behalf. Furthermore, she had to learn the complex nature of building a suspension bridge while it was being built before her eyes. Her training and engineering education had to be immediate, totally encompassing, and worthy of the men with whom she would associate. In the 1880s, women were not considered anything more than capable of deserving the same rights by law as the criminally insane—and this judgment was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was unheard of for a woman to be on a job site for so massive a project as the Brooklyn Bridge—but Emily was the person who Col. Roebling entrusted to do it.
And she did. When the bridge was completed, she was received and toasted at ceremonies around the world. However, due to the social mores of the time, her husband got the lion’s share of the credit—it would have been improper for a woman to be thought of as more efficient and knowledgeable than her spouse. Besides, he had the education—and from a fine school of engineering, from which his father also graduated, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Emily took everything in stride, for she knew how much her role had mattered in the process—and so did the men in the field of engineering, especially abroad. So, it was her life’s story and effort that I had heard years before, and this was the foundation of the connection that I felt for the victims at Montreal. To have been killed because they were women—and to contemplate how great their achievements might have been—brought the thoughts of Emily Roebling to my mind.
However…I didn’t know anything about her. This changed two years later, when I found myself watching a documentary movie from WLIW, a Long Island, NY-based television station on the Brooklyn Bridge one fall evening in 1991. I was amazed at the clarity of the film, which was done in 1982, and how smoothly the details fell into place. I immediately placed a call—would they know if I could purchase a copy of the film? They affirmed that it was available, and in a few weeks, I found more answers. The director’s name would later become a household item in future documentaries: Ken Burns.
This obstacle only made me delve further into anything and everything I could connect with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Roebling family. A public library in Matawan held another clue, in the form of a large book from a renowned author, David McCullough. His works included an impressive biography of President Harry S. Truman, and I found myself leafing through his saga of The Great Bridge. I took the book out on loan but overlooked much of the information I sought in McCullough's research (due to my own oversight).
A few months later, I had a window of opportunity open to me, and I decided to go to the county public library of Monmouth to start more research. On a chilly February day, I saw a short reference to Mrs. Washington Roebling, or as I would fondly think of her: Emily. There was nothing more than her name and date of birth. When I saw them, it made me more determined than ever to someday pay tribute to her, and through her memory, to the unfulfilled dreams of the women from Canada.
Three more years went by, and the thoughts of the lady and the bridge seemed to be shelved in my mind. They were dusted off with renewed vigor when I saw a high school librarian demonstrate to me the unique nature of a CD-ROM, for this particular disc held a data bank of historical biographies. Would there be anything on an Emily Roebling? I asked. The disc spun and turned up several items, but one caught my eye: a book by a lady named Marilyn E. Weigold, entitled Silent Builder – Emily Warren Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge. Success! Now all I had to do was find the publisher, contact them, and order myself a copy. However, Time was still against me, because my letter came back as non-deliverable. The firm had gone out of business, and there was nothing forwarded, nor was there anything current in the phone directory. I had hit a dead end. But I still had a commitment to make to Emily and the memory of the slain women….
And so I turned to my hometown library. Would they, I asked, have any idea of how I could find a copy of this book? Yes, they said, three weeks later—it could be on loan from the Princeton Library. I simply wanted to read more about Emily Roebling. And so, my heart thumped with joy when my answering machine told me that the library had called, and the book was available for me.
I read it slowly and thoughtfully. Emily’s life story was very motivating and inspiring, and there were even photos of her. She possessed a firm, powerful jaw line and chin, and in her later years, gave the air of a determined, serious diplomat or judge. I had no doubt about her qualifications, but it was rewarding to finally be given a chance to learn about her.
As a secondary thought, in November, I tried to locate the author. Mrs. Weigold had indicated affiliation with Pace University in New York. I had no idea of where the school might be located, but it was worth a try. When I reached their switchboard and told them my story, I was assured that my call would be forwarded to the history department—to the office of a Dr. Weigold, who was a member of the staff. However, I only found her answering machine, to which I poured out my search-and-story. Would she be able to recommend a store or location for the book? Her answer came back with a phone call: Yes, but since the book was now out-of-print, she would provide me a copy. I couldn’t stop thanking her, for I felt even more than ever, that my search for Emily was drawing to a close.
I received the book the following March, and allowed myself the luxury to make notations in it to emphasize key thoughts as I re-read it. However, I still needed to make one last act. In June 1996, I took a day off from work with my (ex) wife, Hillary, and went to New York City. We took a subway train downtown, to lower Manhattan…got off near City Hall, and walked past Pace University, which I now know to be located at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. On that fine sunny day, I happily walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, stopping for a moment to take a picture of a plaque that is affixed to the east tower of the bridge. It was placed there on May 24, 1953, the 70th anniversary of its opening. It reads,
The Builders of the Bridge
Dedicated to the Memory of
Emily Warren Roebling
1843 - 1903
whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband
Col. Washington A. Roebling, C.E.
1837 – 1926
complete the construction of this bridge
from the plans of his father
John A. Roebling, C.E.
1806 – 1869
who gave his life to the bridge
“BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN.”
I raised my camera and took photos of this plaque, for it was my way of saying, “thank you for ensuring my dedication.” I still had more work to do, as I did not yet know the timeframe of the original incident that had led me to learn more about Emily: the massacre of the women engineers.
With that in mind, I began calling the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and left messages. I wasn’t sure if the murders at the engineering school had taken place in Montreal or Toronto, and I mistakenly tried to find an answer via e-mail at the latter’s website. However, I tried once again last year, with the help of the Internet, and found a reply via the National Library of Canada, with a subsequent website. Ten years of research had finally come to a peaceful end.
And what did I learn from this? Aside from the unflagging effort and commitment that I had kept alive within myself like a burning candle to honor the slain women, I have been inspired to limitless regions by the courage and strength of someone like Emily Warren Roebling. There is still much that could be told about her, including the musical produced in 1983 entitled The Brooklyn Bridge, The Association of Business and Professional Women in Construction annual “Emily Warren Roebling award,” established in 1982, or the feature by the National Women’s Hall of Fame. New York City also heralded her 140th birthday with a visual exhibition in 1983.
However, a meaningful anniversary for me will take place on February 28th of each year. My trip to the Monmouth County Public Library, where I renewed my search, took place that day in 1992. I felt as though she had been insisting that I continue with my work: the lady who built the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily Warren Roebling, died in the morning hours of February 28, 1903.