Book interview: Erica Wagner, ‘Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built The Brooklyn Bridge’
One of the great landmarks of the New York skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge is a feat of engineering with a fascinating story to go with it. Author Erica Wagner has documented the varied fortunes of the men and woman behind it.
“Washington Roebling was a huge figure in the history of 19th-century American – and, indeed, global – engineering,” says Erica Wagner of the man who built New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling is the central character in her new book – ‘Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built The Brooklyn Bridge’ – describing one of the pioneering civil engineering enterprises of the era, as well as those who were to exert influence over him.
Started by his father John Roebling, the bridge was seen through to its conclusion with the assistance of Washington’s wife Emily Warren, who, despite not being an engineer, showed a relentless tenacity that was vital to the success of the 14-year enterprise.
Despite the bridge being instantly recognisable as an icon of civil engineering, the reputation of its chief engineer “has been somewhat eclipsed by his father, who was a famous engineer of his time and who died tragically in 1869”. At the time Roebling junior was a mere 32 years old, and yet took over the task of building the bridge, “which he accomplished with an enormous amount of difficulty and at great personal cost, becoming extremely ill during the construction”.
This has, according to Wagner, created confusion between the father and the son. Washington himself is reported to have said: “many people think that I died in 1869”. This, in turn, has led to the assumption that in completing the bridge, Washington was simply following his father’s plan. “But that is absolutely not the case. His was a radical new construction. No bridge like this had ever been built anywhere in the world.”
Wagner, who is former literary editor of the Times newspaper, goes on to say that Washington was born at a time and place “that was effectively the frontier of the United States. His father had come from Germany in 1831, and had built up the American wire rope industry. So Washington went from a rural childhood in Pennsylvania to the forefront of American industry.”
Prior to building the bridge, he had fought in the American Civil War, constructing bridges “for the soldiers to cross before the Confederate Army could blow them up. He lived a long life despite his illness, and while the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, he lived until 1926, into the modern era and well into the jazz age.”
While Wagner confesses to be fascinated by bridges in general, she also suffers from a mild obsession with the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington Roebling. A native New Yorker, she remembers first crossing it on foot at the age of 16. “In those days Brooklyn wasn’t the cool place that it is today. But there was this fantastic view, and I had one of those life-changing experiences. Of course, I had seen it before and taken it for granted as New Yorkers do. But I suddenly found myself wondering how this marvellous bridge came to be here.”
Washington Roebling wasn’t just an extraordinary engineer, says Wagner. “He was an extraordinary writer too. When I read his letters, technical documents and his biography of his father – that was also a memoir of his own life – I could hear him speaking, and his voice moved me. His was a life full of obstacles, not least that of his tyrannical father, whom he never ceased trying to get away from, even after he was long dead. And I wanted other people to hear his voice too.”
No span had ever been attempted of the size and scale of the Brooklyn Bridge, “and pretty much everything about it was radical. The two most striking features of it are the foundations, which are sunk deep beneath the East River, and of course, the cables that still support it. These were the first-ever bridge cables made of steel, which in its mass-produced form was still very new. The bridge stands or falls on the caissons that are sunk beneath the river using compressed air to keep the water out. This is something that was brand new and very experimental at the time.”
Prior to employing caisson technology, Roebling senior had sent his son and young wife to Europe, including time spent in industrial Manchester, on a technology reconnaissance mission. “This aspect of the story is the most crucial, and it is really fascinating. Today, of course, caissons are sunk much deeper than on the Brooklyn Bridge,” but in the 19th century, working with compressed air was cutting edge, while the nature of the condition then called ‘caisson disease’ (now decompression sickness, or ‘the bends’) was little understood. “Many people, including Washington, became sick as a result. The cause of the disease – nitrogen bubbles trapped in the blood – was not completely understood and so the men would ascend out of the caissons quickly. Fortunately, it’s less common today. But at the time it could only be alleviated by morphine.”
It was Roebling’s affliction with caisson disease that was to lead to the increasing involvement of his wife on the project. “He had periods when he was much more active than others. But his health was badly affected for the rest of his life. He wasn’t a desk engineer. He was down in the caissons as much as his assistant engineers were.” But by 1875, he was unable to continue ‘hands-on’, with increasingly debilitating symptoms including aversion to light and sound. “The only person he could stand to be near was his wife. She was an extraordinary woman, and when Washington became ill, she became his amanuensis.”
The chief engineer, working from his bed, came to rely on Emily, dictating correspondence to her and briefing her in advance of meetings with the project’s trustees. “One of her strengths, quite apart from her growing understanding of the engineering work involved, was her ability to smooth things over between the many interested partners. It’s fair to say that she played an invaluable part in the construction of the bridge.”
As important as Emily to the project, the protagonist in the story remains that of the chief engineer of Wagner’s title, and not, as many think to this day, his father. “He took over his father’s position as chief engineer, that’s true. But it was Washington who figured out how to build the bridge”.
‘Chief Engineer’ by Erica Wagner is published by Bloomsbury, £25
We read it for you: ‘Chief Engineer’
His father conceived of the Brooklyn Bridge, but it was Washington Roebling who built this iconic landmark of civil engineering after his father’s death. It has stood for more than 130 years and is now as much a part of the New York skyline as the Empire State Building. Despite the bridge today being part of the USA’s cultural heritage, its builder rarely receives credit for being one of the great architects of the 19th century, and the story of its construction is rarely told.
‘Chief Engineer’ is more than an examination of man and bridge. It delves into the background story of how his wife Emily Warren played a pivotal role in seeing the project through to completion, while Washington himself became increasingly ill from the bends. The Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years to complete, and the story that lay behind it is related here for the first time.
Extract: A woman's work?
There is no doubt that Emily Warren Roebling was an extraordinary woman, and yet she recedes from us. Her vanished correspondence with Washington during the war leaves a silence that cannot be filled. The scrapbooks of clippings she made during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge can never supply her private thoughts, whatever we might read into them.
She was never, however, an engineer, though some have claimed that for her. She did not claim it for herself. When she and Washington travelled to Chicago to the World’s Columbian Exposition, she wrote of encountering a French duchess; they spoke together in French. “She received me most graciously and complimented me on my skill as an engineer!” Yet well into the 21st century the rumour persists that she was really behind the Brooklyn Bridge.
Until recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers claimed on its website that a speech she gave to that society in 1882 kept her husband in his post; there is no record of such a speech. American National Biography Online, a generally reputable site, claimed that Abram Hewitt once spoke of her being the real brains behind the bridge. But again, there is no record of any such statement. Nevertheless, her work on behalf of her husband, and the Brooklyn Bridge, was invaluable. Not long before the bridge was finished, a report ran in the Engineering and Mining Journal of a dinner at which one RW Raymond raised his glass at the toast. “Gentlemen, I know that the name of a woman should not be lightly spoken in a public place; but I believe you will acquit me of any lack of decency or of reverence when I utter the name of Mrs Washington Roebling!”