When Emily Warren visited her brother (the commander of the Fifth Army Corps), at his army camp during the Civil War she had the good fortune to attend a military ball, and there she found herself quite taken with a dashing youngofficer.
The young officer was obviously smitten with her as well: “Some people’s beauty lies not in the features, but in the varied expression that the countenance will assume under the various emotions,” Washington Roebling wrote to his sister. “She is a most entertaining talker…”
It turned out the young officer was the son of John Roebling, the pioneer of suspension bridges who was planning a massive bridge over New York’s East River. The courtship didn’t take long – Emily Warren married Washington Roebling just as the war ended in 1865 and they immediately sailed to Europe for their honeymoon. The trip also provided Washington with an opportunity to research methods of underwater construction, particularly ways to avoid contracting “the bends” when resurfacing from the depths – which would help his father’s project immensely.
When they returned, construction on the Brooklyn Bridge was just beginning in earnest. John Roebling was very active in colossal project, looking after every detail on the worksite every day, but then disaster struck – his foot was crushed by an errant tugboat, and John Roebling died of tetanus 17 days later.
Young Washington immediately took over his father’s project, regularly descending beneath the river’s surface to inspect the caissons for the bridge piers, but before long he also took sick – from the same decompression sickness he had studied, contracted while working in the deep.
John Roebling was dead and Washington Roebling was now an invalid – weak and easily tired – who could only oversee construction from a window of his Brooklyn Heights home.
Who would take the reins of leadership for this immense work?
Emily Roebling began taking down copious notes on what her husband told her remained to be done. She studied the technical issues and learned about strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and the calculation of catenary curves. She inspected the worksite every day and conveyed her husband’s instructions to the workers and answered the questions they had. Eventually many began to suspect that she was the real intelligence behind the bridge.
A Roebling competitor, Abram Hewitt, admitted as much. When the Brooklyn Bridge was finally complete he called it “an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred… 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.”
On May 24, 1883, the bridge officially opened amid a frenzy of ceremonies celebrating this triumph of engineering. As construction workers raised their hats and cheered, it was Emily Warren Roebling who rode across the new Brooklyn Bridge in the first open carriage, carrying a plump rooster to symbolize victory. President Chester A. Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland, accompanied by a contingent of marching bands, crossed from the Manhattan side to meet her.