Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Chief Engineer

From the Archives: This story was published in the July/August 2017 issue of Wire Rope Exchange.

Book by Erica Wagner, Reviewed by Stephanie Aurora Lewis

“It’s my job to carry the responsibility. And you can’t desert your job; you can’t slink out of life, or out of the work life lays on you,” wrote the late Washington A. Roebling, Chief Engineer of the great Brooklyn Bridge.

“Washington was my inspiration for this book,” says Erica Wagner, award-winning author who wrote the recently released book Chief Engineer; Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge. Wagner shares that she has been a long time admirer of Washington Augustus Roebling with whom she also shares her middle name. Wagner’s admiration of Washington Roebling began when she was 19 years old while doing research at the New York Public Library. When she stumbled upon Washington Roebling, she found him to be profoundly inspirational. Before leaving the library that day, Wagner made a small photocopy of a photo of him in uniform and has since kept that photograph in her wallet.

Wagner’s new book, Chief Engineer, provides a detailed description of Washington who has also become a hero and a role model for Wagner herself. “I began to form a great admiration for this man,” she says. One of the central themes in her book that Wagner highlights about Washington is his unwavering ability to persevere through many abnormally difficult trials. First of all, his father, John A. Roebling, was cruel, brutal, and harsh to his immediate family members including Washington. Then, Washington enlisted in the Civil War to design bridges for the Union’s troops. Washington came out of the Civil War unscathed and with a new wife who, alongside her husband, would later become a central figure in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Emily and Washington Roebling. Photo Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries

“After Washington’s marriage to Emily, John Roebling sent his son and new wife to Europe so that Washington could research important developments in all the technologies that would be important for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge — the use of caissons and wire manufacture, especially. Washington wrote extraordinary letters home to his father — dozens of pages of remarkable detail about everything he saw and observed,” says Wagner. Washington’s father had, by this time, already an international reputation that made it relatively easy for Washington to gain access to wire rope manufacturers and to meet with prominent civil engineers who had designed cutting-edge bridges throughout Germany, England, and France. It was likely during Washington’s stay in Europe that he began to garner his writing style and to record, in writing, a great deal of valuable information that he would later use to design the Brooklyn Bridge.

While it was important for Washington to have his father’s reputation open doors for him, Washington Roebling and his genius have gone vastly underrepresented in historical references. History is being rewritten now with the new edition of Wagner’s Chief Engineer. “One of the great difficulties that Washington endured his whole life was to be in his father’s shadow until the day he died,” says Wagner. “I am not sure how many of the people who cross the Brooklyn Bridge know that it was Washington, not John Roebling, who built this great bridge.”

Soon after Washington’s father completed the preliminary drawings for the Brooklyn Bridge, he died after an accident at the future Bridge site. Therefore, Washington had to do all the design, engineering, and construction most likely, all by himself. “However he had already worked on several bridges including the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge before working on the Brooklyn Bridge, and he was the person who had done all the research in Europe,” says Wagner.

Wire Rope Reel. Photo Courtesy of Roebling Collection, Institute
Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Still, working on the Brooklyn Bridge alone as the Chief Engineer nearly cost Washington his life numerous times. If it wasn’t enough that the vast burden of the design of the project was on his shoulders, he was also the primary person to direct the work. Then there were numerous men who had greatly suffered and others who also died on the construction site while working on caissons foundations that are buried deep into the East River’s bed. Out of great concern, Washington himself would go down into the digging of the caissons. As a result, Washington also ended up with decompression sickness, also known as the bends, like many other construction workers.

“Even later in life, Washington continued to endure through very tough situations,” Wagner continues. Washington outlived all his siblings as well as some nephews, so he had to pick up running the Roebling Wire Rope business that had previously been managed by his brothers. Washington was 80 years old when he took his father’s family business and rode the trolley into work every day until he passed away. “Washington is the most resilient person I have ever met,” she says. Wagner has spent so much time researching Washington that she says she almost feels as though she has met this great man. The depth of her research comes through the book giving us a window into the life of a man who truly did so much for our nation’s technological progress.

“To go from working with the facts of Washington’s life and then to make the leap of imagination required to write a biography was a moving experience for me,” says Wagner. “I had wanted to write a book about Washington since the first day I learned about him in the New York Public Library at 19 years old.” However, Wagner had shied away from the idea for many years because she felt like she was not going to do Washington justice. She was also self-conscious about not having a working knowledge about wire rope, bridge design, engineering, and the construction industry, etc. “Washington was my inspiration for the book,” she says. “If Washington could persevere as much as he did in his day, how could I not do the same myself?”

Wagner took on a 19th-century mentality by learning as much as she could about wire rope and these other technical subjects to write Chief Engineer. She was able to tour two of England’s Bridon-Bekaert facilities, the wire mill and the Bridon Technology Centre in Doncaster, Yorkshire and then the manufacturing roperies in Wallsend and Neptune Quay, and to spend two days observing and studying each process within each plant. “To have toured Bridon-Bekaert was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. To understand now how wire rope is so much a part of so many different technologies that we use in America and across the world today and to then see the manufacturing process is truly amazing,” says Wagner. During the 19th-Century, Wagner pointed out that people would study to become experts about almost any subject. A lay person would read technical manuals and study a wide variety of disciplines.

“order of making strands”. Photo Courtesy of Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

During Wagner’s research, she also went to visit Saxonburg, Pennsylvania where John A. Roebling set up a manufacturing plant for wire rope production. While there, she purchased a wire rope bracelet that is a replica of the types of bracelets that the wire rope plant workers would make and give to their lovers. Then she has another bracelet that she acquired from the Bridon-Bekaert tour. “I love Washington’s resilience,” says Wagner. “Washington would complain all the time, but he would get the work done. When I have felt discouraged, he has kept me going.”

To build a bridge that would span the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn was truly a significant project. The Brooklyn Bridge would become the “between” of New York City where people needed to go to get the best jobs and Brooklyn where the cost of living was more affordable. Every day, commuters would go back and forth between Brooklyn and New York via ferry boat. It was occasionally difficult to pass through the East River because the waters were sometimes rough. At times, the River would freeze making a ferry passage impossible. The Roeblings’ vision for the great Bridge would express cutting-edge technology for its era and would later become a precedent for many more bridges in America throughout the next century.

The Brooklyn Bridge is both a suspension and a cable-stayed bridge combined. In addition to becoming an important link between the two communities, the Bridge was also an outdoor oasis and footpath for New Yorkers to have a new park of sorts. “The promenade above the vehicles provided much-needed light, air, and beautiful views for the people walking across,” says Wagner, a native of New York City herself. When the Bridge opened in 1883, Louis Sullivan had just completed construction of the first skyscraper in Chicago. “When Washington completed the Brooklyn Bridge, the towers were the highest structures anyone had ever seen in New York City,” says Wagner.

Invitation to Brooklyn Bridge opening. Photo Courtesy of Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

One of the key elements at work at the Brooklyn Bridge was wire rope. Additionally, wire rope was the product that made John A. Roebling his fortune, and his engineering reputation in the U.S. John Roebling brought wire rope technology to the U.S. and started manufacturing it as the Roebling Wire Company. John Roebling acquired a patent for wire rope in 1842, which lead to wire rope as one of the greatest emblems of “progress” in America in the 19th Century.

OTIS Elevators became one of the primary users of wire rope along with new cable bridge designs. Together, these two 19th-Century technologies would help the American population to expand horizontally over the terrain and vertically upwards into the skyscrapers. Before the elevator invention, buildings were only five stories tall because people could not easily walk up and down for more than five stories at a time. Even more exciting, is the incredible confidence that both John and Washington Roebling had when designing the bridges and specifying the wire rope used on the projects. Fortunately, they both had an intimate understanding of wire rope that lead into their genius bridge-designing intuition.

In many ways, it seems as though John was the visionary and Washington was the man who got all of John’s visions accomplished. This relationship led Washington right into Chief Engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project. When David McCullough wrote The Great Bridge, which was a part of Wagner’s inspiration and supporting research for her book, there was a significant piece of history still missing about the Roeblings and the Great Bridge. “There had always been rumors about Washington having written a book about his father,” says Wagner. “However, this biography was not with the family’s archives, either at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York or at Rutgers University.”

In fact, Washington did sit down and write a biography of his father, John A. Roebling in his later years. “Washington viewed himself as a keeper of his family’s history, particularly as he had outlived most of them,” says Wagner. Fortunately, this fabled biography surfaced before Wagner wrote Chief Engineer. A self-made historian of the Roebling Family, Donald Sayenga, had possession of the biography. Sayenga was the former general manager of Bethlehem Wire Rope, the company that acquired Roebling Wire Rope in 1973.

Memoir Page, Photo Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries

“Washington was a wonderful writer with a clear, dry style,” says Wagner. “Washington drew me to his character, to his persistence and tenacity. Washington wrote that it was a biography of his father, but it really is a memoir as well.” This book was the first record of John A. Roebling’s real character seen at home, a character that would make life harder for Washington from a young age. Both Wagner and Sayenga share a deep appreciation for Washington. Wagner says, “Sayenga is a good friend of mine. We share something in common, we both love to learn and share stories about the Roebling family. His knowledge and friendship were instrumental in the making of this book.”

Interestingly, it was not the Roebling Wire Company that supplied the wire rope for the Brooklyn Bridge. Rather, the wire rope contract went to the lowest bidder, who was J. Lloyd Haigh. Washington was, in particular, very cautious of this other wire rope manufacturer. And, for a good reason too because, as it turned out, the other manufacturer ended up producing and delivering to the site wire rope that was too brittle and that did not pass the engineering requirements for the Bridge. “200 tons of bad wire is still in the Bridge today,” says Wagner. “Washington ended up adding in good wire to make up the difference. He had designed the bridge to be six times stronger than it needed to be in the first place, so the faulty wire was less of a problem than it might have seemed.”

Many Americans view the Brooklyn Bridge as having been designed, detailed, and constructed solely by John A. Roebling when in fact Washington, his eldest son, should receive a hefty sum of credit for the Bridge. As the Chief Engineer, Washington would design and detail the bridge, would oversee its construction, and would constantly problem-solve from day one to the final day of construction. Washington would be the number one person to whom everyone would consult when making decisions about how to construct the bridge. It was truly a different era in our history and, “when they started the bridge construction, finalized designs were not yet completed,” says Wagner. “Many decisions would have to be made on the fly, as the work progressed.”

Author Erica Wagner. Photo by Olivia Beasley

Overcoming severe difficulties one after another, we can read about the character of the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge in Erica Wagner’s new book, Chief Engineer. “The Brooklyn Bridge is truly a work of art,” concludes Wagner. “Things that work well, that do what they are designed to do will always be beautiful.” From the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened until now, John Roebling’s vision and Washington Roebling’s iconic structure together remain a robust miracle in New York City while everything else around it changes.

About the Author:

American writer and critic Erica Wagner was the literary editor of the London Times for seventeen years and is now a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, and the New York Times, among others. She is the author of Ariel’s Gift, Seizure, and the short story collection Gravity; she is the editor of First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner. She was the recipient of the Eccles British Library Writer’s Award in 2014, and she is a lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She lives in London with her husband and son.

Taken by an unknown photographer, and found in the Museum of the City of New York (X2010.11.8463), this photo shows the Brooklyn Bridge as a work in progress.

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