The Forgotten Woman Behind the Brooklyn Bridge

Written by Celestia Piccioni, Edited by Beatrice Anne Bringas

4/26/20223 min read

The Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most famous New York City symbols, is nowadays used by hundreds of thousands of people every day to cross the East River, going from Brooklyn to Manhattan and vice-versa. This you likely already know, but what few people know is who guided the construction of the bridge was a woman called Emily Warren Roebling, the forgotten woman behind the Brooklyn Bridge.

Born on September 23, 1843, in upstate New York, as the second youngest child of Sylvanus and Phebe. Emily was educated at Georgetown Academy of the Visitation, in Washington, D.C.

One of her brothers, Governeur K. Warren, was a general of the Union Army during the Civil War. In a sheer coincidence, one of the engineer officers who was working for him, whose name was Washington A. Roebling, fell in love with Emily. Suddenly, the two got married in 1865!

John A. Roebling, Washington’s father, who was a civil engineer known for constructing suspension bridges, was projecting the building of “the greatest bridge in existence” - the future Brooklyn Bridge. In 1867, he sent his son (who was accompanied by Emily) to Europe to study caissons, the watertight structures filled with compressed air that would enable him to dig beneath the river. Tragically, after their return, John got tetanus at the construction site and died, leaving the project direction to Washington, as the chief engineer.

However, he couldn’t stay long working due to his case of Caisson’s Disease, caused by the frequent changing of air pressure in the caissons, making him partially blind, mute, paralyzed, and deaf.

Consequently, Emily entered into the bridge’s history. Worked initially as a secretary — negotiating, oversewing, taking notes, and serving as a liaison, advocate, and spokeswoman — but over time, she became a “surrogate chief engineer,” as described by the historian Marilyn Weigold. Indeed, some people thought that she was the mind behind the project. During this time, she also studied technical issues and learned about the strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and other engineering facts behind bridges.

Finally, after some years, the Brooklyn Bridge was finished and opened by May 24, 1883. Remarkably, the first person to cross was none other than Emily herself. During the opening ceremony, a U.S congressman named Abram Stevens Hewitt (1883) said in his speech that “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,” and that the bridge would be “an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred”.

In 1898, Emily would write in a letter to her son saying: “I have more brains, common sense and know-how generally than have any two engineers, civil or uncivil, and but for me, the Brooklyn Bridge would never have had the name Roebling in any way connected with it!”

After the conclusion of the bridge’s saga, she invested her time and effort into supporting women’s causes and other philanthropic work. This is evident in her involvement in the widely-recognized organization named Daughters of the American Revolution. Moreover, she also wrote an award-winning essay about laws that discriminated against women called “A Wife’s Disabilities”. By the year 1899, she fulfilled the dream of getting a better education by receiving a certificate in business law from the Woman’s Law Class at New York University. After living a life of fulfillment, Emily Warren Roebling died on February 28, 1903, due to stomach cancer.

Nowadays, you can see a plaque on the Brooklyn Bridge dedicated to the three Roebling. If you are curious enough to read it, you will find and understand the sentence: “Back of every great work, we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”

Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran (French, 1838-1917). Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling, 1896. Oil on canvas, 89 × 47 1/2 in., 214 lb. (226.1 × 120.7 cm, 97.07kg). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Paul Roebling, 1994.69.1