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Emily Warren Roebling: The Woman Who Saved The Brooklyn Bridge

Emily Warren Roebling was the "surrogate chief engineer" of one of the greatest architectural projects of the 19th century.

When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross it, carrying a rooster with her as a symbol of victory — a special honor granted due to her central role in overseeing one of the greatest architectural feats of the 19th century. Her husband, Washington Roebling, had been the bridge's chief engineer, but Roebling took over the project when he fell seriously ill in 1870. For over a decade, she oversaw the work, consulting with her husband but fulfilling the majority of the chief engineer's responsibilities on her own. "I don’t think that the Brooklyn Bridge would be standing were it not for her," says Erica Wagner, author of the first complete biography of Washington Roebling. "She was absolutely integral."

Roebling was born in Cold Spring, New York in 1843, and early on showed an interest in pursuing an education. Fortunately, her older brother, Gouverneur Warren, supported her, and urged her parents to allow her to attend the prestigious Georgetown Visitation Academy in Washington DC. There, she studied history, astronomy, and algebra in addition to needlework and housekeeping. In 1864, while visiting her brother during the midst of the Civil War, she attended a soldier's ball and met Washington Roebling. He was the son of John Roebling, an eminent civil engineer who was in the process of designing what he called "the greatest bridge in existence" — the future Brooklyn Bridge. The couple were married on January 18, 1865, and the newlyweds soon left for Europe to study caissons, the watertight structures filled with compressed air that would allow workers to dig under the East River and plant the bridge's footings.

They returned to America in 1868, just before John Roebling died from tetanus after an injury at the bridge's construction site. Washington immediately took over as chief engineer, while Roebling stayed home to tend the couple's young child. But it wasn't long before Washington also succumbed to the dangers of the construction effort. In 1870, a fire broke out in one of the caissons, and Washington supervised the firefighting efforts personally. After multiple times entering and exiting the pressurized caissons, Washington fell seriously ill: he became partially paralyzed, blind, deaf, and mute. Most historians agree that he was a victim of "caisson disease," which is best known today among scuba divers as "the bends," the decompression sickness caused by nitrogen bubbles trapped in the blood when you ascend from depth too quickly.

Emily Warren Roebling after receiving her law certificate in 1899.

With Washington bedridden and his recovery uncertain, Roebling knew she had to step in to save both her husband's livelihood and the bridge project itself. At first, she operated as Washington's secretary, carrying notes from his sickbed to the construction site, negotiating supply contracts, and attending board of trustees meetings. As the months, then years went by, Roebling became a "surrogate chief engineer," according to historian Marilyn Weigold, who wrote the biography Silent Builder. Her talent for diplomacy also allowed her to defend her husband's ongoing involvement in the construction (and, by extension, hers) when politicians threatened to remove him from the project due to his illness.

It took fourteen years to complete the bridge, and when it was done, Roebling was hailed for ensuring the project's success. In advance of the official opening, Roebling crossed the bridge first with rooster in hand; within 24 hours, over 100,000 people crossed the already famous bridge. During the opening ceremonies, Abram Stevens Hewitt, a U.S. Congressman, saluted her in his speech: "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," he proclaimed, saying the Brooklyn 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."

After the Brooklyn Bridge was built, Roebling devoted herself to many women's causes, and wrote an award-winning essay, "A Wife's Disabilities," which criticized the many laws that discriminated against women. She traveled widely, and she also fulfilled her dream of pursuing further education, receiving a law certificate from New York University in 1899. In the years following the Brooklyn Bridge's construction, her contributions were largely forgotten, with most historians focusing on her husband or father-in-law. In recent years, however, her role as de facto chief engineer has received more recognition, and, based on a letter to her son that she wrote in 1898, Roebling herself never doubted how essential she was to its success: "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!"

Books About Emily Warren Roebling and women in engineering

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Written by: Rachel Dougherty
Illustrated by: Rachel Dougherty
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

As a girl, Emily Roebling was an eager learner — but girls didn't need to know math and science, and certainly not engineering. As an adult, her husband had an ambitious plan for a bridge that would "link Manhattan and Brooklyn," and when construction began, Roebling insisted on learning more about it. And when her husband fell ill, she stepped in, supervising every aspect of the project, and ensuring that the Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York's most iconic landmarks, was finished. This picture book biography celebrates the secret engineer who refused to give up on an architectural wonder.

Rosie Revere's Big Project Book for Bold Engineers

Rosie Revere's Big Project Book for Bold Engineers

Written by: Andrea Beaty
Illustrated by: David Roberts
Recommended Age: 5 and up

Fans of the book Rosie Revere, Engineer will love this fun project book that encourages kids to put their inventiveness and perseverance into practice! In this activity book, there are 40+ things for kids to invent, draw, and make, including designing a better bicycle, building a simple catapult, constructing a solar oven, and more. A simple explanation of the engineering design process, from identifying the problem that needs solving to evaluating whether or not your creation was a success, show kids that invention is rarely a straightforward process, and positive text encourages the owner of the book to see herself like Rosie: inventive and bold!

Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Engineers
New!

Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Engineers
New!

Written by: Diane Taylor
Illustrated by: Hui Li
Recommended Age: 8 - 11

Engineering touches almost everything we do, whether it's opening a carton of milk for breakfast or crossing a bridge that connects a city! In this book from the Gutsy Girls Go For Science series, kids will learn about five women in engineering: Ellen Swallow Richards, Emily Warren Roebling, Kate Gleason, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and Mary Jackson. They'll also test out some hands-on STEM projects, from conducting a virtual tour of a model bridge to researching organizational psychology. With a fun narrative style and full-color pages, this book is sure to inspire future engineers.

Women Of Steel And Stone

22 Inspirational Engineers, Architects, and Landscape Designers

Women Of Steel And Stone

22 Inspirational Engineers, Architects, and Landscape Designers

Written by: Anna M. Lewis
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Inspire her dreams of creation with this book featuring biographies of 22 groundbreaking architects, engineers, and landscape designers! Each capsule biography describes that woman's strengths and passions as a child, as well as the challenges they faced as they established themselves in their careers. Intriguing sidebars explore related topics, as well as the landmark events that affected each figure, including the industrial revolution, the women's suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. This entry in the Women of Action series will fascinate budding engineers!

Written by: David McCullough
Recommended Age: Adults

Today, the Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic piece of American architecture — but there was every chance that the project would fail. In the late 1800s when the bridge was designed and constructed, a bridge of its size was unprecedented, and many wondered if it were even possible. Then, disaster struck both the original designer, John Roebling, and his son Washington. Accidents and tragedies were common for the construction workers, too. But thanks to the unwavering leadership of Emily Warren Roebling, Washington's wife and a gifted engineer in her own right, the Brooklyn Bridge rose tall into this sky. This inspiring story of vision and hope pays tribute to all those who made the bridge a reality.

Price: $22.90

The History of Women in Engineering and Math Poster

The History of Women in Engineering and Math Poster

Manufacturer: Learning ZoneXpress
Recommended Age: 6 and up

Celebrate women in STEM with his poster featuring pioneering female engineers and mathematicians! This laminated, 23 by 35 inch poster features Hypatia of Alexandria, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace, Martha J. Coston, Emily Warren Roebling, Sofia Kovalevskaya, Kate Gleason, Mary Walton, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, Emmy Noether, Edith Clarke, Olive Wetzel Dennis, M. Gertrude Rand, Elsie Eaves, Irmgard Flügge-Lotz, Katherine Johnson, Beatrice Hicks, Yvonne C. Brill, Marilyn Jorgensen Reece, Ursula Burns, and Helen Greiner.

Amazon.co.uk

Engino Structures: Buildings and Bridges

Engino Structures: Buildings and Bridges

Manufacturer: Elenco Electronics Inc
Recommended Age: 8 and up

With Engino Structures: Buildings and Bridges set, you can learn all about buildings and how they literally support our lives! Construct different types of bridges and find out how their architecture design provides massive weight support. Discover all the types of forces applied and how engineers manage to reduce their effects. With 9 working models to build, including five different types of bridges, budding engineers will love this set.

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