Erica Wagner's Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

Reviewed by Richard Howe

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge  by Erica Wagner Bloomsbury, 2017 384 pages

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge
by Erica Wagner
Bloomsbury, 2017
384 pages

The name Roebling is so closely bound up with the Brooklyn Bridge that it’s probably worth saying at the outset of this review that Erica Wagner’s Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge(Bloomsbury, 2017) really is a biography of the man and not — as might be said of David McCullough’s classic The Great Bridge (Simon & Schuster, 1972) — a biography of the bridge. The eldest son of the bridge’s designer and promoter, John A. Roebling, Washington Roebling was born on May 26, 1837, in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, and died shortly past his eighty-ninth birthday, on July 21, 1926, in Trenton, New Jersey. He served as chief engineer for the construction of what was then known as the East River Bridge for nearly fourteen years, from shortly after his father’s death on July 22, 1869, until he resigned the position not long after the bridge was opened to the public on May 24, 1883 (his assistant C. C. Martin was appointed in his place on July 9, 1883). Washington Roebling was thirty-two when he was appointed chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge; he lived another forty-three years after leaving that post. Though it was his position with the bridge project that secured him a place in the history of New York, seventy-five of his eighty-nine years were not spent on the great bridge, and it is perhaps the greatest merit of Erica Wagner’s book that it would be a fascinating and moving read even if its subject had never been chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. I would almost go so far as to say that it might have been an even more fascinating and moving read had he not been.

One of life’s more delightful surprises comes about when something one has expected to be at best no more than a pleasant chore turns out to be a positive pleasure. I must admit that when Peter Aigner asked me to review this book my first thought was that it was a brave soul who would dare to follow McCullough’s vintage account, even if the passage of nearly fifty years held the promise of new sources and fresh perspectives. My second thought was along the lines of “OK, enough of the ‘Great Men’ already!” After all, Washington Roebling didn’t build the Brooklyn Bridge any more than a movie star makes a movie: what about the second gaffer or the assistant third grip or any of the hundreds of others whose names we briefly catch at the end of the movie, if we even bother to watch them roll by? But then I was also curious about “the man in the window” — in McCullough’s felicitous phrase — the house-bound invalid who supervised the last six years of the construction of the bridge from the confines of his office at the back of the Roebling’s home at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn. And the book’s author was indeed able to draw on sources that were not available fifty years ago, mostly importantly Washington Roebling’s private memoir of his father’s life, which turns out to have been as much a memoir of his own life as that of his father’s, at least up until his father’s death in 1869. Our sense of history has, I think, also changed: fifty years ago my mother’s mother, who was born in 1881, could still repeat the Civil War stories told by her grandfather, who had been a captain in the Union Army; today not only she but her children also are gone, and even her grandchildren are getting long in the tooth. The span of Washington Roebling’s life, which saw New York emerge as one of the great cities of the world, has by now passed not only from the realm of living memories but also from the living memories of those memories. And of course today we can read about those by-gone days on our mobile devices via a wireless connection to the internet while flying across the country at 500 miles per hour at an altitude of 30,000 feet, which does, somehow, change our perspective on history in ways that at present we can only guess at.

Chief Engineer does give us a lively account of the actual construction of the bridge and the trials and tribulations of all kinds attendant upon any engineering project of such magnitude, but appropriately enough, the bulk of this account takes up less than a fourth of the story, and even so is interwoven with the events of Wahington Roebling’s “non-bridge” life. Chief Engineer is not a technical account: readers wanting to know, e.g.,the details of how the bridge’s cables were “spun” would be well-advised to search out Roebling’s assistant Wilhelm Hildenbrand’s 1877 Cable-Making for Suspension Bridges, with Special Reference to the Cables of the East River Bridge, or, for the construction of the towers, Roebling’s own 1873 Pneumatic Tower Foundations of the East River Suspension Bridge (scans of both are available on-line at But for this reader, at least, the greater interest of the book lies in the cast of family characters surrounding his own life: his father, his mother, his brothers — especially the youngest, Edmund — and his first wife, Emily Warren.

The word “Dickensian” almost unavoidably springs to mind: the portrait of John A. Roebling that emerges from his son’s memoir is that of a monster who beat his wife and children — four sons and three daughters survived into adulthood — so often and so mercilessly that they lived in constant terror of him; who when he wasn’t beating them subjected them to the most hideous torments of his quack belief in “water cures” for all ailments of body, mind, and soul; and who later in life engaged a spiritualist medium to establish communications with his deceased wife, even though, as Washington later wrote in his memoir, he had treated her so horribly that “the poor woman was glad to die, even at 48.” The “dysfunctional family” has been around at least since Helen ran off with Paris, and was apparently still thriving in nineteenth century America, as it no doubt still is even today. In any event, it’s hard not to feel some sense of poetic justice when Roebling Sr. dies an agonizing death from a tetanus infection after rejecting proper medical treatment in favor of another of his bogus “water cures” when his toes were crushed in a ferry slip accident while inspecting the site of the Brooklyn-side bridge tower on June 28, 1869.

The middle two of the four Roebling sons survived well enough — at what psychic cost we will surely never know — to be able to run the Trenton, New Jersey, firm that, following their father’s death, was known as the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, a steel wire mill that later supplied the wire for the Williamsburgh, Manhattan, George Washington, and Golden Gate bridge cables. The youngest brother, Edmund, was not so fortunate. Erica Wagner tells us that sometime after 1917, when, in Washington’s words, Edmund was “a harmless white haired old man of over 70,” a doctor engaged on behalf of the estate of his recently deceased brother Ferdinand had declined to say whether Edmund was compos mentis. Apparently this had been something of a life-long concern. Washington later explained that Edmund’s sad situation arose “from his surroundings from boyhood— No real home, no friends, no ties of relationship, no wife, no occupation, not sufficient force of character to rise above the circumstances and perhaps too much money when young.” He, would, however, survive Washington by some four years, dying in 1930.
Washington Roebling’s sisters play no prominent part in Chief Engineer, but the same cannot be said of his wife Emily Warren, whose assistance in supervising the construction of the bridge during the years in which her husband was an invalid was indispensable, rising to the status of becoming what her biographer Marilyn Weigold called the bridge’s “surrogate chief engineer.” Erica Wagner recently told The New York Times that she “didn’t think the Brooklyn Bridge would be standing, were it not for [Emily Roebling] … She was absolutely integral to its construction.” It should come as no surprise that the eldest son of the monstrous father should himself be a difficult man to live with, even without the burden of his chronic illness and the responsibilities for the bridge project it imposed on his wife. Erica Wagner quotes a letter to her son John written on her wedding anniversary, January 18, 1896, saying that “Your father has been married 31 years today. I twice that long.” After the completion of the bridge, however, she was able to establish something of a life of her own beyond the reach of the Roebling family curse: she became involved with a number of civic organizations, travelled widely, and took the Women’s Law Course at New York University, from which she graduated with honors in the spring of 1899, not quite four years before her death at age 59 in 1903. Her 1899 feminist essay, “A Wife’s Disabilities,” written for her NYU course, is still notable for its arguments for women’s rights.

Emily Roebling’s role in the construction of the bridge was a consequence of her husband’s crippling attack of “the bends” in 1872 resulting, in his own words, from his “imprudence in remaining too long in the caisson on Saturday last.” The caisson was a highly pressurized structure that made it possible to work underwater to excavate the riverbed for the bridge towers’ foundations; though little understood at the time, “the bends” were the result of decompressing too rapidly on returning to the surface, which allowed atmospheric gases that had been dissolved into the body’s fluids by the pressure in the caisson to reemerge and to form bubbles that pressed painfully, injuriously, even fatally on the body’s joints and tissues. Erica Wagner tells us that Emily “was not always entirely convinced by her husband’s complaints” and that “much of what ailed him would remain mysterious.” The suspicion, however, lies not far off that whatever part of his suffering was due to “the long term costs of working in compressed air,” another part may have been due to the long repressed pressures of having been the dutiful son of a monster — a genius of a monster, perhaps, but a monster nonetheless.

Erica Wagner is a wonderful writer and Chief Engineer is as entertaining as it is engrossing, so much so that I am reluctant to register a few complaints about the book itself. Publishers have become so shy of footnotes, bibliography, figure captions and lists of picture sources, as well as indexing, that in their attempt to minimize what they fear are, for the lay reader, the forbidding aspects of a proper scholarly apparatus, too much is lost for those who read a work like Chief Engineer for more than its entertainment value. Alas, Chief Engineer is no exception to this lamentable trend, which puts the burden of sorting out which note belongs with which part of the text on the reader. While the color illustrations are well-done and well-captioned, with sources given, the black and white illustrations in the running text are of only variable quality, sources are not given, and in one instance, a photograph of Washington Roebling seated with British Admiral Jacky Fisher, even the caption has been dispensed with — and the reproduction is so murky one could scarcely begin to recognize either of the two men or to tell the one from the other. This is, I suppose not the author’s fault.

There are also occasional minor errors of a kind that while surely unavoidable in a work of this breadth are nonetheless disconcerting. The Catholic World article on the “The Sanitary and Moral Condition of New York City” on which the author relies for her evocation of slum conditions in New York (Manhattan) at the time the work on the bridge was about to get underway appeared in volume VII (1867) and not, as the note in the back would have it, volume VIII (1869). And it is a mistake to take such a source at its word: the number of seven or eight story tenement buildings in the city at that time — if indeed any existed at all outside the Catholic World writer’s quite properly indignant imagination — must have been very small, too small to be presented as typical. Even in 1903, when the number of tenements in Manhattan had more than doubled, less than one percent were more than six stories tall.

The Roeblings, father and son, may have seen Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale performed by a travelling opera group in Pittsburgh sometime around 1858, but they could not have seen La Bohème, at least neither Puccini’s well-known nor Leoncavallo’s lesser-known opera, both of which had their premiers in 1896. If they saw a Bohème it could only have been Théodore Barrière’s hit play of 1849, which was based on Henri Murger’s stories of Parisian life in the Latin Quarter in the 1840s, collected in 1851 as his novel, Scènes de la vie de Bohème.

But I cavil, perhaps unnecessarily, as these are minor slip-ups — there are surely a few others too that readers with expertises and interests different from my own will wince at, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve made a few myself even in the brief space of this review. None of them can alter the overriding fact that Erica Wagner has given us a wonderful if disturbing portrait of a man, a family, and a time in New York’s history — and America’s too — that is both informative and a genuine pleasure to read.