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Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge
by Lynn Whitney
Just upriver from Riverside Marina, along a bend in the Delaware River, lies the tiny village of Roebling, NJ. The shady streets, lined with tidy brick row houses have stood still in time for over 100 years. Today the town is a living museum of an industrial legacy. It was originally built as a company town for the workers at the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company steel plant.
But, just who were the Roeblings, and what did they build? Well, the Brooklyn Bridge, for one thing!
John A Roebling was born on June 12, 1806 in Mulhausen , Prussia, now part of Germany. He was a brilliant student, excelling in math and science. While studying architecture and engineering at the Royal Academy in Berlin, he became fascinated with the concept of suspension bridges. During that time period, Prussia was reeling with political unrest, largely brought about by the Napoleonic Wars. In search of better career opportunities, John and his brother Karl, along with other Germans, immigrated to America in 1831 and purchased a tract of land in Western Pennsylvania called Saxonburg. John married the village tailor’s daughter, Johanna, and took up farming. After the death of his brother and the birth of his first child, Washington, John gave up farming and once again turned his attention to engineering, largely devoted to river navigation and canal building. While working for the Pennsylvania Canal system, he noticed the limitations of the hemp ropes used to haul canal boats on inclined planes over the mountains. Recalling an article he had read by a German mine supervisor about wire ropes, John soon developed his own 7 strand wire rope. In the wake of the success of this wire rope, came his first chance to build a suspension bridge in Pittsburg. His bridge engineering career was launched, and he moved his fledgling company to Trenton, N.J. There he built a large industrial complex for wire production, inspiring Trenton’s motto, inscribed on the Lower Trenton Bridge, “Trenton Makes the World Takes.”
In 1866, John Roebling answered the pleas of the Brooklyn citizens for a bridge to span the East River and connect them with New York City. He proposed building the Brooklyn Bridge, which he predicted would be, “the greatest engineering work of the continent and of the age.” Sadly, as he was standing on the edge of a dock, surveying the location for the bridge’s tower, his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry. His condition deteriorated, and 24 days later he died from tetanus. The task of designing his bridge fell to Roebling’s son, Washington.
Washington’s first hurdle was to secure the bridge’s two towers to the bedrock, buried in mud under the East River. To accommodate the workers, a large watertight chamber, known as a caisson, was used. Compressed air was pumped in to prevent water from entering. The floor was then ripped out, allowing workers access to the river bottom. The conditions inside the caisson were horrendous. Due to the pressure, intense heat, lack of oxygen and noise, a worker’s time was limited to two hours. To exit , the workers would ascend through the compressed air to the top of the caisson , subjecting them to the painful effects of the bends, with the possibility of death or permanent injury. Washington Roebling, himself, developed decompression sickness from working in the caissons. With his health ruined, he continued to visit the site, but his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, became a major participant in the project, taking over his duties and protecting his position as Chief Engineer. Today, she is considered by many, to have been the person in charge of the bridge’s construction, an incredible accomplishment for a woman of her time.
John Roebling’s three sons, Washington, Charles and Ferdinand, continued to run their father’s company, building it into the world’s leading producer of wire rope. In 1905 the Roebling family, under the leadership of Charles, purchased a tract of land known as Kinkora. Here, they built a mill for the purpose of manufacturing the steel to be fabricated into bridge rope. Now, the brothers faced the dilemma of where to house the workers. They solved their problem by building a town – a Model Town – Roebling. Under Charles’s guidance, 750 homes were laid out in a rectangular grid. He planted London plane trees and chose 9 styles of architecture, all constructed of red brick with slate roofs. Unlike other towns, Charles gladly allowed whiskey to be served at the Roebling Inn. He also provided shops, banks, schools, churches, a post office, social hall and baseball fields. The mill’s wages and affordable housing attracted workers from all around.
In a tragic twist of fate, Charles’s only son, Washington Roebling II became a victim of the sinking of the Titanic. While working in the family business, Washington developed a passion for automobile racing. He assumed the position of secretary for the Walter’s Automobile Company where he designed and built his Roebling-Planche race car. The Walter Automobile Co. was later taken over by the Mercer Automobile Company where Washington began racing marketed Mercer models to ensure that they were safe and well built.
Early in 1912, Washington departed on a motoring tour of Europe with his friend Stephen Blackwell. In April, they boarded the Titanic. According to reports, Washington worked calmly and diligently to help women and children into lifeboats. He went down with the ship and his body was never recovered.
Never fully recovering from the loss of his son, Charles Roebling died in 1918 at the age of 69. Charles’ grandson, Charles Roebling Tyson, joined the company in 1937. He served as President from 1944 to 1952, at which time the Roebling family sold the business.
Today, the village of Roebling is a quaint tourist attraction. It houses the Roebling Museum, a tribute to the family and its engineering accomplishments, including not only the Brooklyn Bridge, but the Golden Gate Bridge, elevator cables for the Empire State Building and the Washington Monument, and last but not least, the wire for the original Slinky.