Author: Sean Brady, managing director, Brady Heywood forensic and investigative structural engineering services
It became known as the People’s Day. From early morning on 24 May 1883, crowds began to descend on New York and Brooklyn (1). Over 50,000 people arrived into the city by train, with a similar number arriving by boat. By noon, all the hotels had sold out. It was a clear, sunny day and the East River was thronged with boats waiting for the spectacle that was about to unfold. Shops sold pictures of John and Washington Roebling; buildings were draped in red, white, and blue banners; and ﬂags ﬂew along Fifth Avenue and Broadway.
At 12:40pm, Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the USA, walked out of the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the waiting crowd went wild (1). The president, along with New York Governor Grover Cleveland, Congressman Henry Slocum and New York Mayor Franklin Edson, began the procession along Fifth Avenue to 14th Street. The ‘Dandy’ Seventh Regiment and its band led the way, crowds were immense and the procession turned onto Broadway. As they approached the New York side of the newly completed Brooklyn Bridge, the president was greeted by William Kingsley, a wealthy contractor.
For 14 years, the residents of New York and Brooklyn had watched the bridge take shape above the city’s skyline, and when the president took his ﬁrst step onto its span, the guns of nearby Fort Hamilton and the Navy Yard erupted in celebration.
While thousands of people would spend the afternoon and evening walking this engineering marvel, the formalities continued with over three hours of speeches being delivered to an invited crowd of 6,000 guests (Figure 1). Among the guests was Emily Warren Roebling, wife of the chief engineer (Figure 2). While it may have looked like she was simply representing her husband, who could not attend because of illness, all changed when Congressman Abram S. Hewitt took to the podium and publicly proclaimed Warren Roebling’s role in what had been one of the most signiﬁcant engineering achievements ever undertaken.
To many it was a revelation, but to those intimately involved in the bridge’s construction, there was little surprise in the praise being afforded to Warren Roebling. To them, her contribution had been staggering – and all the more remarkable given the barriers to women taking such an active role in society, especially in the male-dominated profession of engineering.
Emily Warren was born in the village of Cold Spring in upstate New York in 1843 (2). She was the 11th of 12 children, and although they were not wealthy by Hudson River standards, they were a distinguished family. She attended Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington DC, with her studies including algebra, geometry, astronomy, chemistry and geology (2). She became an expert horsewoman – a pursuit she continued into her adult life, despite it being viewed as ‘inappropriate’ for the 19th-century lady. But she paid little heed to the limitations society imposed on her.
With the American Civil War under way, Warren visited her brother and attended a military ball. There she met a shy young engineer, Colonel Washington Roebling (whose father John would later be appointed chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge). The attraction between them was immediate. Over the course of the war, they would correspond regularly and, in 1865, they married.
The couple’s lives would be changed dramatically when John Roebling died as a result of injuries sustained in a freak accident, leaving his son Washington, then only 32 years old, as chief engineer with the responsibility for ﬁnishing the Brooklyn Bridge. Emily rekindled her interest in mathematics, but this time extended her studies to learn about strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction and calculation of catenary curves (3). She was of the view that knowledge of such subjects would be of assistance to her husband – quite an understatement, given what was to transpire.
[caption id="attachment_19826" align="aligncenter" width="279"] A bird’s-eye view of fireworks at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)[/caption]