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Emily Roebling’s Bridge

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on March 4, 2020

Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1901; Early Brooklyn and Long island photograph collection, V1972.1.1278, Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1901; Early Brooklyn and Long island photograph collection, V1972.1.1278, Brooklyn Historical Society

When it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge immediately became one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks, a symbol of American ingenuity and technological prowess. Did you know it likely never would have been completed without the steadfast management of one great woman?

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) took over daily oversight of the bridge’s construction in 1872. That year, her husband Washington Roebling developed decompression sickness, “the bends,” due to his extended exposure to underwater pressure in the massive wooden caissons sunk into the East River to dig the foundations for the bridge’s two towers. For over a decade, Emily acted as liaison between her bedridden husband and bridge workers and city officials, developing her own specialized knowledge of suspension bridge construction in the process to ensure the project’s success. When the bridge opened to great fanfare on May 24, 1883, Emily Roebling was the first person to cross it, accompanied by President Chester Arthur.

Roebling’s contemporaries acknowledged her indispensable part in the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. At the bridge’s dedication ceremony, Congressman Abram Hewitt called her out specifically, telling the gathered crowd that “the name of Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling will thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature.” He also called the Brooklyn Bridge “an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.” During Women’s History Month, we continue to shine a light on Brooklyn’s great female engineer.

This image comes from the Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (V1972.1). For more information please see our finding aid here and for more photographs from this collection please visit our image gallery here.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections; visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. [email protected].

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