12 DAYS OF BROOKLYN: First Across the East River Bridge

Day Twelve  12 Views of Brooklyn
More bridge views, see Who's Who

More bridge views, see Who’s Who

dec17IN 1883, THE FIRST PERSON OFFICIALLY TO CROSS the completed East River Bridge connecting the cities of Brooklyn and New York was Emily Warren Roebling. She crossed in a carriage, carrying a live rooster –  a symbol of victory – and really, she had plenty to crow about. More than any other person, she had made this bridge happen. The seemingly ill-fated bridge construction had first taken the life of her father-in-law, John, who’d designed and “sold” it to investors and to the two cities, and then it robbed the health of her husband, John’s son Washington, who had become Chief Engineer.

An intelligent and educated woman, Emily had been at his elbow while he studied and then extended his father’s plans and ideas. But soon her husband’s impairment – caused by decompression sickness while installing caissons at the site – left her to oversee the bridge building day to day, and then year after year. Washington followed the construction of the bridge by spy glass from his infirmary perch in Brooklyn Heights, it was believed, and relayed his instructions from there; in reality, however, for about a dozen years, he was seeing no one face-to-face but his nurses and his wife.

Emily Roebling proved able in the supervisory role for the next 14 years, even facing down challengers from the worlds of politics, engineering and investment, to keep the project in her and her husband’s hands. Did she go on to accomplish more civil engineering wonders in her own name? No. But in 1899, at age 56, she got a law degree from New York University. She died in 1903 of stomach cancer.

125th anniversary fireworks in 2008

125th anniversary fireworks in 2008

Washington Roebling’s medical treatment may have used the addictive drugs of the day. On the day the bridge opened, Roebling did not attend the opening ceremony and at the family’s reception, he was able to stand for only a few minutes and reportedly he showed no emotion; that was left to his wife. But Roebling’s health improved some time after the bridge was completed, at least enough so that he remarried after Emily’s death, and even took the reins of John A. Roebling’s Sons, the family engineering company, at age 80. He had outlived his younger brothers and their sons. In spite of continuing pain from decompression sickness, he ran the company successfully until his own death in 1926 at age 89. In 1915, the East River Bridge was officially renamed the Brooklyn Bridge.

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