The Roeblings: Americas great engineering family

John A. Roebling had a deep and passionate love for science, math, and engineering. These loves led him to become one of the most famous engineers in American history.


John emigrated from Germany to America in 1831. Engineers had a hard time achieving economic mobility in Prussian society. It is also in this time that political unrest in Prussia arose. An authoritarian government overtook the democratic government. As a result, John left Germany with three hundred people to found a colony in which his people could gain freedom and he could advance his engineering practices. In this time, the 1800’s, Americans were on the move. People were traveling all over the country to find new opportunities for themselves. New transportation technologies were constantly being invented. This period is often referred to as the transportation revolution. Engineers were highly valued because states were constantly fighting for the honor of having the most advanced transportation technologies.


John founded a new colony north of Pittsburgh called Saxonburg. The town was planned and built around a church, a center for the town’s spirit and community. As the town developed, Roebling invested more time in his engineering practice and patented a new steel cable in 1841. The catalyst for the invention came when John was working on the Pennsylvania Railroad and Canal. Workers were winching a boat uphill and the rope unraveled killing several men in front of him.


The invention of the steel cable and a device to wind it brought Roebling enormous wealth. He left Saxonburg in 1848 and started a company in Trenton, New Jersey. By this time he had achieved fame and a premier reputation for designing many different structures around the country, one of which was the first suspension bridge to carry railroad traffic. It is around this time that he picked up interest in his most notable achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge. None before him had the engineering expertise, reputation, or passion to build the bridge. Some said the bridge had financial risk. Ferry companies said the bridge would impede their business. The bridge’s supporting structure also had to be built completely underwater. Roebling submitted a design that eased the ferry companies concerns and was shortly after named lead architect by Henry Murphy, the financial supporter of the project. Before construction began, Roebling was examining the site and reviewing the final details of his design. He was standing on a group of piles at the Fulton Ferry Slip in Brooklyn when, unseen by him, a ferry boat entered the slip and pushed heavily against the fender, crushing his foot. As a result of the injury, his toes had to be amputated which ultimately led to tetanus. John A. Roebling died two days later.


On his deathbed John Roebling turned over the task of finishing the Brooklyn Bridge to his son, Washington. Washington studied architecture and engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and he traveled to Europe to study the use of Pneumatic Caussions. These were large wooden boxes that laid on the riverbed with pressurized air pumped into them to keep out debris and water. They were essential to building the bridges supporting structures. Washington started to realize that as his workers came out of the Caussions, some were noticeably ill. These people suffered from the “Bends” or Caissons disease. Washington himself spent a lot of time down in the Caussions which ultimately led to him getting the disease. It did not kill him, but left him paralyzed and unable to go to the construction site. He was now forced to sit in his Brooklyn apartment and watch the construction proceed.


It is from this apartment that Washington drafted his plans to finish construction. Being unable to go to the bridge, his wife Emily became his liaison. She made daily visits to the bridge, giving instructions to the workers while at the same time bringing Washington back updates. Under Emily’s supervision, work progressed steadily all the way until the bridge was completed. She was even the first person to walk across the completed work being watched by hundreds as fireworks were shot off and the American flag was raised overhead.


The Brooklyn Bridge is a testament to American greatness and perseverance. Just seeing the bridge in person is enough to fill the onlooker with appreciation and admiration for the Roebling family. If you cannot make the trip to New York, a small replica of the Roebling family’s greatest achievement is on display in Saxonburg at Roebling Park.

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