Washington A. Roebling

Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge Became a Mysterious Recluse

Illustration of Washington Roebling with Brooklyn Bridge in distance
Washington Roebling, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance. Getty Images

Washington A. Roebling served as the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge during 14 years of construction. During that time he coped with the tragic death of his father, John Roebling, who had designed the bridge, and also overcame serious health problems caused by his own work at the construction site.

With legendary determination, Roebling, confined to his house in Brooklyn Heights, directed the work on the bridge from a distance, watching progress through a telescope. He trained his wife, Emily Roebling, to relay his orders when she would visit the bridge nearly everyday.

Rumors swirled about the condition of Colonel Roebling, as he was generally known to the public. At various times the public believed he was entirely incapacitated, or had even gone insane. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public in 1883, suspicions were raised when Roebling did not attend the enormous celebrations.

Yet despite the nearly constant talk about his frail health and rumors of mental incapacity, he lived to the age of 89.

When Roebling died in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1926, an obituary published in the New York Times shot down many of the rumors. The article, published on July 22, 1926, said that in his final years Roebling was fond of riding the streetcar from his mansion to the wire mill his family owned and operated.

Roebling's Early Life

Washington Augustus Roebling was born May 26, 1837, in Saxonberg, Pennsylvania, a town founded by a group of German immigrants which included his father, John Roebling. The elder Roebling was a brilliant engineer who went into the wire rope business in Trenton, New Jersey.

After attending schools in Trenton, Washington Roebling attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and received a degree as a civil engineer. He began working for his father's business, and learned about bridge building, a field in which his father was gaining prominence.

Within days of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Roebling enlisted in the Union Army. He served as a military engineer in the Army of the Potomac. At the Battle of Gettysburg Roebling was instrumental in getting artillery pieces to the top of Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. His quick thinking and careful work helped secure the Union line.

During the war Roebling designed and built bridges for the Army. At the war's end he returned to working with his father. In the late 1860s he became involved in the project thought to be impossible: building a bridge across the East River, from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge

When John Roebling died in 1869, before any major work had started on the bridge, it fell to his son to make his vision a reality. 

While the elder Roebling was always credited for creating the vision for what was known as "The Great Bridge," he had not prepared detailed plans before his death. So his son was responsible for virtually all the details of the bridge's construction.

And, as the bridge was not like any other construction project ever attempted, Roebling had to find ways to overcome endless obstacles. He obsessed over the work, and fixated on every detail of construction.

During one of his visits to the underwater caisson, the chamber in which men dug at the river bottom while breathing compressed air, Roebling was stricken. He ascended to the surface too quickly, and suffered from "the bends."

By the end of 1872 Roebling was essentially confined to his house. For a decade he oversaw construction, though at least one official investigation sought to determine if he was still competent to direct such a massive project.

His wife Emily would visit the work site nearly every day, relaying orders from Roebling. Emily, by working closely with her husband, essentially became an engineer herself. 

After the successful opening of the bridge in 1883, Roebling and his wife eventually moved to Trenton, New Jersey. There were still many questions about his health, but he actually outlived his wife by 20 years. When he died on July 21, 1926, at the age of 89, he was remembered for his work making the Brooklyn Bridge a reality.