Washington Roebling Biography — Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge

Washington Roebling Portrait - Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge circa 1902

Washington Roebling Portrait – Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge circa 1902

[Republished from Cassier’s Magazine 1902].

AS an engineer Colonel Roebling’s first work was in assisting his father, the late John A. Roebling, to build the Allegheny Suspension Bridge. This was shortly after graduation from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, at Troy, N. Y., in 1857. Since that time international fame has been his as builder of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge.

At the beginning of the Civil War he enlisted as a private in the Sixth New York Artillery. He served with this battery for one year, and for the remainder of the war he was employed on staff duty. He was at Ball’s Bluff with General Stone and on the Lower Potomac with General Hooker, fighting the Shipping Point batteries, during the winter of 1861-62. General Hooker’s command was then transferred to the Peninsula, and after the evacuation of Yorktown Colonel Roebling was transferred to General McDowell’s staff, and built a suspension bridge, 1 200 feet long, across the Rappahannock for the use of the army. He took part in the pursuit of General Stonewall Jackson through the valley, and went with the cavalry reconnoissance to Louise county, returning to Culpepper, which he found in the hands of the enemy.

He was on General Pope’s staff at South Mountain and Antietam through the campaign which ended in the second battle of Bull Run. During this time he built a suspension bridge across the Shenandoah, at Harper’s Ferry. He was on duty at general headquarters during the battle of Chancellorsville. At this time he used to ascend every morning in a balloon to reconnoiter the enemy. In this way he was the first to discover and announce the fact that General Lee was moving off toward Gettysburg. He served on engineering duty in the Second Corps from August, 1863, to March, 1864, during which time he took part in the movement on Culpepper and the Rapidan, the combat at Antietam, the skirmish at Bull Run, and the battle of Kelly’s Ford. He served on staff duty with the Fifth Corps from March, 1864, to January i, 1865. In the Richmond campaign he was at the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, North Anna, Bethesda Church, Cold. Harbor, White Oak Swamp, the assault on Petersburg, siege of Petersburg, the Petersburg mine assault, Weldon Road, Peeble’s Farm, Chapel House and Hatcher’s Run. His last duty as a soldier was assisting in the destruction of the Weldon Road, December, 1864.

Colonel Roebling served with honour and distinction in the army of the Potomac, receiving three brevets for gallant conduct, and in January, 1865, he resigned his commission in the army and went to Cincinnati to assist his father in completing the Cincinnati and Covington Bridge. After his arrival there he took almost entire charge of the bridge work, from the spinning of the first cable wire until the last piece of the superstructure was in position. While the Cincinnati bridge was being constructed Mr. John A. Roebling was already busy with his plans for a bridge across the East River. As soon as he had finished his work on the Cincinnati bridge Colonel Roebling went to England, France and Germany to see and study up all that could be learned on the subject of pneumatic foundations, knowledge necessary before undertaking the difficult task of sinking the foundations of the East River Bridge. He remained one year in Europe, and besides inspecting all the important engineering works then going on there, he made a special study of the manufacture of steel, visiting the great works of Krupp at Essen, as well as the most important ones in England.

In February, 1869, he went to Brooklyn to live, choosing a residence as near as he could get to the work. While the caissons were being sunk he never left Brooklyn even for an hour, and at all hours of the day and night he visited the work going on under the water, and by his coolness, foresight and quick comprehension of the best way out of any unexpected difficulties, he several times averted a serious panic among the men when slight accidents and “blowouts” occurred.

His excessive devotion to the work, joined with the fact that he spent more hours of the twenty-four in the com pressed air of the caissons than anyone else, wore out his strength, and one afternoon in the spring of 1872 Colonel Roebling was brought up out of the New York caisson nearly insensible, and all one night his death was hourly expected by the anxious friends who watched by his bedside. In a few days he rallied, and was back on the work again. He was too weak, however, to labour as he had done before, and after the foundation of the new York pier was completed in July, 1872, he spent two or three weeks at Saratoga and Richfield Springs. He returned to the scene of his labours somewhat better after this little rest, but all the summer and autumn he was obliged to stay at home for a few days at a time.

In December he found himself too weak and ill to go down to the bridge any more. Fearing that he might not live to finish the work himself, and knowing how incomplete the plans and instructions for the completion of the bridge still were, he spent the whole winter writing and drawing, and the papers written while he was too sick to leave his room contain the most minute and exact directions for making the cables and the erection of all the complicated parts which compose the superstructure.

In the spring of 1873 the physicians attending upon him insisted that his one chance of life was to get away from his work ; so he went to Germany and spent six months at Wiesbaden. Writing so much in his enfeebled condition had weakened and injured his eyes. He was too weak to carry on a long conversation with his assistants, and probably no great project was ever conducted by a man who had to work under so many disadvantages. It could not have been accomplished but for the unselfish devotion of his assistant engineers. Each man had a certain department in charge, and they united with all their energies to have their work properly done according to Colonel Roebling’ s plans and wishes, and not to carry out any pet theory of their own or for their self-glorification.

When Mr. John A. Roebling met sudden and painful death in July, 1869, Colonel Roebling was left with three burdens on his shoulders, — the settlement of his father’s estate, the care of the manufacturing business in Trenton, and the largest bridge in the world, on which not a stroke of work had been done, the plans of which were most general in character, and not a detail of which had been considered.

The period of time at the end of the sinking of the New York caisson was one of intense anxiety to Colonel Roebling. Below was a bed of sand with an irregular ledge of rock underneath, of a depth varying from 4 to 20 feet. To have gone down to the rock and levelled off the whole foundation would have involved an expense of an additional half million and a sacrifice of another year of time. He, therefore, took the bold step of stopping within a few feet of the bed-rock and leaving an intervening cushion of sand to distribute the pressures. The result, as proved by experience, has been entirely satisfactory.

There is scarcely a feature in the whole work of the bridge that did not present new and untried problems. The methods used to get the material out of the caissons, lighting the caissons , filling them by the supply shaft, and the machinery for raising the stone on the tower all resulted from Colonel Roebling’ s design.

Colonel Roebling built the anchor plates much larger than his father had intended. Steel cables had never before been used. All previous cables had been made in seven strands, but the cables for the East River Bridge comprised nineteen strands. The use of an elevated foot bridge over the top of the towers was an entirely new feature in this work, as with all previous suspension bridges a foot bridge nearly on the same level as the main bridge had been used. The splice which had formerly been tried for iron wire was not adapted for steel wire, and a new one had to be devised that would retain as nearly as possible the full strength of the wire. This took two years of experimenting before it was satisfactorily accomplished. The manufacture and preparation of steel wire suitable for the cable and the method of handling it caused the Colonel much thought and anxiety.

In personal appearance Colonel Roebling is about 5 feet 10 inches in height. He is a blonde of the German type, with large, expressive gray eyes. While he is unpretentious in manner, his personality is marked by strong individuality and perfect self-composure. He is a man of versatile attainments, being a good classical scholar, a fine linguist, an excellent musician, and a mineralogist with hardly a superior in the country.

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