'In true love the smallest distance is too great, and the greatest distance can be bridged'.
Queen Victoria was born on May 24.But across the Atlantic there was another woman who would go on to become the queen of hearts and minds for an entire generation.
About 150,300 people would see the testimony of love that day…because one woman had proved that her love was truly immortal.
It would be a moment in history inscribed forever and the world endorsed it.
Summer of ‘83.
Emily ran her fingers on top of the inscription. The names of her husband and his father engraved in stone. Her dream had come true. The magnitude of it all was beyond her. The people looked at her every move, every gesture… watching her every step.
There was fanfare, people clapped in appreciation, it was a carnival like atmosphere. Barricades were taken down and lined by policemen. Fireworks were planned for later in the evening. The atmosphere was simply electric.
History was being created.
As Emily closed her eyes, the memories flooded her mind; she took a deep breath and re-lived the fragments of history that were the architects of this moment.
Fall of ‘67
John decided that he would take on the East River project against everyone’s advice. Engineering experts had pointed out a technical difficulty to build a suspension bridge so long. The load balance calculation was next to impossible and a wrong calculation could lead to a catastrophic disaster.
‘How are you going to solve the suspension problem? The loads are not easy to calculate? Queried a concerned assistant engineer Francis Collingwood.
John looked distinctly calm considering the enormity of the task at hand. He had already worked out new formulae to solve this problem – he had added a considerable safety factor to divide uneven loads to neutralize the forces affecting the structure.
‘Ah –but I am going to do it Francis’ John said confidently.
‘John you’ve done such wonderful work – why are you risking your reputation? Why do you want to build this bridge?’ Something of this magnitude has never been done before. The builders around town have already speculated your doom. Besides I think the other projects need much more attention right now – this is nothing but a career limiting move’ lamented Francis.
‘Fleeing Germany wasn’t a possibility for most people my friend. Everybody had advised against it even then. But I did. Are you suggesting this is any more difficult?’ John chuckled.
The construction planning had resumed in full swing after a couple of months. He was personally supervising every single detail. The design was brilliant, the engineering- innovative, and the execution, flawless.
Every brick, pebble and stone chip spoke of John’s dedication and love for the project.
Summer of ‘69
The project had gone through an abrupt start-stop phase in the last few years.
The organization finally chartered to build the bridge –the president of the local bridge company signed the bill approving the plan.
John was onsite supervising every minute detail every single day. Scouting for the right location to build the pier. The East river was 16 miles long and the ferry service from one end to the other was the only source of travel at the time. It would get frozen in the winters and travel was affected severely.
Lost in his thoughts, planning where the bridge would be built, he stood on the edge of the dock completely ignorant of an oncoming ferry. Before he realized, his toes were crushed - a freak accident, which would change the course of history.
John was in acute pain, but his work had to go on. He refused treatment. His determination was challenged every single day, until one day, he gave in...only to death.
John died of tetanus 24 days after the accident.
A complete state of shock and denial followed Washington, but he had inherited his father’s resolve and determination. His love for building the bridge.He took over the project with a single minded focus to complete his father’s dream. He loved his father for not only the man he was, the passion he had for his work, but also for the love he had for innovation and courage to achieve the impossible.
His wife Emily knew the road ahead would be tough. She needed to be strong herself and support her husband. She stood by him like the rock of Gibraltar. Little did she realize her love for Washington would be severely tested in time.
Winter of ’70
The construction work started in January. And it was not without it s share of setbacks. There was a caisson fire, explosion and even a steel cable contractor fraud.
Washington took care of every single detail in the project, just like his father. He took it upon himself and led by example - sometimes into dangerous and precarious situations. He pushed the envelope and it led to an irrevocable situation.
Construction of the bridge, which was built with the help of caissons, resulted in several workers being either killed or permanently injured by caisson disease, one of those injured being the designer's son –Washington.
Summer of ‘72
Washington had contracted the Caisson disease. It is so named since it appeared in construction workers when they left the compressed atmosphere of the caisson and rapidly reentered normal decompressed atmospheric conditions. It is caused by the same processes as decompression sickness in divers. Washington was paralyzed.
The only way Washington could be at the constructing site now, was with his vision. His body had refused to cooperate. A lone window by his bedside was the cruel divide between what could have been, his moment of glory, and what could well be, his painful death. He was hit with near total paralysis barely able to move his fingers. His body was paralyzed his mind was numb and his spirit was dying…but -
It’s in moments like these, brilliance strikes or divinity intervenes.
It’s at moments like these, when boys are separated from the men.
It’s at moments like these, when true passion is tested and determination bombarded like in a blood thirsty battle field, and they defeat anything everything that comes in their way.
Washington chose this moment to rise above his paralysis of the mind. The love for his father and his work became his source of motivation and his wife Emily the inspiration.
As Emily saw her husband lie in bed tears welled up in her eyes. Trying to hide her tears she rested her head by his hand and sat by his side right through the night. She was completely shattered. She didn’t realize when she fell asleep but she woke up with fingers tapping her forehead.
Washington was trying to say something. He tapped again. This time there was a pattern to it. Emily was still groggy and couldn’t understand what was going on. Then she followed the pattern closely and got a message.
‘Emily – I am going to build the bridge.’
His eyes spoke and his fingers tapped on Emily’s hand. All he could do was move one finger and he decided to make the best use of it. By moving this, he slowly developed a code of communication with his wife. He touched his wife's arm with that finger, indicating to her that he wanted her to call the engineers again and restart the project work.
‘Yes you will – and I‘ll make it happen for you.’ Emily said solemnly.
Emily and Washington had just built a new bridge of communication between them. Her love for Washington would rise to new heights. But challenges had only just begun.
The news of Washington’s handicap had spread like wildfire. The world had given up on them and the bridge. People felt that the project should be scrapped and Washington removed as the chief engineer.
But Emily had other plans.
Emily rearranged the room and placed Washington’s bed closer to the window where he could see the construction site more clearly. It was also the first time she looked at the construction more clearly and thus began her journey of love, determination and execution.
With Washington confined to his bed and fearing he wouldn't live to finish the project, she began taking down copious notes on what he said remained to be done.
Painstakingly she learnt every detail of the project, worked on every calculation and wrote every single instruction to be carried out.
As the project faced delays and cost increased, skepticism mounted that the bridge could be completed under Washington guidance. The project had captured everyone’s attention. It had become a national obsession.
Emily wrote down her husband's statement, citing the reasons why he should not be displaced. She delivered it as an address before the American Society of Civil Engineers - a brave move on her part, as women who spoke in public often were not well-received in those days. She took on the critics, the legislators, the completion and championed the cause.
Fortunately, the council agreed to retain Washington as chief engineer.
For 11 painstaking years Emily dedicated every moment of her life, every bit of hope she had, every ounce of energy she’d got into this project. Her love was tested and withstood the test of time.
It became a routine to read up journals on constructions around the country, studying higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction, every single detail of the plan over and over again.
She was in essence the new chief engineer of the project.
May 24, 1883 - 2PM
‘Sir I am nervous’
‘Oh don’t be – this is your moment as much as it is America’s’ said the 21st president of the United States of America – Chester A Arthur.
Cannon fire greeted the presidential carriage. The atmosphere was electric. An estimated 150,300 people gathered on the day of opening ceremony. There were ships lined up in the bay. The Mayors had arrived as well.
A staggering 1.3 miles long, this was 50% longer than any such structure in the world. It boasted of the first usage of pneumatic caissons and first steel cable suspension bridge weighing approximately 15 thousand tons. A feat achieved with outstanding innovation, dedication and sacrifice.
Emily walked over to the foundation stone inscription and ran her fingers over the names of the builders of the suspension bridge.
1. John Roebling
2. Washington Roebling
As she opened her eyes –the majestic Brooklyn bridge stood in front of her in all its glory.
She was the first person to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge. By 5PM that evening an estimated 1800 vehicles crossed the bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Washington could not attend the ceremony but the president personally went over to shake hands and congratulate the marvelous achievement and hosted a banquet dinner in his honor.
It was a tribute to the triumph of one man's indomitable spirit and one woman’s undying love.
It was a tribute to a father, John Roebling who the world considered the pioneer of engineering the suspension bridge, and the son who lived up to his father’s name.
It is also a tribute to the engineers and their team work, and to their faith in a man who was paralyzed and incapacitated to work.
It was a monument of love which bridged the gap between belief and destiny.
Gyanban Thoughts -
It fascinates me to know, that a woman who was not an engineer,trained her mind, learned mathematics and construction details, at a time when there were no such precedents. Society was not for it. No technology supported or facilitated learning.It was just books. There was no Google.There was no access to world of materials on the net. Just books and lessons that her husband taught. Simply phenomenal isn't it?
Think about conviction. John daring to build something that was never done before. Most of us fear going into unknown territories even with so much of knowledge available today.Salute to John and the brilliant men like him who live their lives to make a difference.
It is not easy to fill in your fathers shoes, more so if the father happens to be a pioneer. Think about Washington's sense of respect, his sense of discipline and his tremendous tenacity. Phrases like 'when the going gets tough...' get written for men like him.All he had was a bedroom window. He saw the construction every single day.imagine his state of mind when the bridge finally got built - and he was not able to attend? Courage and self belief were by bedside till he died. Wonder what stops us?
Emily and Washington did this for 11 consecutive years.Can we even begin to imagine their mental strength and tenacity ? How does one get it?
Or is it inborn? Or is it simply love?
The facts of the case are researched below.
- Emily Roebling Story – references from American Society of Civil Engineers.
- She was regarded as Silent Builder and the first woman field engineer.
- John Roebling Story – New York Times, Wikipedia,Endex –The Engineering Index.
- Washington Roebling Story – Wikipedia,The Epic Story of Brooklyn Bridge.
- Image courtesy -Netorama.com;
- Caisson Disease – The tremendous pressure, the suffocating heat, the lack of oxygen and the noise all combined to limit a worker's time within the caisson to a maximum of two hours. As they ascended through the compressed air to the top of the caisson, the workers were threatened with the crippling and painful effects of the bends - an imbalance of nitrogen in the blood caused by a too rapid ascension out of the compressed air.
- History before the bridge –NYCroads/David McCullough - A bridge over the East River, joining the cities of New York and Brooklyn, had been talked about for nearly as long as anyone can remember� But nothing was done. The chief problem was always the East River, which is no river at all technically speaking, but a tidal strait and one of the most turbulent and in that day, especially, one of the busiest stretches of navigable salt water anywhere on earth. "If there is to be a bridge," wrote one man, "it must take one grand flying leap from shore to shore over the masts of the ships. There can be no piers or drawbridge. There must be only one great arch all the way across. Surely this must be a wonderful bridge."
- In 1855, John Roebling, the owner of a wire-rope company and a famous bridge designer, proposed a suspension bridge over the East River after becoming impatient with the Atlantic Avenue-Fulton Street Ferry. Roebling worked out every detail of the bridge, from its massive granite towers to its four steel cables. He thought his design entitled the bridge "to be ranked as a national monument� a great work of art."
- John Roebling fled Germany on May 22, 1831 with his brother Karl.
- Type of bridge ……………………………………… Suspension
- Construction started ……………………………… January 3, 1870
- Opened to traffic …………………………………… May 24, 1883
- Length of main span ……………………………… 1,595 feet, 6 inches
- Length of side spans ………………………………… 930 feet
- Length, anchorage to anchorage …………………… 3,455 feet, 6 inches
- Total length of bridge and approaches ……………… 6,016 feet
- Width of bridge ……………………………………… 85 feet
- Number of traffic lanes ……………………………… 6 lanes
- Number of cables …………………………………… 4 cables
- Height of towers above mean high water …………… 276 feet, 6 inches
- Clearance at center above mean high water ……… 135 feet
- Length of each of four cables ……………………… 3,578 feet, 6 inches
- Diameter of each cable ……………………………… 15 ¾ inches
- Number of wires in each cable ……………………… 5,434 wires
- Total length of wires ………………………………… 14,060 miles
- Total masonry in towers ……………………………… 85,159 cubic yards
- Weight of suspended structure ……………………… 6,620 tons
- Total weight of bridge ……………………………… 14,680 tons
- Cost of original structure …………………………… $15,100,000
- The Brooklyn Bridge opened - May 24,1883, 2:00 PM
- People crossing the bridge on opening day - 150,300
- Bridge opened to vehicles - May 24, 1883, 5:00 p.m.
- Total number of vehicles crossed on the first day - 1,800
- Vehicles charge on Opening Day - 5 cents