Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Saxonburg, Butler County
Born in Saxonburg, Washington Roebling continued his father's work as Chief Engineer in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Washington Augustus Roebling was born on May 36, 1837. Son of engineer John A. Roebling (Johann August Röbling), he would follow in his father's footsteps. Roebling completed many suspension bridges with his father and served in the Civil War as an engineer on the staff of several generals. Roebling is most famous for completing the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the largest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its completion. Washington Roebling became a physical invalid while the bridge was under construction, but he continued to direct its construction from his home. Washington A. Roebling died on May 26, 1837.
Washington Augustus Roebling was born on May 36, 1837, in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania (in Butler County), to John August and Johanna Roebling.
Washington Roebling grew up in Saxonburg, a village of German farmers who had just made the journey to America. John Roebling founded this settlement by leading a group of immigrants from Mühlhausen, Germany, to America in 1832. Roebling surveyed and planned the village and distributed land to the families. Washington Roebling had little in the way of material comforts growing up in this small farming community. The only sources of entertainment available to him were parties and dances, which were held frequently. He began his education at the age of six, when a newly arrived immigrant, Julius Riedel, tutored him. Riedel eventually married Washington Roebling's aunt and later set up a small school in Saxonburg. Growing up in a German community, Roebling was fluent in both English and German. He also learned to speak some French, but not with the same proficiency as the other two languages.
While living in Saxonburg, John and Johanna Roebling had six children. Washington Augustus was the oldest, and helped to take care of his brother Ferdinand (five years younger) and his three younger sisters. The couple's second child, an unnamed daughter, died as an infant.
The settlement of Saxonburg was plagued by frigid winters, sweltering summers, and poor land, resulting in less than ideal farming conditions. John Roebling was unsuccessful at farming and eventually started a wire rope making business in their Saxonburg home. This wire rope venture was enormously successful; it grew so big that the Roeblings eventually had to move to a more comfortable location in Trenton, New Jersey. They started construction on their new home and factory when Washington Roebling was just 12-years-old. John Roebling chose Trenton because it was near an iron works to supply the wire, and it was a transportation hub, which provided easy shipping to customers. His experience with the family business allowed young Washington Roebling a close up view of the wire he would later use in his suspension bridges.
Roebling continued his studies at The Trenton Academy, which was one of the most well-known schools in the state of New Jersey. Many Trenton Academy alumni had achieved great things, and Washington Roebling showed promise as one of the few students who was a member of the honored "Classical Department." During his days at the Academy, Roebling would help run the wire rope business while his father was away working on bridges in other parts of the country.
In 1854, Washington Roebling entered the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York. It was his father's wish that his eldest son would follow his footsteps as an engineer. There was no better place to do this than the Rensselaer Institute, since it was regarded as the best engineering school in the country. The Rensselaer Institute was exceptionally challenging; Roebling's class started with 65 students and only graduated 12. Roebling later commented in a letter home that the "the few who graduated left the school as mental wrecks." No records survive from Washington Roebling's time at the Institute; they were destroyed in one of the several fires that the facility endured. Roebling graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1857 and retuned home to Trenton, where he managed the wire business for a short time before beginning his professional career.
One year later, in 1858, Washington Roebling traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he would get his start as a professional engineer. Roebling was impressed with the Pittsburgh's growth since he had last visited the city while living in Saxonburg. He joined his father there to build a bridge over the Allegheny River. This bridge was to replace one that had stood for over four decades before becoming unstable. Midway though its construction, John Roebling had to leave for Cincinnati to begin construction on another bridge, and he left Washington in charge. Roebling engrossed himself with his work and enjoyed the stressful life of a bridge maker. The Allegheny Bridge was finally finished in 1860, and it was regarded as the best in the world. It was not only an impressive feat of engineering, but it was also hailed for its artistry. It even received recognition from the Prince of Wales, who was astonished to find such fine work in a "small provincial town." The Allegheny Bridge stood until 1928, when it had to be replaced in order to accommodate increased traffic and new electric rail cars.
After returning to Trenton, Washington Roebling was in town to hear President Lincoln give a speech while passing through the city. He asked for everyone's support to keep the Union together, and the Roeblings, being staunch Republicans, were very much impressed. When President Lincoln called for volunteers on April 15, 1861, after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Roebling signed up for the State Militia the next day. He quickly tired of the mundane garrison duty to which his unit was assigned and requested a discharge after serving for just two months. Roebling immediately re-enlisted with the Sixth New York Artillery and started as a private. Before long his skill as an engineer was recognized by the army and in 1862, he was promoted to Lieutenant and transferred to the staff of General Irvin McDowell.
Roebling's main task while serving under General McDowell was to plan and oversee the construction of bridges for military purposes. He was required to design several adaptable bridges in advance and gather all of the necessary materials to build them so that a bridge could be constructed at a moment's notice. He also had to create instructions that could be followed by officers in the field with little to no bridge building experience. During his service, Roebling was ordered to go to Fredericksburg and reconstruct a bridge over the Rappahannock, which had been destroyed in a flood. This was the first bridge that was entirely Roebling's own creation. He served as designer, engineer, architect, and foreman. He also had to undertake training the men who had never done bridgework before. Washington Roebling and his team managed to complete the thousand-foot bridge in the course of two weeks.
In the summer, Roebling was transferred to the staff of General John Pope, during which he took part in the second battle of Bull Run (Manassas). He was also present for the battles of Antietam and South Mountain. In October of 1862, Roebling was put in charge of constructing a bridge over the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry. The bridge suffered several delays in the delivery of material, but Roebling managed to have it completed by December. After constructing the bridge at Harpers Ferry (which was later captured by the Confederates), Roebling took part in the Battle of Chancellorsville. After being driven back across the Rappahannock by General Lee, Lieutenant Roebling was given the duty of ascending in one of the army's hot air balloons in order to report on enemy troop movement. He reported directly to General Meade on his observations, which were the quickest source of information on the enemy's location. It was one of Lieutenant Roebling's observations that sparked the massive troop mobilization towards the battle of Gettysburg.
Ten days prior to the first shot at Gettysburg, Roebling and his superiors realized that no one in the Union command had a detailed topographical map of Pennsylvania. While both armies were en route, he went home to Trenton to get one such map that Roebling knew his father had. Roebling had to ride through enemy territory at night to deliver the map and only reached General Meade by the morning of the first day of combat. Roebling was present at the battle of Little Round Top and was with General Warren when Hood's efforts to flank the Union position were discovered. Lieutenant Roebling helped move cannons into place by hand, which helped to hold their flank. Some historians even attribute the actions of General Warren's men on that day as the turning point of the entire Civil War. On January 1, 1865, Washington Roebling was given an honorable discharge and retired from the army as a Colonel.
While serving with General Warren during the war, Colonel Roebling met Warren's sister, Emily, whom he married in 1865 after being discharged from the army. He first met Emily Warren when she was visiting her brother at camp in Virginia. After getting married, Roebling went to Cincinnati to help his father complete the Cincinnati and Covington Bridge. The bridge was finished two years later, in the summer of 1867, when his father was appointed chief engineer of the East River Bridge (Brooklyn Bridge). Washington A. Roebling fathered a son in this same year and named him, after his father, John A. Roebling II.
The Brooklyn Bridge would make both Roeblings world-famous and give them a lasting legacy. The attempt to bridge the East River was debated for some time before the project's undertaking. It would require giant approaches to achieve sufficient height above the river to avoid blocking tall-masted sailing ships.. In order to support the massive cables needed to complete the span, two towers had to be erected in the river. To lay a good foundation and overcome the silt at the bottom of the river, the Roeblings determined that a wooden caisson would be the best way to construct the towers. Washington Roebling immediately left for Europe to study the technique, which had only been recently developed there. He traveled to several bridge sites that were completed and under construction in order to get a close look at the technique. Roebling returned to the US in 1868 and helped his father make plans for the bridge.
While surveying the location of the towers, John Roebling had part of his foot crushed when a ferry crashed into the dock he was standing on. His toes were amputated, but he suffered many complications, and due to his stubbornness, would not let physicians see him. John August Roebling died two weeks later on July 22, 1869. With the chief engineer dead, the only logical choice as a replacement was his son, Washington Roebling, even though he was only 32 at the time.
Construction of the two towers was started in 1870. Two huge caissons were floated in place and slowly sank to the river bed as they were piled with granite. The bottom of the boxes were open, and air was constantly pumped into them, keeping the water out. The workers could then descend into the contraptions to build the foundation. They hauled the unstable silt out of the caissons until they were able to build on solid bedrock.
Washington Roebling spent much time down in the caissons supervising the project. The side effects from compressed air that he and the workers were subjected to were not fully understood at the time. Colonel Roebling collapsed upon coming to the surface on several occasions from what is known as the bends, or decompression sickness. The bends also came to be known as "caisson disease," due to its mysterious effects on the workers in the caissons. The modern treatment of a recompression chamber was yet to be discovered, leaving no diagnosis for the sickness. In 1872, Roebling passed out after coming up from the caisson and had to be carried away from the site. He eventually returned to work, but his health would never recover. In December, the sickness left him crippled and he could no longer visit the work site.
Despite Roebling's condition, he remained chief engineer. His wife Emily was vital to him during this time. From his room by the river, Roebling could observe the construction via a telescope. Mrs. Roebling served as a messenger between him and his staff at the site. Colonel Roebling taught his wife the fundamentals of engineering so that she could give him more accurate reports. The bridge was completed in 1883, although Roebling would never visit the site himself again. The opening ceremonies took place on May 24, 1883, with an estimated 50,000 people in attendance. It had so much publicity that even the President of the United States and his cabinet attended. People crowded the streets and displayed American flags in their windows. Due to his health, Roebling was forced to watch the ceremonies from the window in his apartment, near the river. He was overcome with emotion as he watched the scene below him; this was both the day that his entire life was leading up to and the realization of Washington and John Roebling's dreams.
The Brooklyn Bridge stands to this day as a monument to its creators and the American spirit. Since 1883, many larger structures have been built as we continue to test our own limits with new and exciting projects. However, none to this day has equaled the publicity that the Brooklyn Bridge received. This project captivated the imaginations of many and held their interest throughout the entire project. Although the Bridge, which once dominated the New York skyline, is now surpassed by many taller structures, a passerby cannot help but admire the ingenuity with witch it was constructed.
Much has been written about or inspired by Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge. In The Bridge as a Monument, Montgomery Schuyler describes it as "one of the mechanical wonders of the world, one of the greatest and most characteristic of the monuments of the nineteenth century." The majestic beauty of this monument would stir many creative minds into action. In his second book, Hart Crane leads off with a poem, entitled The Bridge. Crane was so inspired by the bridge that he moved to several different apartments during his life just to get a different view of the bridge from his window. The Brooklyn Bridge made a number of appearances in over eight movies from 1998-2006, including several in which it was destroyed in natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The Brooklyn Bridge will remain an inspiration to humanity for as long as it stands.
Colonel Washington Augustus Roebling retired from the engineering profession in 1883 when the bridge was finished. While his son attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, just as the previous two generations of Roeblings did, Washington Augustus and his family moved to Troy, New York. Once John Roebling II graduated from the Institute, the family moved back to Trenton for good. Roebling's wife, Emily, died in 1903 after suffering from long-term illness. Five years later he married Cornelia Witsell, who was a widow. He lived quietly for the rest of his life with Cornelia in Trenton.
Washington Augustus Roebling died at the age of 89 on July 21, 1926, at his house in Trenton. Most of his family was at his bedside when he passed away, including his wife and son. He spent much of his time in retirement collecting mineral samples, a subject in which he was a well-regarded scholar. He was able to collect over 16,000 samples in his personal collection, and after Roebling's death, his son donated his private collection to the Smithsonian Institution. To honor him, the Mineralogical Society of America named a mineral after Roebling. Roeblingite is only found in New Jersey and is the only mineral that contains sulfite.The family wire rope business was carried on until 1973. Today it is commemorated by a historical museum in Roebling, New Jersey.
Allegheny Bridge, Pittsburgh, 1860.
Rappahannock Bridge, Fredericksburg, 1862.
Shenandoah Bridge, Harpers Ferry, 1862.
Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, Cincinnati, 1867.
Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1883.
Green, Samuel W. A Complete History of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. New York: S.W. Green & Son, 1883.