Emily Warren Roebling

Emily Warren Roebling (September 23, 1843 – February 28, 1903) is known for her contribution to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband Washington Roebling developed caisson disease (a.k.a. decompression disease). Her husband was a civil engineer and the chief engineer during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Emily Warren Roebling
Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Carolus-Duran, Brooklyn Museum
Born(1843-09-23)23 September 1843
Cold Spring, New York, United States
Died28 February 1903(1903-02-28) (aged 59)
Known forcontribution to completion of the Brooklyn Bridge
Spouse(s)Washington Roebling

Early life

Emily was born to Sylvanus and Phebe Warren at Cold Spring, New York, on September 23, 1843. She was the second youngest of twelve children.[1] Emily’s interest in pursuing education was supported by her older brother Gouverneur K. Warren. The two siblings always held a close relationship.[2] She attended school at the Georgetown Visitation Academy in Washington DC.

In 1864, during the American Civil War, Emily visited her brother, who was commanding the Fifth Army Corps (a.k.a. V Corps), at his headquarters. At a solider's ball that she attended during the visit, she became acquainted with Washington Roebling, the son of Brooklyn Bridge designer John A. Roebling, who was a civil engineer serving on Gouverneur Warren's staff.[3] Emily and Washington married in a dual wedding ceremony (alongside another Warren sibling) in Cold Spring on January 18, 1865.[4]

As John Roebling was starting his preliminary work on the Brooklyn Bridge, the newlyweds went to Europe to study the use of caissons for the bridge.[3] In November 1867, Emily gave birth to the couple's only child, John A. Roebling II, while living in Germany.[4]

Brooklyn Bridge

On their return from their European studies, Washington's father died of tetanus following an accident at the bridge site, and Washington took charge of the Brooklyn Bridge's construction as chief engineer.[5] As he immersed himself in the project, Washington developed decompression sickness, which was known at the time as "caisson disease".[6][7][8] It affected him so badly that he became bed-ridden.

As the only person to visit her husband during his sickness, Emily was to relay information from Washington to his assistants and report the progress of work on the bridge. She developed an extensive knowledge of strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and calculating catenary curves through Washington's teachings.[9] Emily's knowledge was complemented by her prior interest in and study of the bridge's construction upon her husband's appointment to chief engineer. For the decade after Washington took to his sick bed, Emily's dedication to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge was unyielding. She took over much of the chief engineer duties, including day-to-day supervision and project management. Emily and her husband jointly planned the bridge's continued construction. She dealt with politicians, competing engineers, and all those associated with the work on the bridge to the point where people believed she was behind the bridge's design.[4][10]

In 1882, Washington's title of chief engineer was in jeopardy because of his sickness. In order to allow him to retain his title, Emily went to gatherings of engineers and politicians to defend her husband. To the Roeblings' relief, the politicians responded well to Emily's speeches, and Washington was permitted to remain chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. In advance of the official opening, carrying a rooster as a sign of victory, Emily Roebling was the first to cross the bridge by carriage.[11] At the opening ceremony, Emily was honored in a speech by Abram Stevens Hewitt, who said that the bridge was

...an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.[12]

Later life

Upon completion of her work on the Brooklyn Bridge, Emily invested her time in several women's causes including Committee on Statistics of the New Jersey Board of Lady Managers for the World's Columbian Exposition, Committee of Sorosis, Daughters of the American Revolution, George Washington Memorial Association, and Evelyn College.[13] This occurred when the Roebling family moved to Trenton, New Jersey. Emily also participated in social organizations such as the Relief Society during the Spanish–American War. She traveled widely—in 1896 she was presented to Queen Victoria, and she was in Russia for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II.[12] She also continued her education and received a law certificate from New York University.[14]

Roebling is also known for an influential essay she authored, "A Wife's Disabilities," which won wide acclaim and awards. In the essay, she argued for greater women's rights and railed against discriminatory practices targeted at women.[13] Until her death on February 28, 1903, she spent her remaining time with her family and kept socially and mentally active.[14]


Today the Brooklyn Bridge is marked with a plaque dedicated to the memory of Emily, her husband Washington Roebling, and her father-in-law John A. Roebling.[15][16]

In 2018 The New York Times published a belated obituary for Emily.[17]


  1. Roebling, Emily Warren: "Notes on the Warren Family" in the Appendix, Page 446, "The Journal of the Reverend Silas Comfort", Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1903
  2. Weingardt, Richard: "Engineering Legends: Great American Civil Engineers", page 56. ASCE Publications, 2005.
  3. Petrash, Antonia: "More than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women", page 80. Globe Pequot, 2001.
  4. Logan, Mary: "The Part Taken by Women in American History", page 297. The Perry-Nalle Publishing Co., 1912.
  5. Petrash, Antonia: More than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women, page 82. Globe Pequot, 2001.
  6. Petrash, page 83
  7. Butler WP (2004). "Caisson disease during the construction of the Eads and Brooklyn Bridges: A review". Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine. 31 (4): 445–59. PMID 15686275. Archived from the original on 2011-08-22. Retrieved 2009-03-11.
  8. "Emily Warren Roebling | ASCE". www.asce.org. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  9. Weingardt, Richard: Engineering Legends: Great American Civil Engineers, page 58. ASCE Publications, 2005.
  10. "Britannica Academic". academic.eb.com. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  11. David McCullough. Brave Companions: Portraits in History. Simon & Schuster, 1992. p. 116. ISBN 0-671-79276-8.
  12. "ASCE Historic Civil Engineers: Emily Warren Roebling". asce.org.
  13. "American National Biography Online: Roebling, Emily Warren". www.anb.org. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  14. Petrash, page 88
  15. Historical Marker Database Photo of Emily Warren Roebling plaque
  16. Petrash, page 89
  17. Bennett, Jessica (8 March 2018). "Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Behind the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge" via NYTimes.com.


  • "Notes on the Warren Family" in The Journal of the Reverend Silas Constant. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1903; Appendix, Page 466

Further reading

  • Bennett, Jessica. "Emily Warren Roebling, 1843-1903," New York Times, March 8, 2018.
  • McCullough, David. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Simon and Schuster, 1972.
  • Wagner, Erica. Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge. Bloomsbury, 2017.
  • Weigold,, Marilyn. (1984). Silent Builder: Emily Warren Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge. Associated Faculty Press.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  • Stuart, John A. (April 1998). "Gender reconfigured: Emily Roebling and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge". Architectural theory review: journal of the Department of Architecture, the University of Sydney. 3 (1): 23–34.
  • Lewis, Anna M. (2014). Women of Steel and Stone : 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (1st ed.). Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press. pp. 103–110. ISBN 9781613745083. Retrieved 24 March 2018.
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