If you’ve ever been to New York City no doubt you have seen the Brooklyn Bridge. The story of the building of the bridge is one of the greatest stories of human motivation I have ever heard. And the bridge itself is one of the human-made miracles of our civilized world. The Brooklyn Bridge spans the East River which seperates Manhattan from Brooklyn. The bridge’s two towers are 278 feet high and were the tallest structures in New York City when the bridge was built. On the bridge is a plaque which reads: “Dedicated to the Memory or Emily Warren Roebling, 1843 – 1903, whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband, Colonel Washington Roebling, C.E., complete the construction of the bridge from the plans of his father.”
During the mid-nineteenth century a young engineer named John Roebling built some impressive suspension bridges. This was at a time when some of the worst bridge builders were at work. Many lives were lost due to poor quality engineering and construction. When Roebling heard about the problems with the East River clogging up with winter ice preventing ferry boats from operating for weeks at a time, he concieved an idea of a suspension bridge spanning the river and tying Manhattan and Brooklyn. Bridge builders of the day scoffed at the idea and said it could not be done. Newspapers called his idea the bizarre fantasy of an eccentric.
Roebling was a man of conviction with a vision. It took nine years to convince the New York politicians that his plan would work. Finally in 1866 Roebling was appointed chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge. Other engineers continued to criticize Roebling and news reporters called the project preposterous. But Roebling believed in his own ability to design and build it. He didn’t claim to have all the answers, but he kept moving forward one step at a time.
Up to this time suspension bridges were hung with rope made of hemp. Roebling knew a bridge as big as the Brooklyn Bridge needed added strength. So, he concieved of the idea of making rope of wire. Thus began the manufacturing process by which we make wire cables today. Roebling continued working, developing systems that would make the bridge possible. Finally after eleven years of red tape and incredible obsticles, Congress passed the act that allowed John Roebling to begin construction.
One week after receiving approval for his plans, the hand of fate struck a seemingly insurmountable blow. John Roebling was fatally injured by one of the ferry boats his bridge would make obsolete. The future of the bridge looked bleak.
John Roebling’s son, Washington, had been at his father’s side through all the planning and like his father was passionate about building the bridge. Because he and his father had many discussions about the design considerations, Washington had an unusually detailed cognitive map in his mind for the construction of the impossible bridge. In his mind he could see his father’s visiion and he planned a number of viable routes for getting the bridge built.
Washington Roebling had a friend in St Louis named Eads. Eads had built caissons for the many bridges he was building and Washington had hoped for the help of his friend in building cassions for the Brooklyn Bridge. But as fate would have it Eads became competitive and refused to cooperate with his former friend saying that Washington had “borrowed” too many ideas already. Constructing the cassions became the greatest obstacle for young Roebling.
Cassions are enormous, box-like structures that are sunk deep into the riverbed and filled with concrete to suppot the bridge towers. It was extremely difficult to work in these underwater cassions. Electric lights were not in common use at the time so they used candles to provide light. These candles posed a serious safety issue. Fires were prevalent. At one time Washington had to be rescued after he lost consciousness while fighting such a fire. At one time Washington decided he must flood the cassion with water to put out the fire, then fill the cassion with concrete. Although this setback cost extra time and money, the cement made the cassion even stronger.
It seemed there were many more problems than successes up to this point. But Washington Roebling had passion and knew the bridge could be and should be built, so he continued pressing forward. Three years into the construction Washington developed caisson desease – commonly known as “the bends” from too rapid decompression after working in the highly compessed atmosphere of the chambers. He suffered permanent brain damage and was unable to walk or talk. He had diminished eyesight and muscular paralysis and was in constant pain so it was impossible to go to the work site or communicate with his workers.
Everyone thought the project should be abandoned at once. Everyone, that is, but Washington Roebling and his wife Emily. Washington had a lifetime of intrinsic motivation to spur him on and he refused to give up. While lying in a hospital bed he and Emily came up with a plan. He could still move one finger. He devised a form of Morse code to communicate with Emily.
Emily took on the full load of the project. She learned mathematics and engineering and absorbed every fascet of the bridge building business. Each day she visited the work site and communicated her husband’s instructions to the workers. She dealt with suppliers, kept records and answered all calls and mail. Every night she reported to Washington and wrote down his “tapped” coded instructions for the next day.
At this time a number of bridges around the world had collapsed with loss of lives, property and money. What if this feeble young man who scarcely had the strength to lift one finger was wrong? What if his wife did not fully understand his instructions? Nearly everyone thought it was a horrendous risk and huge waste of money.
But Washington never faltered. He continued tapping out the instructiuons that led to the construction of the strongest suspension bridge ever built. Instead of using iron cables, he decided to use steel cables, the pattern and strength of which had never before been attempted. To add strength he designed steel trusses and high towers to support the bridge. Emily and Washington worked for thirteen more years to complete the bridge. It took a total of twenty seven years to build the Brooklyn Bridge.
Emily Roebling led a glittering parade across the bridge for the grand opening in May, 1883. Washington Roebling watched the parade alone in his apartment across the East River. With his wheelchair pushed against the window watching through field glasses we can only imagine his sense of pride, and his love and gratitude for his father and most of all his appreciation for his wife, Emily, who believed in him and his intellect without question.
We have so much to learn from the Roeblings. They are true heroes and role models for us and our chiuldren. They show what miracles can be accomplished against great odds when we hold true to our goals and dreams for the future. Just as John Roebling admitted he did not have all the answers up front, when we proceed confidently in the direction of our dreams, the answers will come step by step. In so many ways the Roeblings are truly a family to emulate.
For now, Earlynn’s just sayin’ what can you accomplish by following your dreams?