Washington Roebling lay paralyzed in his Brooklyn residence and attempted to focus on the detailed engineering plans for the next phase of the crossing that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan over the East River. With effort he beckoned to his beloved partner.
“Emily, you’ve done enough studying of higher mathematics and bridge engineering. You’ve been my eyes and ears and even my tongue for a year now.”
Emily knew that her father-in-law, the original designer of this bridge, had already died before the project was even launched. Now her husband lay stricken and unable to complete the dream.
Washington’s father, John, had envisioned this crossing after becoming impatient with the ferry that crossed from Atlantic Avenue to Fulton Street. It took 14 years of lobbying businessmen, senators and legislators before the New York City Council and the Army Corps of Engineers approved his design. That same month, June 1989, the bridge builder’s foot was crushed by the very ferry that had caused his initial dream of a crossing. The resulting tetanus from the injury took his life. Emily’s husband inherited the role of chief engineer.
In the first three years, while the foundations were being built far under the riverbed, twenty immigrant workers had died of the dreaded caisson disease while they worked in the large airtight cylinders clearing silt. Now Emily’s husband Washington lay helpless from this same punishment of improper nitrogen levels in his bloodstream. He had insisted on being in the caissons inspecting things for himself. Now the burden of the Roebling dream was Emily’s.
“Are you sure Mr. Farrington will still pay attention to a woman even on this issue?” Emily hesitated as she scanned the skyline where the two completed anchorages towered above the busy tidal strait with its massive sailing ships. Four solid steel cables linked the towers. Farrington, Roebling’s master mechanic had already instilled confidence in the revolutionary new steel wire cables by riding over the length of the river in a boatswain’s chair. He was a competent leader with an ambitious team set to create a national monument.
Washington scanned the ankle length lavender gown that adorned his lover. He knew Emily wasn’t comfortable wearing a bustle and corset in the blistering heat and humidity of New York but she was also a proper woman. Her satin bonnet and gloves marked her as a woman of class. Her brunette bun was secured in place and a few ringlets framed the sides of her face in a flirtatious invitation. Few of the workers who sweated half dressed on the site understood the marvelous mind that captured the scope of the project being launched.
“Emily, You realize that your bridge is going to be the longest suspension bridge in the world. You’ve done the calculations. How big are those cables?”
“Exactly 15 ¾ inches.”
“How many strands in each cable?”
“How many steel wires in each strand?”
“Five thousand four hundred and thirty-four.”
“Are you sure?”
“How much weight will each of those cables hold?”
“Eleven thousand two hundred tons.”
“I estimate that with the trains, the carriages, the autos and the other traffic that we’ll be able to manage a load capacity of eighteen thousand tons. Are you confident in what we’ve done?”
“We’ve used almost fourteen and a half thousand miles of wire from the cables to the bridge floor. It should hold. I need to talk to Mr. Farrington about how to install those diagonal stays.”
Washington smirked as Emily’s right forefinger traced the inserted pencil marks she had worked out with him on the blueprints.
“Do you like the elevated promenade for the pedestrians and cyclists?”
Emily paused again at the window. It was clear she was lost in thought. The sunlight highlighted her deeply tanned cheeks. “With approaches I figure we’re crossing over six thousand feet. We’ve had to settle inland quite a bit to keep the three and a quarter percent grade. At the mid-span we’ll be about one hundred and thirty-five feet so even the tallest ships should be clear.”
Washington watched his wife pick up the sketches and blue prints and head for the door. There was no question in his mind that New York was about to be the center of America. Emily’s crossing would be a reality.
[On May 23, 1883 President Chester Arthur and 14,000 guests dedicated the Brooklyn bridge and watched as Emily Roebling took the first ride over the bridge holding a rooster – the symbol of victory.]
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