Washington A. Roebling (1837-1926)

A military and civil engineer, Washington Augustus Roebling is best known for overseeing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was designed by his father, John A. Roebling. He also served briefly as president of John A. Roebling’s Sons, Co., after its incorporation in 1876, and then again during the final years of his life.

Updated: November 08, 2012


A military and civil engineer and second-generation German immigrant, Washington Augustus Roebling (born: May 26, 1837 in Saxonburg, PA; died: July 21, 1926 in Trenton, NY) is best known for overseeing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was designed by his father, John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869). He also served briefly as president of John A. Roebling’s Sons, Co., after its incorporation in 1876, and then again during the final years of his life (1921-1926). In his younger days, as an engineer in the Union army during the Civil War, Washington Roebling planned and supervised the construction of bridges and roads for military purposes. Two of his bridges – one over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and another over the Shenandoah at Harper's Ferry – were of crucial strategic importance. During the war, he also fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and in other key battles. Later in life, Washington Roebling became a renowned mineralogist, and his collection of rocks and minerals now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, Roebling was an avid writer who published technical writings on suspension bridges and other topics, especially the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. He also authored a biography of his famous father as well as a brief history of his own birthplace of Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. 

Family and Ethnic Background

Washington Roebling’s parents were immigrants from the town of Mühlhausen in the Prussian province of Thuringia. Roebling’s father, the famous nineteenth-century civil engineer John Augustus Roebling (born Johann Augustus Röbling) had arrived in the United States in 1831. Together with his brother Karl and a small group of other Mühlhausen immigrants, Roebling helped found the town of Saxonburg, located approximately twenty-five miles northeast of Pittsburgh. His mother, Johanna Herting, had arrived in Saxonburg with her parents in 1833 and met John Roebling soon thereafter. The two married in 1836; their first child, Washington Augustus Roebling was born in Saxonburg on May 26, 1837. He was named after George Washington, the American his father most admired. The Roeblings went on to have eight more children, one of whom died in infancy. During their Saxonburg period, the Roeblings were Lutheran, but not in the strictest sense, since there was no town minister for a time.

During their earliest years in the U.S., the Roeblings followed other Saxonburg families in making their homestead a farm. But soon after Washington’s birth, John Roebling left farming and returned to engineering, the profession in which he had trained. At first, he found work on dam and canal projects; later, he surveyed railroad routes for the state of Pennsylvania. By the time Washington was five, John Roebling had also started manufacturing wire rope in Saxonburg. The demand for wire rope was sporadic at first, so Roebling enlisted friends and neighbors on an as-needed basis to help twist wire strands into rope. It was apparently Washington’s job to go from house to house to rouse these helpers when they were needed in the manufactory.[1] The elder Roebling’s engineering projects kept him away from home during much of Washington’s youth, but the young man did not lack for father figures. He spent a good deal of time with his maternal grandparents, and he fondly recalled his grandfather, Ernst Herting, in his Saxonburg reminiscences.[2]

There were other father figures in Roebling’s life as well. One of them was Ferdinand Baehr, a family friend who had led a group of Mühlhausen immigrants to Saxonburg in 1832. “Baehr took great interest in me as a boy. I was his daily visitor,” Roebling recalled.[3] Another father figure was Julius Reidel, an itinerant who, in 1843, became Roebling’s first tutor in the “three Rs in German.”[4] Roebling was fluent in both English and German. He also spoke some French, though apparently not as well.[5] Although Reidel had no formal religious training, he served as Saxonburg’s Lutheran preacher for a brief period in 1844. He had assumed the role at the behest of the elder Roebling and was forced to step down by a delegation representing the Lutheran synod in Pittsburgh. Soon thereafter, Reidel moved to Columbus, Ohio, and Roebling was sent to school in Pittsburgh. On account of the distance between Pittsburgh and Saxonburg, seven-year-old Washington was a boarder rather than a day student.

In 1849, when Roebling was twelve, his family moved to Trenton, New Jersey. Thereafter, he only returned to Saxonburg twice – in 1858 and 1868. Still, he always maintained a great affection for the town, and in his old age he wrote a forty-page reminiscence of his birthplace entitled Early History of Saxonburg (1924).[6] The family’s move was strictly a business one: John Roebling’s wire-rope business had outgrown Saxonburg, and he wanted to establish a factory in a larger city. At the suggestion of industrialist Peter Cooper, the elder Roebling chose Trenton on account of its proximity to both Philadelphia and New York, and its convenience as a transportation hub connected by both canals and railroads. The whole family moved to a home near John Roebling’s newly established factory, and Washington Roebling enrolled in Trenton Academy, a private school. The choice of school reflected John Roebling’s growing prestige as much as his hopes for Washington’s future. During these years, John Roebling continued to spend a great deal of time away from home, and his son found yet another father figure in Charles Swan, who had emigrated from Germany at the age of ten with his widowed mother. As the superintendent of the wire-rope manufactory, Swan was John Roebling’s right-hand man.

In 1854, after graduating from Trenton Academy, Washington enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, the nation’s leading engineering school at the time. He was seventeen, approximately the same age as his father when the elder Roebling enrolled at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin. Roebling’s incoming class included sixty-five students, but only twelve remained by the time he graduated in 1857. Unfortunately, Roebling’s academic records were lost in one of numerous fires at Rensselaer in the years following his graduation. Nonetheless, he is known to have written a senior thesis entitled “Design for a Suspension Aqueduct.” As the son of a man who had made a name for himself as a designer and builder of suspension aqueducts in Pennsylvania and New York, Washington Roebling was surely familiar with the topic. After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, Roebling returned to Trenton, where he worked in his father’s wire-rope manufactory under the direction of Charles Swan. Whenever John Roebling and Swan were away, Washington Roebling was in charge. He remained in Trenton until the spring of 1858, at which point he moved to Pittsburgh to help his father build a suspension bridge over the Allegheny River. It was the first bridge the two Roeblings worked on together.

At the time of the Allegheny River Bridge project, John Roebling was also involved in plans and financial negotiations for the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge over the Ohio River. The younger Roebling oversaw the Allegheny project during his father’s frequent absences. The quadruple-span bridge opened for traffic on May 2, 1860, though it was another few months before all the finishing touches were complete. The bridge remained in service until 1892, at which point it was decommissioned not because it was dangerous, but rather because new transportation technology had rendered it obsolete. A larger bridge, electrified for trolleys, was needed.

In 1860, after the Allegheny River Bridge opened, Roebling returned to the Trenton manufactory. He was needed there because Swan had been injured in an industrial accident.[7] Roebling remained in Trenton for nine tense months. At the time, the 1860 presidential election campaign, then in full swing, was driving an ever greater wedge between North and South, and the situation grew even more precarious after Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860. On February 21, 1861, President-Elect Lincoln stopped in Trenton en route to his inauguration in Washington, DC. While there, he delivered a speech in which he called for support for the Union. Both John and Washington Roebling heard this speech. On April 16, 1861, after Fort Sumter was fired upon and the Civil War began, Washington Roebling enlisted as a private in Company A of the New Jersey state militia.

Service in the Civil War

Roebling spent approximately two months on garrison duty with Company A. But he was eager to serve on the front, so he resigned and enlisted in Company K, 9th Regiment of the New York state militia. Company K became the 6th New York Independent Battery of Horse Artillery, and by September 1861 Roebling had been promoted to corporal. The 6th New York was eventually stationed at Budd’s Ferry, fifteen miles from Washington, DC, where it was tasked with protecting Union shipping on the Potomac River. By January 1862, Roebling had been promoted to sergeant and was soon given a commission as a lieutenant. In March 1862, after Confederate forces suddenly decamped from their batteries across from Budd’s Ferry on the other side of the Potomac, Roebling was sent on a reconnaissance mission.

Later that spring he was transferred to the staff of General Irvin McDowell. By that time, Washington Roebling’s education and professional training had become known to his superiors, and his new duties involved planning and supervising the construction of suspension bridges. To facilitate the construction process, Roebling wrote and illustrated a manual for other, less experienced, military engineers. The manual was entitled Instructions for Transport and Erection of Military Wire Suspension-Bridge Equipage (1862). Five hundred copies were printed in Philadelphia on the order of General Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general of the Union army. The first bridge construction project that Roebling planned and oversaw on his own was a wire suspension bridge over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Roebling’s bridge replaced an earlier one that had been destroyed in a flood.) Working under the tightest of schedules, Washington and his team of workers managed to construct a one-thousand-foot bridge, which included thirteen piers and fourteen spans, within a matter of weeks.

In the summer of 1862, Roebling was attached to the staff of General John Pope, commander of the Army of Virginia (one of the Union army’s two main forces, the other being the Army of the Potomac under General George McClellan). From August 28-30, 1862, Roebling took part in the Second Battle of Bull Run (also called the Second Battle of Manassas), which ended in Union forces being badly defeated by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. So heavy were Union losses that President Lincoln relieved General Pope of his command on September 12, 1862. The Army of Virginia was incorporated into the Army of the Potomac that very same day. For Roebling, this meant that he was now attached to General McClellan’s engineering staff as an assistant to chief engineer Captain James Duane. In his new capacity, Roebling took part in the battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). At Antietam, he and other members of Duane’s engineering staff created several topographic maps of the battlefield and the surrounding area.[8]

In October 1862, Roebling was put in charge of building a suspension bridge over the Shenandoah River at Harper’s Ferry in what was then Virginia, but is now part of West Virginia. Despite delays in the delivery of materials, Roebling managed to have construction completed by December 1862.[9] The bridge was subsequently captured by Confederate soldiers, who burned its roadway. Roebling reconnoitered the damage and made plans to rebuild the burnt section. After the Union army retook the bridge, Roebling’s plans greatly expedited the reconstruction process.

In February 1863, Roebling was assigned to the general headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, under the command of General Joseph Hooker, and he took part in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), which is now regarded as General Lee’s greatest victory. After the battle, the Confederate commander was so confident that he ordered his forces to begin their northward march into Pennsylvania. In the weeks following the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, Roebling tracked Confederate positions and movements from an army hot-air balloon. Later, during what eventually became known as the Gettysburg campaign, Union commanders were alarmed to discover that they lacked a detailed map of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, area.[10] Roebling recalled that his father owned a topographical map of the area and was dispatched to Trenton to retrieve it. He arrived back at general headquarters on July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and delivered the map to General George Meade, whom President Lincoln had recently named commander of the Army of the Potomac.

On July 2, 1863, as a member of the engineering staff of General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, Roebling assisted in the defense of Little Round Top, a key skirmish in the Battle of Gettysburg. Roebling was also one of the officers whom Warren sent to bring back Union reinforcements, and, upon his return to the hilltop, he helped drag a cannon to repulse the Confederate attack.[11] Of Roebling’s performance Warren later wrote, “Roebling was on my staff and I think performed more able and brave service than any one [sic] I knew.”[12] The next day, Roebling narrowly escaped a cannonball as he was studying a map at battlefield headquarters. By the late summer, he had been promoted to captain but remained with General Warren, who now commanded the V Corps. It was during his time on Warren’s staff that Roebling met Emily Warren, the general’s sister. The two first met on February 22, 1864, during the winter lull before the Union’s final ten-month push under General Ulysses S. Grant.

On April 20, 1864, Roebling was promoted to major and then took part in the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864) and the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8-21, 1864). Both sides suffered heavy casualties in these two battles, and afterward Roebling assisted in transporting the (presumably Union) wounded to Washington, DC. On July 30, 1864, he participated in the Battle of the Crater, which was part of the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia. He also participated in other battles in the siege, which lasted from June 15, 1864 to April 2, 1865.[13] On December 2, 1864 Roebling was brevetted to Lt. Colonel for bravery in the Petersburg siege. By then he was Warren’s aide-de-camp.[14] But his military career was winding down. In November 1864, he had taken a quick trip to Trenton to attend his mother’s funeral, and, in January 1865, he resigned his commission and married Emily Warren in Cold Spring, New York.[15] In March 1865, he was brevetted (again for bravery) to full colonel, the title by which he was commonly known in civilian life. The military title, which carried a great deal of cultural capital along with it, was undoubtedly of great value to Roebling in his future civil engineering and business ventures. It identified him as a decorated member of a large network of veterans who took it upon themselves to rebuild the country in the aftermath of war.  

The Return to Civil Engineering and the Brooklyn Bridge Project

Roebling returned to Trenton after his wedding but soon joined his father on the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge project. Seemingly, from the time Washington Roebling had entered Rensselaer Polytechnic, his goal – and that of his father – had been for the two men to work together. They had done so briefly on the Allegheny River Bridge project, but the Civil War had interrupted their plans. Officially, the younger Roebling was an assistant chief engineer on the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge project; in reality, he was in charge. The enormity of the structure amazed Washington Roebling; his father had spent the past eight years designing and building the bridge, which, at the time, was the largest suspension bridge in the world. In a letter to his family, he wrote: “The size and magnitude of this work far surpasses any expectations I had formed of it. It is the highest thing in this country; the towers are so high a person’s neck aches looking up at them. It will take me a week to get used to the dimensions of everything around here.”[16] The 1,057-foot bridge was opened for foot traffic on December 1, 1866, and for carriage and wagon traffic on January 1, 1867, but the finishing touches were not completed until July.[17] Roebling stayed behind to finish the last bits of work. His father had remarried in February 1867, and neither Washington Roebling nor his siblings took to their stepmother, Lucia Cooper. Little is known about her life after the elder Roebling’s death.

The next big bridge project for father and son was the last for each, though for different reasons. The project was originally referred to as the East River Bridge but was later renamed the Brooklyn Bridge. As the story goes, John Roebling had first started thinking about a bridge that would connect New York City and Brooklyn (then a separate city) back in 1852, when he and fifteen-year-old Washington were stuck on a ferry on the East River. But it wasn’t until the late 1860s that he could act on his thoughts. The elder Roebling was named chief engineer of the East River Bridge project on May 16, 1867, and immediately started working on a design and cost estimates. After finishing the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge and assisting his father with some preliminary design work on the East River Bridge, Washington Roebling set out for Europe in the summer of 1867. Accompanied by Emily, who was pregnant, Washington envisioned the trip as a mixture of business and pleasure. The business aspect involved studying the “newly developed pneumatic method of sinking caisson foundations” in Germany, England, and France – knowledge that would prove invaluable in the construction of the East River Bridge. The German-speaking Roebling also visited various steel mills, including the Krupp works in Essen.[18] The pleasure side of the trip was a return to Mühlhausen, his parents’ birthplace, where the Roeblings were treated like celebrities. Certainly, the couple’s enthusiastic reception was largely attributable to residents’ pride that John Roebling, one of their own, had made such a name for himself in America. But it is also worth mentioning that, over the years, the elder Roebling had stayed in close contact with relatives and friends in the town. Thus, it is likely that local residents had not just respect but also a genuine affection for the entire family.[19]

Fittingly, it was in Mühlhausen, in an inn across the street from John Roebling’s family home, that Emily Roebling gave birth to her only child, John A. Roebling II (1867-1952). It was also there, in a bookstore, that Washington Roebling came across a copy of the journal his father had kept of his journey to the United States. Entitled Tagebuch meiner Reise von Mühlhausen in Thüringen über Bremen nach den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika im Jahre 1831[Diary of My Journey from Mühlhausen in Thuringia via Bremen to the United States of North America in the Year 1831], the book had been published in 1832 by a cousin of John Roebling who had a print shop in Eschwege, Hessia.[20]

After returning from Europe in 1868, Roebling continued to help his father with the initial stages of the Brooklyn Bridge project. Unfortunately, their collaboration would not last much longer. On June 28, 1869, while John Roebling was conducting a final project survey at the Fulton Ferry slip in Brooklyn, an incoming ferryboat hit the dock where he was standing and crushed the top of his right foot.[21] His toes were promptly amputated, but tetanus still set in. John A. Roebling died on the morning of July 22, 1869, in the presence of his son, Washington, and a few others.

Amidst relatively little opposition, Washington Roebling was chosen to replace his father as chief engineer of the project. Whatever resistance there was to the appointment came mostly from William M. “Boss” Tweed, the infamous New York City politician who was one of the directors of the bridge company and also one of its largest stockholders. Tweed preferred that a more prominent engineer, Horatio Allen, be appointed, but the choice was largely self-serving.[22] Soon thereafter, the prime mover behind the bridge project, William Kingsley of Brooklyn, disclosed that John Roebling had discussed the idea of having Washington eventually replace him, and that, moreover, “he had wanted his son in charge from the start,” a request that Kingsley and other members of the bridge committee had turned down.[23] Roebling’s appointment as chief engineer became official on August 1, 1869. In 1869, Washington Roebling also became the legal guardian to his fifteen-year-old brother Edmund.[24]

Washington Roebling oversaw the realization of his father’s design for the Brooklyn Bridge, making modifications as needed in response to arising circumstances. But he also made great strides in bridge technology in his own right. The pneumatic caissons he designed and sank were the largest ever employed, and his use of steel wire and bridgework (rather than iron) set the standard for the bridge engineers of the future.[25] These caissons, built a year apart, were made in Brooklyn and New York City and then floated on the East River to the appropriate sites, whereupon they were sunk and pumped full of compressed air, so that the crew could get to work. The bridge workers dug away the riverbed until they came to either bedrock at 44 ½ feet on the Brooklyn side or compacted sand at 78 ½ feet on the New York side. At the time, some members of the engineering profession as well as the general public had strong misgivings about the safety and strength of steel, as opposed to iron. That it was Washington Roebling who worked to dispel these concerns is ironic: after all, it was his father who had first proved the efficacy of iron wire rope, and his family’s manufactory was still the world’s leading supplier of it.

The Brooklyn Bridge was not completed until 1883, but long before then it had taken its toll on Washington Roebling, too. He suffered from caisson disease, now commonly known as the bends. The disease was not uncommon among bridge workers who performed foundation excavations in the caissons, and three men died from the bends during bridge construction. In 1872, Roebling almost became the fourth. He suffered two attacks, with the second leaving him an invalid. On account of pain and a nervous condition, he was unable to maintain an onsite presence at the bridge, but he retained his position as chief engineer nevertheless. That Roebling was able to continue in this role is attributable in no small measure to the loyalty of his assistant engineers; ultimately, however, it was the invaluable assistance provided by Emily that proved decisive. She “managed his relationship with the bridge trustees and the assistant engineers. She interpreted his ideas, visited the site, and dealt with press, engineers and politicians.”[26] And she did all of this while ministering to her ailing husband. Emily also interceded on her husband’s behalf when, in 1882, as bridge construction was nearing completion, he faced removal as chief engineer by the bridge’s board of trustees. The board had requested that he appear before them in person, but Roebling failed to show up; he was recuperating from his infirmities in Newport, Rhode Island.[27] Working around the trustees, Emily enlisted the support of the American Society of Civil Engineers. She appeared before them at a meeting to introduce and read a statement from Roebling. She was the first woman to address that organization in person, and their support swayed the trustees to retain Roebling.[28] Support for her husband aside, Emily Roebling’s contributions to the Brooklyn Bridge project were deemed so valuable that the Brooklyn Engineers Club eventually affixed a plaque on the bridge in her honor.

In the spring of 1873, Roebling took a leave of absence and traveled with Emily to the spa at Wiesbaden, Germany, in hopes of a cure. That cure failed to materialize; in fact, Roebling suffered symptoms of the bends for the rest of his long life. The Roeblings returned to Brooklyn in late 1873 and purchased a house in Columbia Heights with “windows overlooking the bridge.” But Roebling was still in poor physical condition, and in early 1874 his physicians suggested that he relocate. Acting on their advice, he returned to Trenton for nearly three years.[29] Although he was away from New York for a time, he still managed, among other things, to work out the specifications for the steel wires that would be used on the bridge. (The steel wires would be spun into cables to suspend the load-bearing roadway in much the same manner as iron wire had done.) During his Trenton sojourn, he also assumed the presidency of John A. Roebling’s Sons after its 1876 incorporation. He held the post for a year before his brother Charles Gustavus succeeded him.

The move to replace him was not the only controversy Roebling endured during his tenure as chief engineer. In 1876, during an early September meeting of the bridge’s board of trustees, congressman and future New York City mayor Abram Hewitt introduced a resolution designed to eliminate all conflicts of interest in the bidding for the wire contract. The resolution precluded bids from any firm in which an officer or engineer of the bridge had an interest.[30] This placed Roebling in a quandary since he was one of the owners of John A. Roebling’s Sons. At first, he offered to resign from his position as chief engineer, but this move was rejected by board chairman Henry Murphy (who was one of Roebling’s chief supporters). Unwilling to put the family business at a disadvantage, Roebling sold all of his stock in it, three hundred shares, for $300,000 (worth approximately $6.3 million in 2010 U.S. dollars).[31] What must have merely seemed like vertical integration to the Roeblings was a conflict of interest when public funds and stockholders were involved.

In early December 1876, the board of trustees opened the bidding for the wire contract. Bids were made on two types of steel: crucible and Bessemer, crucible being the superior of the two but Bessemer being adequate for the job. John A. Roebling’s Sons came in with the lowest bid for crucible steel wire, but not for Bessemer, which was less expensive and easier to produce in mass quantity. When the decision was made to go with Bessemer steel, J. Lloyd Haigh won the contract. The relationship with the Haigh Company was not problem-free: in July 1878, Roebling reported that it had committed fraud by loading wire that had been rejected by inspectors over a six-month period onto wagons and substituting it for wire that had passed inspection. Since the cable spinning was otherwise nearing completion, and since he wanted to avoid tearing down six months of work, Roebling ordered the company to cover the cost of additional wire to reinforce the sub-standard batches. Despite the delay, the cable spinning was completed on October 5, 1878. As it turned out, this was just in time, because the following month all work on the bridge was suspended because of a lack of funds. Roebling argued successfully that the engineers should be kept on at half pay, since assembling a new team and acquainting them with the project would have caused further delays once the project’s finances were in order again. After work resumed another four years passed before the bridge was completed. These were precisely the years in which a very particular image of Roebling emerged in the public imagination. It was the image of an anguished senior engineer observing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from a window in his home, sitting quietly as his wife relayed his instructions and calculations to the assistant engineers on the job site.

The highlight of Roebling’s career came on May 24, 1883, the day the Brooklyn Bridge was dedicated. But Roebling, still confined to his Brooklyn home on account of his nervous condition, was not among the celebrants at the bridge. Among the invitees were relatives and friends of the Roeblings, including ones from Mühlhausen. The list of dignitaries included not only the bridge’s board of trustees, Emily Roebling, and the mayors of Brooklyn and New York City, but also President Chester Alan Arthur (a New Yorker) and New York Governor (and future U.S. President) Grover Cleveland. When the formal dedication had finished, but before the evening’s festivities began, a procession of dignitaries (including the president and governor) made their way through Brooklyn to Roebling’s home to congratulate him in person.[32] Roebling’s infirmities prevented him from building another bridge, but his final one was immediately hailed as the “eighth wonder of the world.” It far exceeded the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge, his father’s largest creation. The length of the Brooklyn Bridge’s river span is 1,595 ½ feet, but there are land spans and approaches on each side, making the total length of the bridge 5,989 feet, or more than a mile long. The width of the bridge floor is 85 feet and the diameter of each of the four cables is 15 ¾ inches, with each cable containing 5,434 wires. The majestic towers rise approximately 276 ½ feet above the river’s high water level.

Family, Social Status, and Personality

As a young man Roebling bore familial pride (mostly in his father’s accomplishments) and ambition. His courage during several major Civil War battles was unquestioned, and it was during that period of his life that he developed a style of interacting with others that would earn him the respect of both peers and subordinates. He demanded a lot from his workers, but even more from himself – a tendency he seems to have inherited from his father. In the end, this might have been his undoing, since he went down in the caissons more often than he should have and eventually contracted a near fatal case of the bends.

Roebling was taciturn even as a youth, and this trait was only intensified by illness and age. His youthful taciturnity may have been caused by separation from and then close proximity to a dynamic and overshadowing father. Whatever the cause, habit, infirmity, and an equally dynamic wife ensured its continuation into midlife and beyond. In his old age, particularly after Emily’s death in 1903, Roebling sometimes appeared to go out of his way to avoid conversation. Yet one must not mistake taciturnity for passivity. Washington Roebling knew what he wanted and always fought to gain and retain it. Sometimes, he got his way simply by force of will or through connections. Later in life, when he was once again a major stockholder in John A. Roebling’s Sons and an unsalaried advisor (with an onsite office), he was the lone holdout when his brothers wanted to sell the company to U.S. Steel. The sale never occurred.[33] Generally speaking, though, after the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge his infirmities drew him into a quieter life.

He and Emily returned to Trenton in 1888. By then Roebling’s health had improved somewhat, his son had entered the family wire business, and Emily had drawn up plans for a grand family mansion, which included “a big stained glass rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with clouds sailing by and ships passing below.”[34] The house was completed in 1892. Long before the Roeblings returned to Trenton, the family name was one of the most important, if not the foremost, in the city. But upon their return, the Roeblings, now known for the Brooklyn Bridge, were true royalty.

The years following the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge were quieter for Washington than for Emily. He did accompany her to Europe once, but not the second time when she attended the coronations of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra of Russia. He also accompanied her to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. On the whole, Roebling’s interests were those of a typical retired man: astronomy, bird-watching, puttering in the greenhouse, writing, and collecting wildflowers. He was also interested in New Jersey’s paleontological history and had amassed a vast rock and mineral collection.[35] The collection was an avocation begun during his Rensselaer days. Throughout the years, Roebling collected more than “16,000 well-chosen specimens including… many extraordinarily fine display specimens. He was well read in mineralogy and carried on a wide-ranging correspondence with many dealers, collectors, scientists, geological surveys, and museums in the mineral world.”[36] Such was Roebling’s renown among geologists and mineral collectors that, in 1897, Samuel Lewis Penfield and H.W. Foote named a mineral roeblingite in his honor. (Roeblingite is a silicate containing sulphur dioxide and lead, originally discovered in New Jersey.) After Roebling’s death, his son John donated his collection to the Smithsonian Institution along with a $150,000 endowment to maintain and expand the collection.

Roebling was also a charter member of the Mineralogical Society of America and served as that organization’s vice president in 1924. In February 1926, just four months before his death, he donated $45,000 ($554,000 in 2010 dollars) for an endowment fund for the continuing publication of the organization’s journal American Mineralogist. Three years later, the Mineralogical Society of America established a fund for an award named in Roebling’s honor. The first Roebling Medal was awarded in 1937, and annual awards have been given out since.

After the turn of the twentieth century, Emily Roebling’s health began to fail and her eyesight went. Then, in the fall of 1902, Washington Roebling underwent intestinal surgery at Roosevelt Hospital in New York. In December 1902, while he was still recuperating, Emily took a turn for the worse. Originally diagnosed with stomach ulcers, she, too, became an invalid. Until he was released from Roosevelt Hospital and finally returned home in February 1903, Roebling made trips from New York to Trenton to visit his ailing wife. Emily Roebling died of stomach cancer on February 28, 1903; Roebling was too weak to attend her burial in her birthplace of Cold Spring, New York.[37]

In 1908, Washington Roebling married Cornelia Witsell Farrow, a widow from Charleston, South Carolina. She was about the same age as his son John and played a key role in improving his otherwise melancholy outlook. Cornelia sustained Roebling in his later years, as did John, with whom he corresponded voluminously. Roebling’s retirement from active business seemed permanent by now, but even that would change. He outlived two of his younger brothers, Ferdinand and Charles Gustavus, who died in 1917 and 1918, respectively. After Charles’s death, Washington Roebling’s nephew, Karl G. Roebling (Ferdinand’s oldest son) became head of John A. Roebling’s Sons, but he died of a heart attack at age forty-eight in 1921. Since neither Roebling’s youngest brother Edmund nor his son John were deemed adequate to lead the company, Roebling, at age eighty-four, once again became president of the firm his father had founded.

During Washington Roebling’s decades-long retreat into a quieter life, John A. Roebling’s Sons, Co., appeared to be his only remaining passion, and his return to the presidency roused him from a state of lethargy. He ran the company successfully for the next five years, an occupation that helped him banish the periodic melancholia into which he tended to lapse. Among the changes he effected were the conversion of the company’s mills from steam power to electricity and the creation of a “new department for the electrolytic galvanizing of wire.”[38] Unfortunately, what he could not change was the public’s tendency to elide or confuse him with his father – a tendency that seemed, at times, to contribute to his melancholia. In a 1924 letter he wrote, “Long ago I ceased my endeavor to clear up the respective identities of myself and my father. Many people think I died in 1869.”[39] Roebling’s health deteriorated rapidly in the first half of 1926, and he died on July 21, 1926.


Washington Roebling oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the defining monuments of the late nineteenth century. His steadfast belief in the use of steel not only advanced the art and technology of bridge building, making spans longer and more durable,[40] but also laid the groundwork for the skyscrapers that so dominated international urban architecture over the next century. Though he seemed to operate in a lower key than his father, Washington Roebling’s will was no less strong. While family and hobbies kept Roebling busy and may have even contributed to his long life, it was his sense of duty that ultimately animated him. At the age of eighty-four, after assuming the presidency of John A. Roebling’s Sons for a second time, he summarized his working philosophy in a quote to the New York World: “It’s my job to carry the responsibility and you can’t desert your job. You can’t slink out of life or out of the work life lays on you.”[41]


[1] Recounted in D. B. Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge: The Story of John Roebling and His Son (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945), 69. Roebling, no doubt, performed this task intermittently until he was sent to school in Pittsburgh at age seven.

[2] Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 110.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reidel became Roebling’s uncle after he married into the Herting family.

[5] Thomas James Mellinger, “Roebling, Washington Augustus” (accessed May 23, 2011).

[6] The account had been commissioned by the Butler County Historical Society and was published by them in 1924.

[7] Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 214.

[8] Antietam on the Web, “Lt. Washington Roebling,” http://antietam.aotw.org/officers.php?officer_id=1041 (accessed May 24, 2011).

[9] Mellinger, “Roebling, Washington Augustus””

[10] The Gettysburg Campaign was a series of battles fought in June and July of 1863, of which the Battle of Gettysburg was the largest.

[11] He brought the 140th New York Volunteers into the skirmish.

[12] Quoted in Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 259.

[13] Collectively, this group of battles is known as the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, or sometimes just as the Richmond Campaign.

[14] Antietam on the Web, “Lt. Washington Roebling” (accessed May 24, 2011). Steinman gives the date of Roebling’s promotion to major and aide-de-camp as May 26, 1864, nearly three weeks after the battle.

[15] The exact date on which Roebling was brevetted Lt. Colonel seems unclear: “Antietam on the Web” gives December 2, 1864; David McCullough gives December 6, 1864. See David McCullough, The Great Bridge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 165. Steinman gives no date. Likewise, no date seems to be given for the marriage of Emily Warren and Washington Roebling.

[16] Quoted in McCullough, 70.

[17] On June 27, 1983, the bridge was renamed the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.

[18] Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 306.

[19] That John Roebling and other family members maintained close ties with family members and friends in Mühlhausen can be seen in the wealth of Roebling materials in the town’s municipal archive. The collection includes photographs, correspondence, and ephemera that the Roeblings sent to Mühlhausen from America. Some of the illustrations that accompany this article were taken from that collection.

[20] An English translation of Roebling's account, Diary of my journey from Muehlhausen in Thuringia via Bremen to the United States of North America in the year 1831, was published by the Roebling Press in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1931, the 100th anniversary of Roebling's voyage to America

[21] There is some disagreement surrounding the date of the accident, but June 28, 1869, seems to hold sway. McCullough, for example, uses June 28, 1869, as does Henry Petroski in Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America (New York: Knopf, 1995). Steinman and a few others, however, give July 6, 1869, as the date.

[22] Tweed wanted to ward off a decline in public interest, which could have affected contracts with associated Tweed-controlled businesses, not to mention the value of the bridge company’s stock.

Allen ultimately remained on the payroll but “his professional contribution to the work in the next few years would add up to nothing.” McCullough, The Great Bridge, 129.

[23] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 99.

[24] Another brother, William, had been born in 1856 but died in 1860.

[25] John Roebling had mentioned the use of steel in one of his earliest reports on the feasibility of the East River Bridge.

[26] Paul Wilmshurst, “Washington Roebling” from “The Brooklyn Bridge and a Marriage of Equals,” BBC, (accessed May 25, 2011).

[27] The Roeblings were in Newport because Emily’s brother and Roebling’s former military superior, Gouvernoeur Warren, was stationed there with the Army Corps of Engineers to oversee the construction of a breakwater at Block Island. McCullough, The Great Bridge, 488.

[28] Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 404.

[29] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 340.

[30] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 374; Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 387-88.

[31] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 375, 379; Steinman, The Builders of the Bridge, 388. Regarding the conversion, all current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[32] This was not a spontaneous act. A reception at the Roebling home had been planned, and hundreds of guests had been invited. See McCullough, The Great Bridge, 536-38.

[33] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 554-55.

[34] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 553.

[35] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 554.

[36] Wendell E. Wilson, The Mineralogical Record Bibliographical Archive, “Washington Roebling (1837-1926),” 2011 (accessed May 27, 2011).

[37] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 555.

[38] McCullough, The Great Bridge, 559.

[39] Alan Trachtenberg, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, Second Edition (Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 1979), 95.

[40] There have, however, been some notable twentieth-century bridge collapses where basic engineering principles went unheeded, or where the steel used was second rate.

[41] Quoted indirectly in McCullough, The Great Bridge, 560. The quote also appeared in the Trenton Times, June 13, 1921, which seems to have been McCullough’s source.


Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Washington A. Roebling." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved February 21, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=52

Chicago Style

Caso, Frank. "Washington A. Roebling." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. Last modified November 08, 2012. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=52

MLA Style

"Washington A. Roebling," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 21 Feb 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=52>

Portrait of Washington Roebling, 1867

  • View of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge, in the late 1930s or early 1940s
  • John Roebling's Sons Co. Manufacturing Plant, Roebling, NJ, View South, c. 1925.
  • John Roebling's Sons Co. Manufacturing Plant, Roebling, NJ, View Northwest, c. 1925.
  • Brooklyn Bridge under Construction, c. 1875-78

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