Congratulations to Pam K., winner of Julianna Deering's new release, Murder on the Moor!

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Congratulations to Deanna Stevens, Annie of Just Commonly and Trixi owners of The American Heiress Brides Collection!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Step into the Gap: The story behind the Brooklyn Bridge

by Debra E. Marvin

It is not by accident we find ourselves stepping into a role we would never dream for ourselves, yet, by so doing, we create a legacy far beyond those dreams.

One of my favorite movies, Kate and Leopold, includes this early scene between Kate (Meg Ryan) and her ex-boyfriend Stuart (Liev Schriber)

Stuart: I found it.
Kate: What did you find?
Stuart: The portal. A crack in the fabric of time. It was over the East River, Kate, just where I said it would be.
Kate: You found the portal?
Stuart: A portal into April 28th, 1876. I jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and took a walk in 1876 today. I followed the Duke of Albany around old New York. Are you listening?
Kate: Avidly.
Stuart: This here's the twist, Kate. Here's the kicker.
Kate: What's the kicker?
Stuart: [whispering] He followed me home.

I’m not quite sure what I’d do if the Duke of Albany (Hugh Jackman) followed me around. That is, however, not why I’m fascinated with the Brooklyn Bridge.

I love its beauty, strength and history, and I made a point to visit it on my last day trip to Manhattan. Is that awesome, or what? I could have stood there all day just to look at it.

This post is about someone who stepped into the gap, not a time portal, and became
The Silent Builder of the Brooklyn Bridge.

This beautiful icon of New York City and nineteenth century engineering, may never have been built in its current design if not for Emily Warren Roebling. The bridge stands now as “…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”

While surveying the site in 1869, bridge designer John Roebling’s foot was crushed between a piling and ferry. Tetanus killed him some days later and his thirty two year old son Washington was put in charge. A year later, construction was stalled again when Washington developed severe Caisson Disease, aka The Bends, and became permanently disabled. His wife, Emily, mother of a two-year-old, took over direction of the project.

Emily had met Washington Roebling while attending a military ball during the Civil War. Marriage was a smart move for Washington--Emily’s ease at leadership and mediation, her confidence and creativity enabled her to direct the entire construction product and work through every setback that came along.
Brooklyn Bridge - detailImage via Wikipedia
The design by Emily’s father-in-law, provided three safeguard systems and made it “six times stronger” than it needed to be. To do this, Washington and Emily had to come up with the huge cables needed for a suspension bridge twice the length of any other. They created their own by formulating a process of wrapping steel wire into steel ropes and twisting them into cables over fifteen inches thick.

Emily was not just a pretty face. She understood “calculations of catenary curves, the strength of materials, bridge specifications and the intricacies of cable construction.” Common enough dinner conversation at my house.

Construction lasted over thirteen years.

The bridge opened in 1883. Emily attended the ceremonies, and became the first person to "officially" walk across the bridge. Her husband, who’d come to be known as “the man in the window” waited at home to host dignitaries such as President Chester A. Arthur.

Emily did not rest. She went on to receive a law degree from New York University, and write a non-fiction book based on the revolutionary war journals of her ancestor, Reverend Silas Constant. Emily traveled to Europe and was presented to Queen Victoria in 1896. (Check out her dress for the occasion, displayed in the Brooklyn Museum.)

Cool Brooklyn Bridge Facts (Sorry. I love facts)

*The main span is 1596.5 feet long
*It cost 15.5 million dollars to build ~1870-1883
*1884 PT Barnum paraded 21 elephants across the bridge to prove its ‘strength’
*The pedestrian walkway is elevated above the center lanes (the bridge is six lanes wide)
*It took two years to create the suspension cables

Mrs. Roebling’s tombstone in Putnam County, NY is inscribed: Gifted, Noble, True.

Emily Roebling probably did not plan for greatness, but she prepared for it. She stepped into the gap and literally provided the bridge from 'design' through 'completion'.

I recommend Ken Burns' 1982 documentary based on the book by David McCullough (Washington Roebling's character is spoken by actor Paul Roebling, his great grandson. Cool, huh?)

For some icing on this cake...two fun videos:

Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge

Sting – “Until” theme song from Kate and Leopold

Both songs have been stuck in my head while I prepared for this blog.

What are you prepared to do? This could be your year!

What interesting or inspiring facts have you found hidden behind a piece of history?

The quote regarding Mrs. Roebling comes from Abram S Hewitt, who oversaw construction of New York's Subway system.

I'm over at Keli Gwyn's blog Romance Writers on the Journey, today 1/18, with a giveaway. I'd be happy to see you stop by. Keli always does an awesome job interviewing writers and I like seeing the word novelist in front of my name!

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  1. Fascinating, Deb! I had no idea and I love tidbits like this. You even went and made be think with this line

    "Emily Roebling probably did not plan for greatness, but she prepared for it."

    I have to figure out what I'm preparing myself for. (Other than writing)

  2. Very cool, Deb. Like Lisa, I love reading things like this. I think Emily would make a fascinating heroine in a novel. Strong, innovative, determined. Thanks for sharing this.

    I'll have think about what I'm preparing for.

  3. Hi Lisa!

    Thank you. I started this post just because I love the beauty of the bridge. I honestly didn't know about Emily Roebling's role in its construction and it gave me a WOW moment. I am definitely going to go to the Brooklyn Museum the next time I go to NYC.

    It also made me want to see Kate and Leopold again. I think the opening scene takes place at the 'opening ceremonies' of the bridge. I ordered it on netflix but with the holiday it won't come till Wednesday now. I had to make do with the music video at the end of my post.

    thanks for commenting. I'm glad to know I'm not the only history nerd here!
    and I mean that in the nicest way of course.
    I'm sure there's a novel in there somewhere - perhaps Emily's maid or nanny for the baby? hmmmm

  4. Hey Suzie! Yes, there's a lot of room here to use this as a background story for a plot. How about a series of nannies of new york, each one works for a famous family during this very interesting period in NYC history.

    Oh, by the way, on the other post...I have to agree with Williamsburg. Great idea!

  5. I will be away from my desk today for awhile. I'm also shamelessly plugging my 'interview' currently (1/18/2011) on Romance Writers on the Journey.

    Keli Gwyn asked some amazing questions and I'd like ya'll to stop by

    I'll post it when I can find a better address for it. Keli will be drawing for a giveaway tonight, so hop on over and comment. BRIBERY. YES

    Enjoy your day, everyone!

  6. Awesome story! I love reading "feminist" literature from the late 1800 and early 1900s. I also love Kate and Leopold.

    My crit partner, Christine Lindsay, recently finished a book where the heroine is the daughter of a bridge designer and has been trained in engineering, but instead of her taking on a big project when her father dies, his assistant (antagonist of the book) takes over and messes it up, putting lives at risk. Back to yesterday's discussion, bet you can see where this plot is leading us.

  7. Oooh, Dina. that sounds great. I'll have to go bug Christine about that.

    We did have good conversation yesterday about plot, didn't we?

    There is a published book on Emily called "The Silent Builder..." I found a lot of information on her. Right up to her tombstone--what an amazing life!

    I'm feeling sort of dreamy here. I really must stop watching the Sting video.

  8. Dina, I hope your crit partner sells her book. It sounds like one I'd like to read.

    Deb, I love your NY Nannies idea.

    Now that I've had a couple hours sleep after reading your post, I woke with this thought: Jesus stands in the gap for us. He is our bridge toward greatness. :-)

  9. This is so interesting. Fascinating, too, that it took injuries and death to allow the woman to do what she was gifted at doing. Then, she earned respect and her own degree and wrote a book. I'm inspired. We never know what will happen when we answer the call of our gifts. Only God knows.

  10. You know, Deb. Those Nany stories might make a good novella collection.

    I'm just saying...

  11. Lisa, I was thinking the same thing!

  12. Mary, thanks for commenting!

    Emily must have had some serious desire to learn. When she and her husband got married,they went to Europe to study the use of wire to create cabling for bridges. Nice honeymoon! It seems pretty clear she was his equal.

    Before the bridge was completed, the Engineering Society wanted to remove Washington Roebling from the project because he wasn't 'on site'. Emily addressed the society's meeting and convinced them to give her husband the respect he deserved. She obviously gained hers as well!

    What a smart, gutsy chick!

  13. Wonderful post--Emily's truly an inspiration. I'm challenged by your question...what am I prepared to do? Gulp.

    I need to figure that out.

    Great interview on Romance Writers on the Journey, Debra. I learned a lot about you and enjoyed the post.

    Nanny novellas...sounds very fun!

  14. Wow, LOVE that dress. Wish I could get one for $100. :-) Thanks for a very interesting post, Debra!

  15. I don't know what I'm preparing for either, Susie. I hope it's success.

    I've learned some strange but practical skills in life that I've thought would make me a good missionary somewhere. Now if only I could start in my own community.

    There's been a lot of talk of 'following your calling' lately. Our pastor spoke on it Sunday, and on the way home I heard Jim Rubart on the Don Moen show. He used this quote: Don't let the music die inside you.

    That got me thinking a lot about how God creates us with something unique inside and orchestrates the opportunities to use those strengths. If we allow! I'm sure we limit ourselves more than any other factor.

  16. Hi Rosslyn,
    thanks for visiting the Inkwell. I especially enjoyed adding the dress photo to my post. Here's Emily in a man's world - Being a leader, a boss, a brainiac...very difficult and unusual role for Victorian woman. She had to make some serious decisions, stand by them, and probably put up with a lot of disrespect.
    Can you imagine the grit to do that? I started to imagine her as almost 'unfeminine' and then I saw this dress. Wow.

  17. My husband and I were in NYC for a convention in August of 2001. We met with some of my family and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was so amazing to have three generations cross that gorgeous bridge.

    We had tickets to go to the World Trade Center but ran out of time. We thought we'd do it next time, but there wasn't a next time (for the WTC).

    This post was a reminder (for me) not to take things for granted, and to give thanks for this incredible country.

    God bless America.

  18. Hi Cheryl,
    what an amazing memory to share.

    I never went to the WTC either. In our school district, the seniors take a trip to NYC every year (I went in the 70s) but my kids each had the chance to visit the building and go to the top.

    I was carried up to the top of Lady Liberty as a toddler and I've never tried it since.
    All this talk is making me long for a trip to the big city. (but oh the cost!)

  19. Two things jumped out at me as I read this AWESOME post:
    "She didn't plan for greatness, but she prepared for it."
    LOVE IT! I'll be chewing on that for days, since I don't think I've planned OR prepared for greatness, and how dare we not, as children of God.
    Second: "last day trip to Manhattan."
    Can you say JEALOUS!?! I've been to Manhattan once, when I was 13. We did go to the WTC, and stood on the observation deck. It was a life-changing moment in a life-changing trip, and I am so grateful to God for that opportunity.
    Day trips to Manhattan... take one for me, Deb!

  20. Niki, that's the cheap way to go to NYC. Last time I went was a bus trip. Got dropped off at 11am and picked up at 8pm. That's plenty of time to do a very little bit. But it makes a very long day, when you add in the 12 hrs of travel time

    Don't get me wrong. I'd do it again tomorrow if I could!

    NYC is an amazing place to visit, that's for sure.

    Thank you~ I'm glad you liked it. I was totally inspired by Emily Roebling's life.

  21. Loved this post, Deb. I had no idea there was such a fascinating woman behind the bridge.

    BTW, Kate & Leopold is one of my faves, too. Now I'm going to have to pull out the DVD... when I have an open chunk of time :+}

  22. Well, I just got Kate and Leopold in the mail in that lovely red NetFlix envelope. A day late. I forgot about the MLK holiday when I ordered it last week.

    Thank you Jen! I feel good knowing Emily Roebling's incredible story has reached a few more people. I will never look at that bridge without thinking of her.

    Speaking of...
    When I get in an elevator and see "OTIS" I think of Katie and Leopold!