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Building the Brooklyn Bridge

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in Profiles in Leadership

In the late 1800s, Emily Roebling was a working mother ahead of her time.

She also must have been a patient woman.

Her father-in-law was a serious, humorless and even severe man. He also was the visionary who designed the Brooklyn Bridge.

First, the Roeblings had to endure naysayers who called the bridge a “wild experiment.” Next, John Roebling had to get engineers onboard and secure funding. No sooner had he surmounted these difficulties when he was injured on the job and died two weeks later.

His son, 32-year-old engineer Washington Roebling, took over. He, however, developed a case of “the bends” from working deep within the bridge’s watertight caissons.

His wife, engineer Emily Warren Roebling, served as a liaison between her ailing husband and the crew.

Emily Roebling had a strong set to her jaw and a look of determination about her. She deftly handled politicians, competing engineers, vendors and workers. She even had to convince politicians that her husband was still in charge.

Eventually, people considered Emily Roebling the bridge’s chief engineer.

The bridge took 14 years to build, or nearly three times as long as the original plan, bogged down as it was in fires, accidents and graft.

All the same, not a single member of Roebling’s engineering team quit. She stuck with them and they stuck with her.

Emily Roebling was the first person to cross the completed bridge in 1883, riding in a carriage and carrying a rooster to symbolize victory.

A huge party ensued, with 150,000 guests and 14 tons of fireworks that lasted a full hour. Bands played until dawn.

In the end, the Brooklyn Bridge cost 27 lives and $16 million, more than twice the original projection. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Also the tallest.

While it’s no longer the longest, New Yorkers still claim it’s the best.

And Emily Roebling made it happen.

— Adapted from “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Mental Floss.

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