Beautiful New York

A Celebration of the City

The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #9

Emily Roebling (1843 – 1903)


Cultured, sophisticated, and fiercely intelligent, Emily Roebling was the woman behind the completion of the 19th century’s greatest icon of civil engineering, the Brooklyn Bridge. Married to Chief Engineer Washington Roebling, whose father had designed the bridge and then promptly died from his injuries in a ferry boat accident before the first stone was set down, Emily followed her husband’s project closely. When he came down with a severe case of the bends (which he survived but never completely recovered), she was the only person to visit him. Beginning as a liaison, taking dictation and instructions, Emily soon became fluent in engineering and grew to be her husband’s eyes and ears. When rumors sprang that Washington’s health might cause him to be removed as chief engineer, it was Emily who went to the politicians in charge of the project and argued in his defense. So central was she to the decision making process by the time the bridge was completed, she became popularly known as “the first female field engineer” in spite of the lack of formal training. When the bridge finally opened, 14 years after it was begun, Emily Roebling was the first person to cross it, ceremonially riding in an open carriage and carrying a rooster, the symbol of victory.


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