Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling – The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Erica Wagner - review by Gavin Weightman

Gavin Weightman

Suspended in Time

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling – The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge


Bloomsbury 364pp £25 order from our bookshop

Such is the rich romance of Washington Roebling’s life, from his birth in rural Pennsylvania in 1837 until his death in New Jersey in 1926, that his biography would be quite gripping enough if he had not had anything at all to do with the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was the eldest of nine children of a tyrannical German father, John, who had migrated to the USA to be free of the restrictions of life back home. John Roebling had trained as an engineer and worked for a while for the government but felt cramped. Shortly after arriving in America he helped to found a community called Saxonburg, in which Washington grew up. Next he tried farming, but without success. Then John spotted an opening for a new enterprise. He worked on the hauling of boats between canals and saw that the ropes used to hoist the heavy vessels frayed quickly and broke. He discovered how to make wire, and laid the foundations of his fortune and reputation as a bridge builder.

The family moved to Trenton, New Jersey, and Washington went to college. He graduated in 1857 and began to work with his father, who was building a suspension bridge over the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. When the work was done, he looked after the wire mill that his father had

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