“ The Engineer’s Wife ” – The Mendocino Beacon
“The Engineer’s Wife” by Tracey Enerson Wood is the story of Emily Roebling. In 1854, at a ball to celebrate war officers, her brother introduced her to a captain who wanted to build bridges after the war. His name is Washington “Wash” Roebling. His brother GK gives him a look that says, “Hold on.”
During one of her holidays, Captain Roebling takes Emily on a picnic. He leaves for the war and six months later, he proposes marriage. She thinks it’s too early, but she accepts it anyway.
Fighting in Virginia is fierce, and when Wash returns, Emily wonders if he’s the same man she fell for. He seems distant and stumbles. She feels her mind has been damaged. In January 1865, they married. Wash accompanies his father to complete the construction of the Cincinnati Bridge.
Emily sneaks up to the bridge. She, Farrington and Wash discuss the plans. She knows as much as they do after Wash explains it to her. Wash’s dad, who Emily calls Dad, is adamant about using the best, strongest yarn, even if it comes from overseas. In 1867, the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge opened to crowds and enthusiastic groups.
Dad offers them a trip to Europe to study bridge design. She tells Wash that she is having a baby. The delivery is difficult and she cannot have any more children afterwards. After her recovery, Emily accompanies Wash on research trips and leaves the baby with the Roebling clan in Prussia. Emily tells Wash about the day her sister drowned in a river. Em has since been terrified of water.
In 1868, they returned to New York. She explores the city on horseback and meets PT Barnum, whose spirit and daring attract her. He shows her the museum he is building and introduces her to Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins. He tells her that “the world is full of magic. You have to know where to find it. A few weeks later, Emily brings a model of the proposed bridge to PT for approval in the hope of obtaining funds. His museum burned down, started with a lantern blown in a breeze. She attracts him with visions of uniting Brooklyn and New York. Barnum sees a wider audience for his projects.
Wash proclaims the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge project. Dad is on the other side, holding a red flag on a long pole. Wash watches through binoculars as a ferry loaded with passengers approaches the dock, too closely. He slams on Dad. His shoe catches a slit in the dock and he’s stuck there. His foot is mutilated and Wash and Emily try to cure him to life, but to no avail. As Dad dies, Wash says, “I’m going to build your bridge.” Emily swears to help her.
Wash explains how the caisson goes under the river with workers on it. Many get caisson disease from the high air pressure. The workers become irritable and fights break out. Oxygen is pumped to keep the men alive. When they open an office to handle supplies and finances, Emily becomes the office manager and pays for police protection. PT provides a nanny to take care of their son. Emily wants to work for women’s suffrage, but helps build the bridge.
One day, Wash is brought home on a stretcher with his legs paralyzed. There had been a fire on the caisson and five men were dead. Wash has caisson disease and needs to rest at home. He designs bloomers for Emily who wants more comfort when working on the deck. She is his messenger, often riding her horse to and from the site. The transition committee says they will find a replacement for Wash if he is unable to return to work. Workers on the derrick whistle at Emily and deflect a huge stone which crashes into Luciano and crushes her. The manager tells her that she represents a danger on the site.
But Wash’s Cell Disease worsens and Emily has to manage and take care of the house, office and care. As her legs crumble, he makes her a consulting engineer. She needs to speak to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Terrified of speaking in public, she goes to PT Barnum who teaches her in exchange for a kiss. She feels passion for him. He tells her to connect with the audience and she talks to every man. She talks to Benjamin Stone, the committee head. His wife and child were on a train when a bridge collapsed. He’s determined to stop the bridge unless it’s super strong.
There are reports of fire damage in the caisson and Emily has to go. She finds smoke and smoking sparks in the ceiling. She orders Mr. Young to flood the caisson. He doesn’t agree, but she insists. She dives underwater to open the hatch and thinks of her drowned sister. She regains her composure and returns home to find Wash embroidering her panties. Wash indicates that they have to chisel the concrete and replace the wooden beams. Emily herself squirms in tight spaces and chisels him.
A month later, all of this is done and the fire damage repaired. She studies Wash’s textbooks. Emily suggests testing the glacial bedrock instead of descending further and Wash agrees. It turns out to be strong enough to contain the massive tower. The towers on the Manhattan side are growing rapidly and are united with the eight-story anchor building. Spectators applaud and American flags fly. Emily goes to the top of the tower.
Bricklayers are rare and inexperienced men are employed. Some of them are buried under rubble and dust. As a group of women visit the bridge, one of the wires breaks and flies out of control, killing a man and scaring everyone. Emily sends a sample of the yarn to the lab. She brings a piece of brittle wire to a bridge committee meeting and shows them how easily it breaks. The Commission votes to review all cable contracts. It takes two years to settle the deception, theft and corruption of the fiasco. The defective wire had been mixed with the correct one.
Emily is encouraged by Wash to ride a buggy up the new bridge as it opens, to meet the mayor of New York on the other side. The ceremony pays tribute to Ms. Emily Warren Roebling, finally recognized publicly. PT organizes a parade with an orchestra, acrobats and elephants.
Now that the bridge is over, does Emily stay with Wash? Is she going with PT Barnum whom she also loves? Wood weaved together fact and fiction to create a meaningful story of a strong woman and a real Brooklyn Bridge. Find it on the new fiction shelf at the Mendocino Community Library and the Fort Bragg Library.