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Articles > Great Morph series

Great Morph
Part 1

The “Equal Rights Amendment” was not supported by a sufficient number of States to make it a part of the U.S. Constitution, yet it seems obvious the Presidential election of 2016 may include at least one female candidate with a reasonable chance to win. These days the traditional reasons for reserving certain job descriptions which once implied “males only” are now impossible to justify in our culture. One prominent example of this is the civil engineering profession. A specific case study is the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

By Don Sayenga

Published in the Wire Rope News & Sling Technology December 2015

It is our natural human tendency to invent believable fiction to fill any gaps between established facts, thereby creating a more appealing version of history. As they say in the newspaper business, we never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Who put the con in iconic?

Australian professor Donald Langmead has asserted “At the beginning of the twenty-first century iconic has become one of the most overemployed, overrated, and misused words in the English language ... true icons point not to themselves but to ideas beyond and bigger than themselves.” Backed by that caveat, he named the Brooklyn Bridge as one of the two dozen icons of American architecture. Among the many ideas which are beyond and bigger than the big bridge is the curious notion it was designed and built by a woman. Like many other urban legends, this one has morphed from simple gossip into a firmly established non-fact. Work on the original bridge was completed in 1883; the con job is still underway as of 2015.

A view of Manhattan from under the Brooklyn Bridget 1903 Image from Library of Congress - Detroit Publishing Co. Photo restoration Mark Krasnow

In the real world, the person who designed and supervised building of the Brooklyn Bridge was a man, Washington Roebling. He had assembled a staff of expert assistants to whom he delegated various parts of the job. Two years after the work began he became ill and was unable to make any more trips to the jobsite. He could not deliver his reports at meetings of the trustees. Describing that situation in his award-winning history book “The Great Bridge”, David McCullough explains what happened next: “All kinds of intriguing stories were going about ... There was another rumor ... that his wife, without anybody knowing it, had been deciding everything, directing the entire work for months”.

In 1882, the Mayor of Brooklyn, who was one of the trustees of the company that owned the bridge, suggested demoting him to a consultant role by promoting one of his assistants upward to the status of Chief Engineer. Washington Roebling interpreted this suggestion as a malicious insult. His written rebuttal emphasized the roles played his staff of assistants, using these words: “I can talk for only a few moments at a time, and cannot listen to conversation if it is continued very long ... I did not telegraph you before the last meeting that I was sick and could not come, because everyone knows I am sick, and they must be as tired as I am of hearing my health discussed in the newspapers. I believe there is not a day that I do not do some sort of work for the Bridge, and I think all those who are familiar with Bridge affairs know that my assistants do the work assigned them with perfect confidence that they can always refer to me for any advice or assistance they need.”

Hearing this, the trustees rejected the proposal for his demotion. The great bridge went into service in 1883, the great rumor about his wife was placed in storage, awaiting revival half a century later. Prof. Langmead explains how and why it is human nature to perpetuate great rumors: “In any contest between myth and history, myth mostly wins ... interpreting evidence to decide what probably happened in the past may reveal the truth, but it often does not stir the soul ... myth, on the other hand, can be turned on the lathe of what we wish was so ...”. In short, we are conning ourselves because we prefer to have it that way. In the case study of the Brooklyn Bridge, the great rumor not only has survived - it has expanded.

The George Kunz mystery and its aftermath

George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932) was a world-famous mineralogist and gem expert. His prestige among collectors of jewels and minerals was widespread, plus he served as an officer of Tiffany & Co. in New York City which brought him into contact with many wealthy people. After 1872, when Washington Roebling had become both rich and disabled, he began mineral collecting as his primary hobby. When he died in July 1926 he willed his huge collection (16,000 items including a few rare ones) to his son who had no interest in maintaining it. As a result it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1927. This was a benchmark event in the world of collectible mineral specimens.

Despite a large age difference between Roebling and Kunz, a close connection within the milieu of mineral collectors is easy to imagine. In 1926, when Roebling’s death at Trenton NJ was announced, the New York Times published a Letter to the Editor from someone in New York City who signed it “G.F.K.”. Based upon that strong likelihood of a hobbyist connection between Roebling and Kunz, we might guess Kunz was the author of the letter. If so, Kunz would have been age 70 at the time the letter was written on July 23, 1926. In the letter (along with a few references to specific events which must have happened prior to 1883) the following statement about Roebling was made by “G.F.K”:

The American Institute Fair Building - photo from Robert N. Dennis collection

“More than fifty years ago ... an attempt was made to displace him in the management of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge ... The writer distinctly remembers hearing him dictate to his wife a final statement, after many dictations, telling what he was doing on the bridge and why he should not be displaced. Mrs. Roebling read this paper before the American Society of Civil Engineers in the American Institute Fair Building at Sixty-third Street and Third Avenue. It produced an immense sensation, because it was a splendid statement and well delivered by Mrs. Roebling who was young and handsome. It was also well received which was not always the case at that time when a woman spoke in public.”

The person who wrote the letter alleged this noteworthy event he “distinctly remembers” had occurred “more than 50 years ago”, i.e. prior to July 1876. Looking closely, we can see the writer did not actually claim to have been there to hear Mrs. Roebling reading the paper to the A.S.C.E. In any event, the 1926 newspaper item made its way into the hands of Dr. Hamilton Schuyler, rector of Trinity Church in Trenton NJ. He was tasked with writing the detailed and definitive biography of the entire Roebling family. It was published as “The Roeblings” in 1931 by Princeton University Press. His efforts, the first attempt at accurate biography, included many quotes from archival documents. Apparently, his work was instigated by Washington Roebling’s brother Ferdinand.

Perhaps because the G.F.K. writer claimed to be contributing a memory from his own personal knowledge, Dr. Schuyler included an excerpt from the G.F.K. letter in his family biography. Schuyler must have realized any presentation of a speech to the engineers’ society in Manhattan would have been somewhat inconvenient when Emily Roebling and her husband were living in Trenton. Therefore, he didn’t copy the G.F.K. recollection about the c. 1876 date. Instead he wrote it “occurred during the period when Colonel Roebling was ill and confined to his rooms in the house he occupied on Columbia Heights, Brooklyn”; i.e. in the summer of 1877 or later. By adjusting the timing, Schuyler began the process of reactivating the great rumor about Emily, based entirely upon an anonymous letter to the newspaper.

As Stan Freberg once said: “Just The Facts, Ma’am”

Although it is possible this vignette, perhaps retained in the memory bank of a septuagenarian, did actually happen as described, a few difficulties get in our way when we try to verify it:

[a] The main problem is the A.S.C.E. has no record of any such statement being made by Mrs. Roebling, and no record of ever holding a meeting in that building on Third Avenue at the time of the bridge project. The building, a large, barn-like enclosure known locally as “The Rink”, was built during the Civil War to house the Empire City Skating Rink. It was used for dog shows and track meets as well as industrial fairs held by the American Institute of New York. During the 1870s and 1880s the civil engineers’ society was based in New York City and was publishing its own minutes, transactions, and proceedings. Surely an “immense sensation” would have been noted somewhere in the Society’s records if it was “well received”. No one has found a trace of it.

[b] The A.S.C.E. wasn’t involved with the attempted demotion. The Brooklyn Bridge was built by a private company as a joint venture with the cities of New York and Brooklyn. In 1882, the proposal to demote Roebling was launched by a few politicians and investors within the company. It is recorded in the Minutes of the company’s trustees.

[c] Neither Emily Roebling nor Washington Roebling ever mentioned any A.S.C.E. episode in their surviving private documents.

[d] Any date assigned circa 1876 would have placed Mrs. Roebling in her mid-30s at the time, casting a minor shadow on the phrase “young and handsome”. If a later date is postulated for the event as Schuler suggested, this age disparity question gets bigger.

[e] Likewise the words “ ... produced an immense sensation ... It was ... well received” are difficult to match against the existing public records. We have zero surviving news media documentation of anything like it at a time there were at least six newspapers in Manhattan and a few more in Brooklyn all providing detailed coverage of bridge-related events.

In May 1933, civic leaders in Brooklyn staged a gala celebration marking the Golden Jubilee of the bridge. 650 people gathered at the Hotel St. George for a banquet followed by a series of speeches. One of the speakers was Al Smith, former governor of the state, who claimed intimate knowledge of the bridge since boyhood. Smith (who also sang a few songs about the bridge) proclaimed “The Bridge was at that time the most written about and talked about thing in the whole world. It was in fact one of the wonders of the world”. Smith’s performance kick-started the bridge’s trip toward becoming an icon.

David Steinman considered it his supreme privilege to be chosen to modernize the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo courtesy Parsons Corporation

In connection with the Jubilee, a well-known Pittsburgh bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal (1850-1935) supposedly mentioned Emily Roebling with these words: “ ... a few people still living, like myself, remember one personality ... I refer to the splendid and difficult service performed by Mrs. Washington A. Roebling. Some day it is to be hoped that the complete history of the bridge will be suitably written, but this is a laborious task. In such a record Mrs. Roebling’s contribution merits a large place.” His remark gets a bit fuzzy because some sources indicate he didn’t move to New York City until 1890, but in 1902 he served as the city’s Commissioner of Bridges, just prior to Emily’s death in 1903.

Dr. David Steinman and Dr. Sara Ruth Watson begin to rebuild the rumor

David Steinman (1886-1960) was a famous structural engineer who got his PhD from Columbia University in 1911. He established a prolific and successful career as a bridge designer. Today he is most famous for creating Big Mac, the giant record-setting suspension bridge connecting the two peninsulas of Michigan. Steinman also was very active in a variety of intellectual activities. He wrote history books and composed poetry, two forms of creativity which are not ordinarily associated with bridge builders. At some point, around 1924, Steinman got an urge to add some juice to the arid and boring technical documentation of American bridge projects. He began collecting anecdotes.

In 1929, he gave a speech entitled “Fifty Years of Progress in Bridge Engineering” before the annual convention of the American Institute of Steel Construction at Edgewater Park, MS. At the beginning of the speech he said: “I want to review for you the story of bridges, not as a dry recital of span lengths or structural principles or erection details, but rather as the drama, the romance, the poetry of bridge-building”. A few years later, in 1934, he gained notoriety by creating a unified National Society of Professional Engineers. His lofty goals for the group included, among many other aims, a hope to “Stop the many travesties on the designation ‘Engineer’ which tend to create confusion and derogatory misconception in the public mind”. Apparently he didn’t think the liberal exercise of his own imagination could be classed as a travesty.

Dr. Sara Ruth Watson examine family scrapbooks. Photo courtesy of Michael Schwarts Library, Cleveland State University

Because his boyhood home was in Brooklyn, Steinman’s primary focus of fascination was fixed on the Brooklyn Bridge. One of his contemporaries was Wilbur J. Watson, a civil engineer in Cleveland OH, who was drawn in the same direction with regard to the lore of bridges. Watson, in cooperation with his two daughters Sarah and Emily, had amassed a large scrapbook collection of photos, and had published several books, one of which was “Bridges in History and Legend”. Steinman and the three Watson family members apparently were fully aware of the 1882 attempt to demote Washington Roebling. To fit this event into the G.F.K. tale, they’d need to modify the date to match exactly the documentation in the minutes of the bridge trustees.

Types of life on the Promenade, Brooklyn Bridge, N.Y. photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Bridge Library of Congress

Dr. Sara Ruth Watson (1907-1995), who later taught Civil Engineering at Cleveland State University, co-published a book with Steinman “Bridges and their Builders” in 1941. She and her sister Emily also published another similar book “Famous Engineers” in 1950. To adjust the date of the WAR demotion attempt, Sara wrote: “A year before the work was completed, there was an attempt to displace Washington Roebling as Chief Engineer. To block this move, Emily Roebling went before the American Society of Civil Engineers and read a statement prepared by her husband. The courage and sincerity she exhibited won her not only the support of those engineers but the confidence of the public as well.”

Steinman and his partners did business from a rented office in the Roebling’s Sons building in Manhattan. This brought him into direct contact with Roebling family members, primarily Joseph M. Roebling, a great-grandson of John A. Roebling. Driven by his uncontrollable attachment to the Brooklyn Bridge, Steinman soon established himself as the nation’s primary authority on all the civil engineering achievements of the entire Roebling family. In July, 1944, when writing his most famous book, “Builders of the Bridge”, he explained: “It has been a labor of love, in the truest sense ... Although some gaps still remain in the Roebling story despite the most exhaustive research, the exploration has, on the whole, been fruitful ... only in minor features has the writer drawn upon his imagination ... Every endeavor has been applied to make the main part of the narrative ... faithfully and historically accurate”.

Read more about The Great Morph Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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