John A. Roebling was about so much more than the suspension bridge

COVINGTON, Ky. — There’s a Roebling Street in Brooklyn, a Roebling Avenue in Los Angeles and a Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey, but the name is all about the bridge to those of us who live in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

It has been 150 years since John A. Roebling and his son, Washington, completed the iconic Ohio River bridge that bears John’s name. Past generations knew it as the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge, the “Gateway to the South” and the “Singing Bridge.” In 1982 it was renamed the John A. Roebling Bridge, and the Roebling name has been irrevocably tied to to it since.

Google searches of “Roebling bridge” and “John A. Roebling” produced 409,000 and 408,000 results, respectively.

The man is about the bridge, and the bridge is about the man. They are equals.

Much has been written about the ground-breaking bridge, how the cable and tier technology the Roeblings developed made them the greatest suspension bridge builders in the world during the last half of the 19th century.
 

German-born Roebling was a self-made man who went on to be the nation's greatest builder of suspension bridges, including the one here that bears his name. Public domain image


We know it’s old the oldest bridge between Ohio and Kentucky and that tires make its mesh metal floor sing.

But just who was the man that made it? 

For one, he was highly educated, entrepreneurial and astutely successful when it came to inventing and running a business. Culturally, he was a man of literature and music, who wrote a lot and played piano and violin, according to the Roebling Museum’s website, http://roeblingmuseum.org. In terms of family, his was big: four sons and three daughters.

He was a famous man, an intellectual man, but in some ways, Roebling was also the original Cable Guy.

He was born Johann Augustus Robling in 1806 in Mulhausen, Prussia (now Germany). His father was a tobacco merchant, who made sure his son received a formal education that included learning French, drafting and mathematics. The latter two subjects and the architecture and engineering courses Roebling took at the Royal Polytechnic School in Berlin laid the foundation for his career.

Roebling found the science of suspension construction particularly fascinating during his college days. After he graduated, he had to put in three years of public service. He helped build roads, but what he dreamed about building were suspension bridges. The Prussian state, however, denied his requests to do so.

So by the age of 25, Roebling packed up and moved to the United States with his brother, Karl, and a group of Germans. They settled in western Pennsylvania and founded the town of Saxonburg. There in 1836, the 30-year-old Roebling married Johanna Herting and started a family. Washington, Roebling’s future business partner, was born first in 1837, the same year Johann August Robling became a United States citizen and Anglicized his name to John A. Roebling.

Roebling worked as an engineer on the Pennsylvania Canal before getting a job surveying for a railroad company in the Allegheny Mountains. The job brought the Cable Guy out of John Roebling. According to a biography on the Roebling Museum’s site, he loathed the limitations of hemp ropes used by canal boats to ascend inclines, so he invented a twisted wire rope in 1841 that became the backbone of his manufacturing business. 

The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company of Trenton, New Jersey made cables for the Niagara Suspension Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge and the George Washington Bridge as well as the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge.

A group of Northern Kentucky investors hired Roebling to design and build the world’s longest suspension bridge (1,057 feet) in Cincinnati, and work on it began in 1856. A bad economy forced construction to cease in 1858, and the project sat dormant for several years until Civil War defense needs reignited interest in it, and investors came forth to pay for the bridge to be finished.

This bronze statue of visionary John A. Roebling can be found at the west end of Riverside Drive near the base of the bridge in Covington. Photo by Brent Coleman 


John Roebling had been called away to New York near the end of the war to design a bridge over the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Washington Roebling stepped in to complete the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge during the last two years of construction.

Hailed by the Cincinnati Enquirer as “the greatest work in the country,” the suspension bridge opened to pedestrians on Dec. 1, 1866. Some 40,000 people crossed it that day. On Sunday, another 120,000 people walked the bridge. It was as if everyone in the city wanted to experience what had taken 11 years to achieve: a world-class bridge linking the North and the South.

The bridge opened to vehicles on Jan. 1, 1867, a day when the river was so icy it couldn't be navigated by the ferry operators who had fervently opposed construction of a bridge. A huge crowd lined a parade route from downtown Cincinnati to the bridge that consisted of cargo wagons drawn by teams of up to eight horses, community bands and bridge company and city dignitaries.

Was John A. Roebling there to christen his bridge? It’s possible, but his name was not mentioned in the Enquirer’s article about opening day. Perhaps reporters were distracted by the fact that famed orator Horace Greeley was in town to speak Jan. 2, 1867.

Or it could have been that Roebling, now chief engineer of the New York Bridge Company, stayed put in New York, where he would die before seeing his son, Washington, build the Brooklyn Bridge, a two-tier, double-wide version of the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge.

Roebling and one of his sons were surveying the centerline of the Brooklyn Bridge on the Fulton Ferry slip in July 1869 when his foot was struck and crushed. Toes were amputated. He developed tetanus. Sixteen days after the accident, John A. Roebling died of lockjaw on July 22, 1869.

Washington Roebling took over the family business along with his brothers Ferdinand, Charles and Edmund and went on to complete the famous bridge in 1883.

That same year, Harper’s Weekly honored the Roeblings’ father with a large political cartoon showing John climbing down from the end of the bridge. Under the image was the caption: “New York Entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. Evidence the elevated gentleman intends to stay.”

 

Harper's Weekly published this drawing of the Covington-Cincinnati bridge in 1868. More than a century later, it was renamed for its creator, John A. Roebling. Public domain image

Other sources: www.roeblingbridge.orgwww.loc.comhttp://explorekyhistory.org.

 

 

 

 

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