COVINGTON, Ky. — It was Cincinnati’s first “riverfest,” and just about everybody came.
One-hundred-fifty years ago on the weekend of Dec. 1-2, an estimated 160,000 people — about 40,000 fewer than the entire population of Cincinnati in 1866 — swarmed the city to be the first pedestrians to cross the world’s longest suspension bridge, an engineering marvel described in the local press as “the greatest work in the country.”
Ironically, the 1,057-foot bridge’s maker and 116 years later its namesake, John Augustus Roebling, was not present. He had moved on to New York in 1865 to plan his next, last and most famous project, the Brooklyn Bridge.
But his son, Washington Augustus (1837-1926), was there. It was Washington, fresh off four years serving in the Union Army, who had finished the bridge, taking over in March 1865 for a man he called either “father,” “Mr. Roebling,” John A.” or “Mr. R” in a 2009 memoir that went unpublished for 100 years.
“Washington Roebling’s Father: A Memoir of John A. Roebling” is a little-circulated book published by the American Society of Civil Engineers and edited by Donald Sayenga, an Arizona-based wire rope industry consultant and historian. Seventeen pages are devoted to what Washington, whose punctuation was incorrect, called the “Cincinnati Susp. Bridge.”
Interspersed with detailed descriptions of the building and opening of the bridge that fill 17 of the book’s 270 pages, Washington praises his father as a “genius,” but blames him for driving his mother to an early death. He also takes swipes at Amos Shinkle, the Covington businessman credited with saving the bridge.
Washington’s account, which he started in 1893 and finished around 1908, deepens greatly what historians know about the Roebling men and their great bridge. Their achievement, said Northern Kentucky University history and geography professor Paul Tenkotte “is THE symbol of the Cincinnati metropolitan area.”
It led to great economic growth on both sides of the river — literally making the suburb of Covington a boom town, Tenkotte said — and it plays a key role today as people in the region return “to our historic roots, to the Ohio River — the very reason why our cities exist in the first place.”
Under His Father’s Thumb
New Jersey wire company founder and bridge designer John A. Roebling (1806-1869) left Cincinnati and its bridge-in-progress in 1865, firing his top engineer (another engineer quit) and replacing them with Washington. John moved to New York, where he began to plan the Brooklyn Bridge based on his experience in Cincinnati.
Washington wrote that his father also wedded “a harmless creature who ought to have been married to a different type of man, twenty years sooner.”
John died quickly of tetanus caused by foot wounds suffered in June 1869 while plotting the Brooklyn Bridge's centerline across the East River. His death, Sayenga wrote, ended 32 years of Washington’s life during which he was “tyrannically dominated by his overbearing father.” According to Sayenga, John’s three sons had endured his “uncontrollable rage and violence on a daily basis.” That same torment, Washington wrote, wore down his mother, who died at age 48.
Though a “genius” who revolutionized steel cable manufacturing with his inventions and documented his every living day, John could not be challenged and claimed he knew more than anyone, according to his son, who wrote: “In cable making he did, but not in other matters.”
Shinkle and Opening the Bridge
Washington wrote critically of Shinkle, a devout Methodist who founded several churches, was a banker and real estate developer and used his power to refinance the stalled bridge project and form a bridge company in Covington.
Washington wrote of Shinkle: “He was a thorn in my father’s side; why he actually rented the (bridge) towers to be plastered with advertisements from top to bottom. Raised a wharf rat himself he kept his only son in a palace in Italy to wear off the plebian stains which stuck all over the Shinkle hide.
“Amos could make money where all others failed — he could buy cheap and sell dear, and was familiarly known as a ‘skinner’ ” Washington wrote. “When the bridge was opened it was a Sunday — At 10 A.M. the crowd broke down the barriers — Amos was sent for from church (rushing out during the long prayer) seizing a big basket he mounted a barrel and collected pennies from 11 A.M. until 11 P.M. Not a penny got away from him, and the basket held $700 worth."
Intense Working Conditions
In 1865, workers completed the bridge’s two towers, which had stood unfinished during a five-year construction hiatus brought on by an economic downturn and war. The men measured and cut the bulk of the towers’ sandstone and stacked it up on the riverbank. They built on-site derricks, booms, inclined planes and shops on the bridge’s anchorages for cable making, carpentry and blacksmithing. It was an “ugly job.” Wrote Washington:
“… And in all the hot places on earth in the long summer that spot was not the least. It was the fashion then to wear shirts that buttoned in the back. They always stood open, giving the sun a full chance at your hide.”
The Roeblings’ first span of the Ohio River was a precarious 2½-foot wide wooden foot bridge. Once in place in 1866, the cables provided an alternative route. Wrote Washington:
“The maintenance of a long narrow foot bridge in the winters gales was a matter of difficulty. It tore apart several times — to fix it was my job, always at the risk of my life. On one occasion I could only return by walking on the main cable back to the top of the tower — Before reaching it my strength gave out — below was sure death — How I managed to cover the last 100 feet is still a hideous nightmare to me.”
The job Washington inherited was too far along for major changes to be made in those last two years of construction. He wrote about one of his regrets related to that limitation:
“The pity of it grew that the bridge had not been located in line with the main street of Cincinnati and Covington, which could easily have been done and would have afforded one of the most magnificent vistas in the whole world — but the petty economy of the Shinkle type, the utter indifference of the people to any architectural effects (which would have repaid the City a hundred fold in time to come) forbade it, and now it was too late, always too late.”
Bigger and Better Things
Washington Roebling stayed in Cincinnati in 1867 to put the finishing touches on the bridge and likely was there on Jan. 1, 1867 when tens of thousands of citizens witnessed the first wagons and buggies to cross it. John visited that summer, but Washington’s memoir includes nothing of his father’s reaction to the bridge, just that he had returned to Cincinnati.
It was as if John A. Roebling had put behind him completely a project he first conjured in 1846 and began in 1856, even though “for many years it was a favorite child of his anticipations. … The Cincinnati Bridge had only been a stepping stone to this greater ambition of John A. Roebling,” Washington wrote.
John received almost all of the credit for the Brooklyn Bridge, even though it was built by Washington, along with his wife, who was his courier and co-engineer. Washington was a reclusive multi-millionaire when he died at age 89, and lamented in his memoir that some people actually thought him to be John A. Roebling in the years after his father had died.
But NKU’s Tenkotte said Washington Roebling’s “reputation in terms of the Brooklyn Bridge has been well secured.
“The Cincinnati and Brooklyn bridges will be forever tied,” Tenkotte said. “As New York is the ‘Queen City,’ so Cincinnati is rightfully the ‘Queen City of the West.’ Both were, and are, innovative places, and their suspension bridges are testimony to that.”
For more on the John A. Roebling Suspension bridge, click here.