‘Chief Engineer’


Erica Wagner, Bloomsbury, 364 pages, $28. The subject of journalist Erica Wagner’s engaging new biography, “Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge,” is known for his engineering legacy, but he was also a talented wordsmith. Roebling’s unpublished memoir, letters and carefully preserved notebooks complement Wagner’s detailed portrait of a sensitive and tormented man who survived well into his 80s via two lifelines: a clever mind and a saintly wife. Washington’s father, John A. Roebling, invented a wire rope that aided in revolutionizing modern American industry but abused his family. The book further documents how the misery of the Civil War affected Roebling as a young man. Once the bloodshed is over, Washington Roebling seized control of his destiny, traveling abroad with his young wife and studying the new technique of caissons fed with compressed air. After his father died, leaving plans for the Brooklyn Bridge unfinished, Washington employs the advanced European technology. Washington’s letters reveal meticulous details not only of the building of the bridge but also of the political struggle. We see inside the bedrock, feel the pressure of 80-degree-Fahrenheit chambers full of sweating, sooty laborers, pressure that caused health issues for them and for Roebling. Emily Warren Roebling, whom he calls “remarkable” and a “good right hand,” had to take charge of completing the great bridge. Along with Emily’s presence, Roebling’s dry wit and even tone give life and personality to Wagner’s already enjoyable prose.