Constructing the Brooklyn Bridge didn’t just claim the lives of up to 30 laborers.
John and Washington Roebling, the father and son engineers in charge of building the bridge, were also casualties.
John Roebling, right, lost his life early on. Named chief engineer and given the go-ahead to start construction in 1867, he died after a freak accident.
While surveying the bridge site at the river’s edge, a ferry boat crushed his toes. They had to be amputated, which led to tetanus. He was dead that July.
Washington Roebling then took over. In 1872, while submerged in a caisson to supervise construction, he suffered decompression sickness—paralyzing him.
Though he was unable to leave his bed in his Brooklyn Heights home, Washington Roebling wasn’t ready to give up his gig as chief engineer.
From his top-floor bedroom at 106 Columbia Heights, he directed daily operations through his wife, Emily, right, who was unofficially in charge until the bridge was completed in 1883.
He could look through binoculars (above illustration) and watch the bridge—the towers, the steel cables, the roadway—go up, just as he’d planned (below photo).
A plaque on the bridge gives big props to Emily, her husband, and her father-in-law. And Roebling Street in Williamsburg also pays them homage.