Brooklyn Heights

Author Erica Wagner gives book talk in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn BookBeat: Wagner Discusses ‘Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge’

August 1, 2017 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Erica Wagner. Photo by Olivia Beasley
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On July 10, at “Books Beneath the Bridge” in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the American author Erica Wagner gave a talk and held a Q&A and signing for her new book “Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.” It was a hot, sultry evening, but the proximity to the East River and the breathtaking views of lower Manhattan provided a refreshing background to Ms. Wagner’s lively talk.

Wagner began by explaining that she has been fascinated with Washington Roebling’s story for most of her life. In fact, she has carried his photo in her wallet since she was a teenager. She then went on to discuss the genesis of Washington Roebling’s taking over for his father John Roebling after he was killed in an accident before work had even begun on the bridge. She also revealed John Roebling’s cruel abuse of his son — a fact which Wagner’s meticulous research uncovered.

She also spoke about Washington’s service in the Civil War. When Roebling entered the service, he was a private and he eventually rose to the rank of colonel. He participated in many of the key battles of the war: Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. In fact, he played a critical role at the Battle of Gettysburg, helping to hold Little Round Top for the Union Army. He was also one of the first men to observe battlefield maneuvers from a balloon.

In her talk, Wagner explained it was significant that the Brooklyn Bridge was built in the years after the Civil War — “a bridge is a wonderful symbol for a divided nation.”

She also explained what makes the Brooklyn Bridge special: “The story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge is a very dramatic one. Begun in 1869, it was finished in 1883 and was (and remains) a technological marvel. It was the first suspension bridge with cables made of steel. It was a bridge with a span that would not be significantly surpassed for 50 years. It was built using a dangerous new technology, underwater caissons which are the foundations of the bridge’s great towers — a technology that Roebling pioneered at great cost to himself. Like many of the men who worked for him, he suffered badly from ‘the bends,’ or decompression sickness, and it affected him all his long life — though the real source of his lifelong illness remains, in some ways, mysterious.”

What does not remain mysterious is the continuing fascination with both the bridge and the borough it was named for. Recently, a friend from Italy came to visit New York City for the first time. We asked her: “What’s first, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Times Square?” Without a moment’s hesitation she replied, “The Brooklyn Bridge!”

“Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” by Erica Wagner is published by Bloomsbury USA, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. For more information, go to


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