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The Woman Who Kick-boxed 

the Great Bridge into Existence
The Untold Powers of Emily Roebling

Historical Fantasy by Paul Bacon

Featured Reading for "The Americana Project," 

Fez Under Time Cafe, New York City, April 18, 2001

and Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA, October 28, 2001


America's mighty East River might never have been crossed without the courage of a woman named Emily Roebling. A brilliant engineer and a formidable martial artist, Emily overcame disease, corruption—even physical impossibilities—to complete the Brooklyn Bridge.

Married to chief engineer Washington Roebling, Emily was called to duty in 1879 when her husband succumbed to the bends, or caisson disease, as it was known. After 18 months of micromanaging the bridge's dangerous underwater construction, Washington finally collapsed from the ailment that had already killed dozens of men. Fortunately for him and trillions of New York commuters to come, he had Emily, whom he cherished as a devoted wife, trusted partner and near-intellectual equal.


Washington first met Emily during the Civil War at a dinner dance hosted by his commanding officer, General Grant of the Union Army. The young solider was impressed by Emily's quick wit and common sense, and soon found it quite advantageous to be seen with such a well-heeled companion. He felt only slightly threatened by Emily's copious knowledge of various topics; and, as an architect, he appreciated her highly accurate telescopic vision. Once during their courtship, Washington tried to impress Emily by taking her in his surveillance balloon, but it was she who first spotted Confederate troops marching on Gettysburg.


The couple married after the war and moved to Brooklyn to begin work on the bridge. Washington's father, legendary builder John Roebling, had just designed the structure in meticulous detail but died shortly before groundbreaking. In a poetic encounter with the East River ferry he planned to replace, John was surveying a point on the future construction site where the passenger boat came into port. Paying no mind to the noisy incoming ferry, his foot was smashed against the dock when it arrived. 


John developed tetanus and later cholera, but as a practicing hydropethist, he refused medical attention, insisting a water cure was all he needed. His death two days later passed to Washington the enormous burden of building the bridge, considered the most ambitious construction project of the age. When Washington fell to caisson disease two years later, a pattern of doom seemed to emerge.


After Washington's collapse, Emily boasted of his high spirits, but her secret diary reveals a different story. In one entry, she writes, "Wash speaks only in broken sentences, and when he manages to hold his head up for more than a few seconds, he cringes out the window at the unfinished bridge. He doesn't fear death, he fears only the bridge."


Washington did have his moments of clarity before he became a functional invalid, and Emily helped him use the time well. At first she worked as his secretary, relaying orders to the construction site and returning with progress updates. They made a great team, but all too often, assistant engineers sent her home with amended blueprints and samples of failed materials. Soon, everything that came back from the bridge was bad news, and the workload pushed Washington over the brink. Five weeks after he had been carried from the New York caisson, Washington went into physical shock. He would spend the next nine years laying under a pile of blankets, being bled and purged in a variety of other fashions.


But that didn't stop Emily. She had absorbed all of the critical details for finishing the bridge, and tended to its completion while simultaneously seeking a cure for Washington's illness. To preserve her husband's honor, she told the company partners that he was still completely in charge. She worked around the clock to keep up appearances, often taking very short cat naps; and she eventually learned how to be awake and asleep at the same time. Ever alert, Emily seemed ready to tackle any problem from engineering to politics.


One day in the dead of winter, she was supervising the anchorage of a main suspension cable when one of the so-called "wire ropes" split apart. With a deafening crack, a strand under tension of 120 million tons instantly frayed into a blur of steel whips. The explosive recoil killed nearly everyone in sight and cut two men in half.


Emily had ducked out of the way, and when she stood back up, she saw the main cable swinging down into the river. Then, a soft rumbling beneath her feet told her the towers were about to collapse. She leapt up into the sky--not unlike a bird--and grabbed the 15-inch-diameter cable with her bare hands. Returning to the anchorage, she welded it in place with laser beams that came out of her eyeballs. She was that extraordinary.


But all the laser beams in the world could not solve the problem of the faulty cable, which had been supplied against her wishes by a crooked businessman named Finneaus Hay. Even though Emily's company was the world's largest manufacturer of wire rope, she had been cornered into a deal with Hay by the corrupt New York City Board of Influence. 


Now, with proof of Hay's underhanded dealings, Emily aimed to level the playing field. But instead of taking him to court, she consulted a wise old Chinese man who taught her the mysterious enchantment of Oriental-style violence. Within days, she had learned to crush a man's spine with a flick of her little toe. She earned her black belt, then went to city hall and broke down the door of a smoke-filled room. Smoke filled the room, but all the fat-cats saw when Emily launched into a hurricane of extreme kicks and blood-curdling squeals. Later that day, she rode the ferry back to Brooklyn carrying a box of Cuban cigars and a contract for 3,000 miles of wire rope.


While Emily trusted the newly-spun cable, the bridge workers were still leery after the accident. Even the foolhardy merchant marines refused to climb the wire, and construction on the roadway came to a halt. Desperate to keep the project moving, master mechanic Frank Farrington vowed to demonstrate his faith in the cable. Farrington, a daring but emotionally remote ex-convict, pledged to ride the main span across the river supported only by a crude wooden swing. The press got wind of his plan, and the next day, tens of thousands of spectators gathered on both sides of the East River to watch.


As Farrington scaled the 276-foot Brooklyn tower, Emily stayed on the ground with members of the Board of Influence, who were now literally smelling blood on the bridge project. Two hours later, Farrington reached the top of the tower, appearing as no more than a tiny stick figure. Still, Emily sensed something was wrong with her master mechanic. Farrington's impractical uniform, including a pirate hat and a bright yellow cape, was coming apart in the wind, and soon he was stripped down to his underwear. Instead of swinging across the river as promised, Farrington grabbed on to a piece of scaffolding and remained there for what seemed an eternity.


Emily stalled for time, thinking the mechanic would eventually get back his nerve. After performing a number of magic tricks, she launched into a dirty limerick routine that brought the mob bosses to tears. Then suddenly, she sensed the weather was about to take a turn for the worse. Her preternatural woman's intuition told her the barometer had just begun to fall, and would continue to do so until a torrent of wind and rain swept Farrington to his death. Midway through a joke about a man from Scruntgunge, Emily flew up into the sky again and landed next to Farrington on the bridge tower. The trembling mechanic clung fast, so Emily grabbed him by the ankles and swung across the main cable to safety with her other hand--making them the first two people to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

While her husband Washington perished shortly before the bridge's completion, Emily Roebling continues to live today. At the age of 174, she presides over a family of 11 living generations, all as vibrant and dynamic as the woman who kick-boxed the Great Bridge into existence. Emily's powers transcended the natural world, giving a once-awkward nation its first taste of true greatness. Indeed, her reign over the 13-year project will be forever known as the one defining era of the American experience. # # #

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