The titular engineer of Erica Wagner’s well-researched biography Chief Engineer is Washington Roebling, who saw the iconic Brooklyn Bridge through its construction. Overshadowed by his brilliant but abusive father, Washington came into his own after his father, John Roebling, died early in the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. John Roebling was larger than life: a German immigrant who founded two towns, invented wire rope, masterminded the first American suspension bridges and made a fortune, he also beat his wife and children and superstitiously feared doctors.
Although his father’s life story intrudes on Washington’s, Washington still makes for a compelling subject. As a young man, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War, building bridges, tending the wounded and mapping battle sites from a hot-air balloon. The letters he wrote during this time give a vivid sense of the war’s horrors. Washington was an engaging writer in his own right, and Wagner quotes extensively from his letters and memoir.
The heart of Chief Engineer concerns Washington’s single-minded, intense work on the Brooklyn Bridge, which almost killed him: He labored underground in the bridge’s caissons, where compressed air was pumped in, which led to severe decompression sickness. Washington’s wife, Emily, filled in for her bedridden husband, serving almost as a chief engineer herself. Emily deserves her own biography, not only for her engineering work, but for her determination to study law, which she did through New York University’s women’s course. In her graduation lecture, she spoke on women’s rights.
Wagner quotes from a 1921 newspaper profile that described Washington as “a little old soldier of 84 . . . who has outlived his generation.” Washington, Wagner writes, was “a man born in the 1830s, who had fought in the Civil War, whose father had come to America in a sailing ship and who had lived to see the first airplane take flight—an airplane held together with the wire his company had made.” In Chief Engineer, Wagner has written a quintessentially American biography.