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  • Writer's pictureGiacomino Nicolazzo

Building Bridges


November 2021

If you are anything like me, you appreciate structure and order in life.

If you are anything like me, having a life plan and setting goals is important to you. Working hard and tirelessly to achieve them is an integral part of who you are.

From my perspective, goal setting is one of the more unique traits we as human beings share.

I myself can honestly say that I have never accomplished anything of significance without first FEELING it in my heart, ENVISIONING it in my mind and then CREATING a plan on how best to make it my reality.

There are as many kinds of goals as there are people in this world. And we all have our own unique or peculiar ways of working towards them. There are times when attaining our goals may be as easy as 1-2-3...and other times when success seems far, far away and most likely impossible. But know this...nothing is impossible! We can and will be able to reach our dreams if we keep working hard and never lose heart.

Whether our goals are short term or long term...or just a temporary remedy to our current problems, there is one common denominator that we all must adopt if our dreams are to become our reality. That common denominator my friends is consistent focus.

And again, if you are anything like me, you have found yourself faced with a seemingly endless flow of obstacles and detours along the way. Having to deal with day-to-day life in general is bad enough, but facing down a severe illness, a family tragedy, financial ruin or a host of other circumstances can be demoralizing and defeating. This is where our courage and perseverenceE come into play.

Throughout our most trying times and down through the ages, two types of people have emerged. There are those who give up on life and become depressed, miserable and despondent. And then there are those who are capable of digging deep within themselves...individuals who demonstrate that strength, courage and perseverance are the integral traits necessary to overcome adverse situations.

The latter are the people who become an encouragement and inspiration to others.

I want to tell you a story today about just such a person. I recall reading it many years ago...when I was in college I believe. Whenever it was, all I know is that the story has stayed with me for forty-some years and to this very day serves to inspire me when I am feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders.

His name was Washington Roebling and he was the son of a famous and incredibly talented structural and civil engineer by the name of John Roebling. And though their story took place at the end of the 1800’s, it remains a tremendous illustration of astonishing courage and unbelievable commitment.

For me, it is a reminder of the strength and power of the human spirit…that which exists within each of us.

You may not have ever heard the Roebling name, but I am quite sure you’ve heard of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a monstrously large steel structure spanning New York City’s East River, tying together Manhattan Island to Brooklyn. In more ways than you can imagine and due to a series of horrific tragedies and unforeseen complications, completion of the bridge was truly a miracle.

By 1867, John Roebling had successfully designed and constructed two other major engineering projects. There was the Delaware Aqueduct in Lackawaxen Pennsylvania. It was an aqueduct system that supplied virtually all of New York City’s water, drawing from a series of reservoirs on the west banks of the Hudson River.

The other project was the 1000 foot span of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge crossing the Ohio River in Cincinnati Ohio. It was the success of these two projects that gave him the vision and inspiration to design the Brooklyn Bridge.

But everywhere he turned, he ran into skepticism and warnings. Bridge building experts throughout the world told him the project was impossible and any notion of building it should be abandoned. They were adamant that such a bridge could not be built.

But Roebling believed differently. He believed it not only could be built, but should be built. He convinced his son Washington, an up and coming engineer of his own right who had worked with him on the Cincinnati bridge, to work together again to develop the concepts and blueprints of how it could be accomplished. After much debate and discussion, Washington agreed to work with his famous father.

They first set out to define any and all obstacles that would need to be overcome...and there were many. With unharnessed excitement and inspiration, they hired a crew of men to begin surveying the construction site.

The bridge’s foundation was paramount to its success. But the depth and thickness of the stone beneath the river bed was unknown and could not be determined without extensive drilling and inspection.

The project was only a few months under way when a tragic accident badly injured the father. During surveying, John Roebling's foot was mangled when he attempted to board an incoming ferry. He slipped as the boat neared the dock and his leg was pinned against a piling.

His foot was crushed and four of his toes needed to be amputated. He found himself incapacitated and unable to work on his own project. He fell into despair. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards, of a tetanus infection of all things, leaving his son Washington charged with the responsibility of building the bridge.

In the early months of 1870, tragedy would strike again. While inspecting the underwater portions of the bridge piers, Washington Roebling’s pressure suit failed, causing him to suffer the bends and leaving him paralyzed, with considerable brain damage.

He was unable to speak or even walk. It was at this point that the experts again called for the project to be scrapped.

But Washington Roebling, like his father, did not agree with those experts. Even though he was unable to physically participate, his mind was as sharp as ever. Within him burned the desire to complete the bridge. He knew deep in his heart and believed with all his being that the bridge not only could be built, but now must be.

Confined to a hospital bed and unable to move, his constant visitor was his wife Emily. She stayed perpetually at his side for months. The only part of her husband’s body still able to move was his right index finger. Together, they developed a code to communicate with each other.

He would touch Emily’s arm and tap out in their code what he needed and wanted to say to her.

An idea came to him as he lay in his hospital bed one night. Together, he and Emily could finish the bridge. It was Emily Warren Roebling who turned out to be the miracle every one needed. She stepped in and provided the critical link between her husband’s vision and the efforts of the engineers who were overseeing the construction.

Emily had already studied higher mathematics in college and was well versed in the calculations of catenary curves. She would go back to school to study the strengths of constructions materials. She took engineering courses in bridge specifications and became an expert in the intricacies of suspension cable construction.

Emily spent the next 11 years assisting her husband and playing a key role in supervising the bridge's construction. Washington Roebling tapped out his instructions on Emily’s arm with his finger, and she relayed his information to the engineers and constructors who were building the bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was completed and opened for use on 24 May, 1883. Its main span over the East River was nearly 1600 feet and the cost to build it ended up being more than $15.5 million. Records show that twenty seven people died during its construction.

A grand ceremony accompanied the opening, attended by several thousand people and many boats in the East Bay. On that first day, a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Emily Warren Roebling was the first person to cross.

With celebratory cannon fire and marching bands, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Franklin Edson also crossed the bridge from Manhattan and were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low on the Brooklyn side. Sadly, Washington Roebling was not able to attend the grand opening of his masterpiece.

One week afterwards, on 30 May, 1883, a vicious rumor began circulating that the bridge's foundation was crumbling and the span was on the verge of collapse. Such news spread like wildfire, causing a stampede, crushing and killing twelve more people.

But it was P. T. Barnum, the world’s quintessential circus showman, who helped to squelch the rumor and remove any doubts about the bridge's stability. Using it as an opportunity to publicize his famous circus, he himself led his most famous attraction, the elephants of The Greatest Show On Earth, across the bridge.

As he pompously strode across the span to the music of a marching band and cheering fans, he and Jumbo the elephant led a parade of twenty one other elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Like his father, Washington Roebling had a vision of the great bridge that he refused to abandon. Had it not been for his meticulous intelligence and his dogged tenacity, the Brooklyn Bridge would not be what we know it as today. And most certainly, he could never have done it without his brave and equally intelligent wife Emily.

So every time I encounter an obstacle in my own life, I recall this story of overcoming real adversity. Rather than fussing over it and coming up with a dozen reasons why I cannot accomplish what I want, I recall the story of Washington and Emily Roebling. Suddenly, whatever it is I am facing becomes miniscule and insignificant in the bigger picture of things.

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