Roebling’s father-in-law, John Roebling, was the designer of the bridge but he died of tetanus early in its construction. His son, Washington Roebling, took over its construction; however, his frequent entry and exit of the pressurized caissons -- the watertight structures used to remove water for building the bridge piers -- led to a case of “caisson’s disease” or decompression sickness, a little-understood condition at the time that frequently led to crippling injury and even death. The illness left Roebling's husband paralyzed, deaf and mute.
As the New York Times reported at the time, “Mrs. Roebling applied herself to the study of engineering, and she succeeded so well that in a short time she was able to assume the duties of chief engineer." For over a decade, she dealt with contractors, supervised staff, inspected construction, and handled politicians and reporters -- and, by the time the bridge was completed, she had become the public face of one of the most significant construction projects of the era.
Prior to the bridge's public opening, Roebling became the first person to drive a carriage across the span, bringing along a live rooster for good luck. At its opening ceremony, U.S. Congressman Abram Stevens Hewitt called the Brooklyn Bridge “...an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”
After the bridge was finished, Emily Roebling traveled widely and took the opportunity to pursue further education, receiving a law degree from New York University. She died in 1903. While few remember her name today, a plaque still stands on the bridge, dedicating it to the memory of her father-in-law, her husband -- and Emily Roebling herself."