Trying to sum up the life of a man like John A. Roebling in one exhibit is no easier task than twisting the wire rope for which his company, John A. Roebling & Sons, was famed. The visionary, the inventor, the planner of the Brooklyn Bridge, the millionaire, the man whose factories gave life to the phrase “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” — is the subject of a new exhibit at the Trenton City Museum at the Ellarsie Mansion. “John A. Roebling: His Life and Legacy,” running through Sunday, September 10, is a fascinating look at Trenton’s patriarch as his 200th birthday is being celebrated.
This is an exhibit long in the planning, says Brian O. Hill, who had a bachelor’s degree in art from Trenton State when he started as the museum’s director, and he then went to Seton Hall to earn his masters. “One of the courses I was taking at Seton Hall was ‘Producing & Exhibition.’ The professor wanted me to do an exhibit on John Roebling, but I said it was impossible to do in the given period of time. I had no idea how correct I was. You could spend a lifetime studying John Roebling — the way he treated his employees, the way he went about his life. It’s just amazing.”
Hill gives major credit for the exhibition to acting curator and intern Samara Lentz. “She did a great job of finding the quotes for the walls. The family had donated a huge number of papers and documents to Rutgers sometime in the 20th century. Samara went up to Rutgers and culled through their collection. Washington Roebling II (John Roebling’s grandson) had donated all his memorabilia to his alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Samara went through those items too. I cannot give her enough kudos.”
John (originally Johann) August Roebling was born in 1806, in Germany, in a town that one of his biographers, D.B. Steinman, describes as “the ancient, slumbering, old-world town of Mulhausen in Thuringia.” The Roebling exhibit begins with photos taken by Frieda Roebling in 1929, and the pictures fit the description of a sleepy, walled town where nothing much had changed over the century.
The family was middle-class, and Johann’s father, Christoph (sic), a tobacconist, was by all accounts as sleepy as the town itself, and content to live out his life there. His wife, Friederike, was more ambitious, and her ambitions were focused on her artistically-inclined youngest son, John. When he was 15, she sent him off to a private school in a nearby town; at 17, he went to the prestigious Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin.
Thanks to Roebling’s habit of saving every scrap of paper he ever doodled on — and the inclination of later generations of Roeblings to do the same — the exhibit includes drawings done by the 15-year-old schoolboy, and more sketches from his days at the Institute. There is a sharp contrast between the two — the schoolboy was scribbling nature studies, the engineering student was producing intricate diagrams. He never lost his taste for art, though. Museum director Hill points out the ornate fleur-de-lis in his diagrams, which he later used in his bridges, “even in places where no one would see them.” In Berlin, Roebling studied under the great philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel, and his notebooks from this period reveal a young man fascinated by engineering formulas — equations involving locks and canals — but also by philosophy, questioning what truth and love are, and what man should be doing to help his fellow man.
It was with these thoughts in mind that Roebling set off for America in 1831. The diary of his journey, published privately in both German and English, is part of the museum’s display, as is Roebling’s certificate of naturalization.
Together with his brother, Carl, Roebling founded a utopian village in Butler County, Pennsylvania, which they named at first “Germania” but later changed to “Saxonburg.” It was there that his first son, Washington Augustus Roebling, was born.
The land that they had chosen for the venture was not ideal for farming and the colony did not flourish. Roebling made use of his inclination towards engineering, however, and invented several tools to make life easier. One invention proved the most fortuitous. “They used big nine-inch cables of hemp,” says Hill. “One snapped and killed someone, and this affected Roebling deeply. He remembered that there was some research done in Germany on the use of wire rope. This is a strange analogy, but I liken him to Bill Gates. Bill Gates certainly didn’t invent the technology, but he mastered it. John Roebling didn’t invent wire rope but he invented and patented a process of making wire rope, and he adapted the wire rope to the industrial revolution and made his money.”
In October, 1848, Roebling moved his growing company to Trenton, a logical hub halfway between New York and Philadelphia, with a great canal system. His inventions and engineering prowess led him into the field in which he achieved his greatest fame — building bridges. The exhibit devotes a whole room to Roebling’s drawings for the Delaware Aqueduct; the Monongahela Bridge, with its Oriental-like feel; and the Covington-to-Cincinnati Bridge. And the bridge over Niagara Falls, a feat that no other engineer would try. “This whole process of taking those wires and putting them into the earth and imbedding them in concrete, and anchoring them and wrapping them, is just pretty neat,” Hill understates.
It is one of life’s great sad jokes that Roebling did not live to see his greatest project — the Brooklyn Bridge — to fruition. Perhaps it is considered his greatest achievement because it has endured and captured a place in the public imagination. One wall of the exhibit is devoted to different contemporary artists’ interpretations of the bridge, from Eleanor Magrid’s depiction of the structure as a giant stringed instrument to Joseph Stella’s sleek modernist view of the bridge from the Brooklyn side.
Roebling’s sketches for the Brooklyn Bridge are included in the exhibit, all created in his exquisite handwriting and fantastic, meticulous details, down to the drawings of the rosettes that would cover the nuts and bolts on the top of the bridge.
But John Roebling would not see the real rosettes. The tragedy occurred on July 6, 1869. Roebling was standing on the dock at the Fulton Ferry Slip, taking observations to determine where the Brooklyn tower of the bridge would be placed. The ferry crashed against the dock, and Roebling’s leg was crushed. Although the toes of his right foot were amputated, lockjaw set in, and two weeks later, on July 22, Roebling died. His son, Washington Roebling, took over the project. He, too, met a tragic end. Constant visits to the caisson (a diving bell used in construction) gave Washington the bends, and he was left an invalid, unable to complete the project except as a long-range advisor. (Tragedy seemed to stalk the male Roeblings: John’s grandson, Washington II, went down on the Titanic).
With Washington ill, his wife, Emily, stepped in to oversee the project. When the bridge opened in 1883, she was the first to cross it. The Roebling women were made of steel like the men, and the exhibit makes mention of the remarkable Mary Roebling, who had married Washington’s grandson, Siegfried. When her husband died at age 45, Mary took his seat on the board of the Trenton Trust Company. She was elected president of the Trust in 1937, during the height of the Depression. The bank had assets of $11 million and debts of $4 million. By 1951, the bank’s assets totaled $70 million, and counted U.S. Steel as its biggest account. Mary was also the first woman governor on the American Stock Exchange. A remarkable photo in the exhibit shows a national meeting of bankers in Atlantic City: row upon row of male bankers, and one woman — Mary Roebling.
A great part of the exhibit is technical, showing the product that made the Roebling factory famous. The Wire Room, as Hill calls it, is devoted to displaying the methods of making wire rope and how important the product came to be in American manufacturing. Further, the museum does not neglect one of the most important legacies of the company — the town of Roebling. In the early 1900s, when Charles Roebling, the third of John’s sons, opened another mill, the Kinkora Works, 10 miles south of Trenton on the Delaware, he realized that the commute would be difficult for his workers. So, in 1905, he built a model town for the workers. Roebling had housing, its own bank, hotel, school, grocery, hospital, and recreation center. The first residents were Swedish and German workers; within a few years the majority of workers were Eastern European immigrants, delighted to work for a company that treated them like human beings.
‘You became part of a family when you joined Roebling,” says Hill. “That’s what we talk about in this part of the exhibit — how important that was. The magazine that the company put out for its employees, the sports teams, choral societies. The company allowed the workers to go home for lunch. Do you realize how unusual that was?”
William R. Roebling, the great-great grandson of John, who has a financial consulting business in Pennington, agrees with Hills’ assessment (see story page 44). “The people of Roebling are really amazing. They invited me and other members of the family to the town’s centennial in 2005. They had put up a statue to Charles Roebling. Just honest, hard-working people — they are the human legacy of the company. I’m very excited about their plans for the Roebling Main Gate Museum, which is under construction on the site in town where the main gate of the factory stood. They are very proud of their town, and they have a right to be.”
The company flourished throughout the second half of the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century. Among other things, Roebling wire rope was used in the construction of the Panama Canal, and the company built the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and the Golden Gate. It was a crucial manufacturing weapon in both world wars. But it all came to an end in 1952, when John A. Roebling & Sons was sold to Colorado Fuel & Iron Company.
“It was a logical end,” says Hill. “None of the family members wanted to continue. CFI was really the downfall. People who worked for both say it went from a family to a corporation.”
“Mostly, it was estate tax purposes,” says William Roebling. “Different relatives were dying, and everyone had a little piece of the business. And it would have needed a major investment and makeover. They would have had to borrow, and they didn’t want to do that. Also, it was the beginning of a time when companies like U.S. Steel were bidding on wire cable and infrastructures on projects. So it was a combination of both.”
In 1974, the Roebling plants closed down. All that is left now is the 15-foot-high wire-making machine that stands outside the Sovereign Bank Arena on South Broad Street, the former site of the factories.
The stones around the monument bear the names of many of the workers who walked each day over that very spot. And in Cadwalader Park, outside the Trenton City Museum, is a bronze statue of John A. Roebling, erected with money donated by Roebling employees. Between his feet is a spool of wire cable.
“The thing that really tells me that this exhibit works,” says Hill, “is when the old couples come in and point to the photos and say, ‘Look, Henry, that’s where you worked.’ To have that connection, to have people say, ‘I’m so glad you did this,’ to see that kind of legacy acknowledged is a wonderful thing. Trenton City Museum is preserving and documenting the history of the city.”
“John A. Roebling: His Life and Legacy,” the Trenton City Museum at the Ellarsie Mansion, Cadwalader Park on Parkside Avenue, Trenton. Visit www.ellarsie.org or call 609-989-3632.