As a kid growing up in Westwood, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, Clifford W. Zink was captivated by bridges. The Princeton-based historian recollects the sensation of vibrating cables as traffic thundered over the George Washington Bridge. “There’s a life in every suspension bridge that is absent from arch bridges. I was amazed to think that those wires hold the weight of the deck and all the cars.”
His fascination with suspension bridges brought Zink to the subject that has filled much of his imagination over the last two decades: the life and accomplishments of the great German-born engineer, John A. Roebling, and the family business he founded after arriving in America in 1831. Zink will talk about and sign copies of his book, “The Roebling Legacy,” on Monday, June 13, at the Princeton Public Library.
“Spanning two centuries, the Roebling story is a classic American saga,” says Zink, whose fact-filled 288-page book charts a drama of immigration, innovation, entrepreneurship, and achievement against a backdrop of idealism, rising national capitalism and labor unions, and wars and their aftermath, toward industrial decline and ultimate obsolescence followed by environmental cleanup, adaptation, and re-use.
Zink’s father, Julius, was a fireman, and his mother was a manager for Stern Brothers Department Stores. Julius fostered his son’s appreciation for the great structures of the 19th and early 20th centuries with trips to historic sites, many of which, Zink would later discover, had a connection to John A. Roebling.
“I always knew about Roebling because the bridge was a prominent part of New York.” The bridge, of course, is the Brooklyn Bridge, the subject of David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge” (1982), and a 1982 documentary film by Ken Burns, both of which spurred Zink’s interest.
Zink, who moved to Princeton after graduating from Temple University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and documentary filmmaking and then earned a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia.
He co-authored “Spanning the Industrial Age, a History of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company Trenton, New Jersey, 1848-1974,” with Dorothy White Hartman, published in 1992 with the help of a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission.
But by the time 2006 rolled around, the 200th anniversary of John A. Roebling’s birth, Zink had so many requests for reprints of this book that he felt compelled to write another, one that would do full justice to the Roebling story beyond Trenton and take in the broad reach of John A. Roebling’s vision. The shape and scope of “The Roebling Legacy” was developing in his mind, and he envisioned color photographs instead of the black and white images of the earlier book.
In “The Roebling Legacy,” Zink tells the whole story in rich detail, from John A. Roebling’s design of the Brooklyn Bridge, to his son Washington A. Roebling’s completion of the project with the help of his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, and on through the developments of John A. Roebling’s Sons Company of Trenton. “The business survived through four generations, producing innovative wire rope and products for emerging technologies over a century and a quarter. That’s quite an accomplishment when recent studies show that only about 15 percent of family businesses survive a second generation,” says Zink.
The historian/author delved into a wealth of documentary evidence as well as new research from Germany. The Roeblings preserved important family papers, now archived at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and at Rutgers University.
“The Roebling Legacy” reveals the personalities behind the industry, especially John A. Roebling and his oldest son Washington A. Roebling. Business-like reports of the elder Roebling convey a sense of the strict Protestantism of his upbringing under the Prussian monarchy. Less formal letters of his American-born son reveal a fun-loving young man taking on the challenges of life. Love notes between Washington and his future wife, Emily, “his guiding star,” evoke their tender relationship.
One example alone is worth the price of the book: On March 30, 1864, Lt. Washington A. Roebling wrote to his new fiancee (their last meeting had been “spoiled” by the presence of a married chaperone): “Oh how I wish I had just one of those sweet kisses that you can give; my lips have fully recovered from your attacks and are in excellent fighting trim to receive you.” He was 26; she was 21.
Johann August Roebling (as he was in Germany) was such a gifted student in drawing and mathematics that he was sent for study to a leading scholar, Ephraim Solomon Unger, a former university professor who ran a private school in his home. At the age of 15, he learned advanced mathematics, mechanics, and physics and was introduced to the writings of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, then teaching at the University of Berlin.
Hegel, Zink believes, had enormous influence over Roebling, who left the Old World with his brother and a group of like-minded individuals with the goal of founding a Utopian community in the “land of the future.” At first, they thought of a setting up their mini-colony of Saxonburg in one of the southern states, but Roebling came to the conclusion that slavery was an obstacle to progress.
Decades before the Civil War, Roebling’s attitude toward slavery is extraordinarily forward thinking. He wrote: “slavery is the greatest cancerous affliction, of which the United States are suffering. Slavery contrasts too greatly with the rest of their political and civic institutions. The Republic is branded by it and the entire folk, with its idealistic and altogether purely reasonable Constitution, stands branded with it before the eyes of the civilized world!”
Saxonburg was eventually created in Butler County, PA, where it is to this day. After a few years of farming, however, Roebling yearned for greater accomplishments.
And greater accomplishments were to come, including the “icon of New York City and an enduring symbol of America’s greatness,” as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has described the Brooklyn Bridge. “John A. Roebling’s task was to build a structure that would take people from Manhattan to Brooklyn but he did much more than that, the bridge has beauty and elegance. He created a landmark,” says Zink, who watched in awe as the 125th anniversary of the colossal bridge was celebrated in 2008 with fireworks and a six-foot-long birthday cake. “How many places in the world would have a birthday party for a bridge?” he says.
The Roeblings would be responsible for the design and construction of many bridges across the nation and for the massive cables integral to others, notably the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges. “A tradition of quality translated into everything Roebling did, whether it was a bridge or wire rope or the town that was built for the company’s workers,” says Zink. Homes built for factory employees in Roebling, NJ, were constructed of brick rather than wood. Its streets were lined with London plane trees. Today the town boasts a Roebling Museum, housed in what was once the main gate for the Roebling Steel Mill. Roebling factory buildings in Trenton are being similarly repurposed. The Roebling Machine Shop at 675 South Clinton Avenue is the site for an annual Artworks’ Art All Night celebration (this year on Saturday, June 18). Zink will be there signing books.
Zink deliberately set out to create a book that could be accessed on several levels. Heavily illustrated with 470 captioned images, it contains within itself a fully fledged pictorial history. Zink’s preferred style is to allow historical figures to speak for themselves, giving readers a more immediate encounter with them and a flavor of the period. Thus, he sets off original writings, letters, and newspaper clippings in boxes, offering a second deeper reading. An even fuller reading comes from the entire text.
Given his non-standard vision of the book, Zink didn’t look for a university or trade publisher to take it on. Instead, he set up Princeton Landmark Publications LLC in 2010. “The Roebling Legacy” is its first publication. “There’s risk involved in starting any new enterprise but I thought it was a good time to establish the business with this first book,” Zink says.
Zink makes his living as an architectural historian; writing, including commissioned works; and as a consultant for restoration projects. A recent commission is “The Monmouth County Park System: The First 50 Years,” commissioned by the Friends of Monmouth County Parks. Other commissions include “Mercer Magic: The Mercer Automobile Company, Founded 1909”; Trenton’s First Skyscraper: The Broad Street Bank Building”; and “The Hackensack Waterworks.” Zink plans future titles on architectural, industrial, and landscape history, and related photography.
Author Event, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Fireplace on second floor. Monday, June 13, 7:30 p.m. Clifford Zink, author of “The Roebling Legacy.” 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.