Engineering Marvels

Great feats can take many years and unending patience.

It was 16 years between the time John A. Roebling started building the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1867, to the time of its opening on May 14, 1883. (The bridge opened after Roebling died from tetanus, as a result of a foot injury.) And that didn’t include the 10 years between the time he left Germany for the U.S. to start a farming community in Pennsylvania, to the time he began producing wire rope. Or the nine years after building suspension bridges and aqueducts, until he founded a wire rope company in Trenton – a sum total of 35 years.

Princeton resident Clifford Zink, an architectural historian and historic preservation specialist, has devoted 28 years of his career to the legacy of John A. Roebling. He has written books, made a film, helped to establish a museum, and led the effort to turn that wire rope company’s facility into an urban center for culture and commerce.

The Roebling Legacy (Princeton Landmark Publications, 2011) is Mr. Zink’s latest endeavor.

It’s hard to imagine New York City, or the world, without the Brooklyn Bridge, or any of the other bridges – the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge – either designed by or built from cable manufactured by John A. Roebling and his sons Washington, Ferdinand and Charles.

It’s not just bridges this family of engineers, architects and businessmen deserve our gratitude for. The Roebling Company’s wire rope lifts Otis elevators and stabilized the wings of the Wright Brothers’ first plane. Charles Lindbergh’s aircraft used Roebling wire, as did the stays in ladies’ corsets and even the Slinky. New York’s Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and Flat Iron Building, and even Paris’ Eiffel Tower use Roebling wire to pull their elevators.

Cable cars, ships, telephone and telegraphs – the list goes on.

“It was like the fiber optics of the last century,” says Mr. Zink, who served as curatorial consultant to the Roebling Museum, opened in 2009, in the town of Roebling along the Delaware River – just a few RiverLine stops from Trenton.

John Roebling, born in Mulhausen, Prussia, studied architecture and bridge construction in Berlin, then came with a group of Germans to the Pittsburgh area to pursue Georg Hegel’s doctrine of self-realization. The U.S. was the land of opportunity, according to Hegel, where people could realize their full potential. In the town of Saxonburg, Pa., Roebling and his compatriots started an independent farming community and began fabricating wire rope for suspension bridges.

As demand grew, Roebling built a factory in Trenton in 1848.

In 1904, Roebling’s son Charles bought a 150-acre farm along the Delaware, 13 miles south of the capital city to build a steel mill for the manufacturing of the wire rope.

Kinkora Works opened in 1905, and Charles built a model company town to house the workers. “It was modeled on Pullman, Chicago, a suburb designed by George Pullman for the George Pullman sleeping car company,” says Mr. Zink, who wrote Spanning the Industrial Age: The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Trenton, New Jersey, 1848-1974 in 1992 with Dorothy White Hartman.

Born in the Bronx and raised in Bergen County, Mr. Zink was always fascinated with suspension bridges. When he was 5, his family drove into New York City once a month, and the highlight for him was the trip across the George Washington Bridge.

“All the cars and trucks were held up by wires,” he marvels to this day. “People all over the world revere their bridges. There’s something magical about suspension bridges. Old stone bridges have arches, and there’s a downward force supporting the load. In suspension bridges, the weight is collected by spans to the tops of the towers, where gravity forces it down to the foundation and the earth. But I didn’t know all this when I was 5,” he continues.

In 1983, when living in Princeton, Mr. Zink went to the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and became interested in the story behind it. David McCullough had published The Great Bridge in 1972, and in 1981 Brooklyn-born documentarian Ken Burns made The Brooklyn Bridge, narrated by McCullough.

Mr. Zink, commuting from Princeton to Columbia, was aware of the Roebling site in Trenton, and with his appetite whetted by the Brooklyn Bridge’s star status, determined to help make more people aware of Roebling Works in Trenton.

In an urban planning course, he learned about mixed use development with housing, retail, office and cultural space, giving new use to old buildings.

He engaged several Trenton movers and shakers who also wanted to see the site preserved, including East Ward Councilman Anthony Anastasio, Trenton architect Anton Geurds and businesswoman Myrna Kushner.

After earning a master’s degree in historic preservation at Columbia University, Mr. Zink helped to found and went on to serve as executive director of the Trenton Roebling Community Development Corp.

In 12 years the group raised just under $5 million to take the basic concept and study it in more depth, doing a feasibility analysis, resulting in the Roebling Area Redevelopment Plan approved by Trenton City Council in 1989. This outlined design guidelines for preserving the buildings, signage and lighting of the site.

Working with the Jim Florio administration, the plan was to have a museum that could attract private investors to the site that had once been one of Trenton’s major employers. They hoped to rehab the machine shop into the Invention Factory, that would use the heritage of Roebling’s innovation with the city of Trenton as a back drop to encourage students and visitors thinking about the region’s sciences today.

Serving as founding executive director for a year, Mr. Zink resigned because “I’m not a science guy and not a museum professional,” he says. “I worked with many people to get it started and to rehab the building and secured a 25-year lease from the city. It was time to turn it over to people with experience in that field – mine is preservation of historic sites.”

Under the next regime, the Invention Factory morphed into the Museum of Contemporary Science. After a decade or so of raising funds and establishing science programs to go – essentially science tool kits on topics such as electricity and  magnetism that elementary schools could rent – that group was forced under during the economic downturn.

Art All Night, the annual 24-hour event produced by Artworks Trenton, has inhabited the space for three years, and will do so again June 18. Mr. Zink will give a talk Saturday, 6 to 7 p.m., and lead a tour Sunday, June 19, at 11 a.m. The city is looking for a tenant for the facility, ideally a museum or educational use.

Among the other buildings in the complex, one is a much-needed and well-used supermarket; there is senior housing in the complex; and the Trenton Development Corp. and Mercer County are converting five other Roebling buildings.

After all these years, Mr. Zink feels that part of his original vision has been accomplished. “When you talk to older people who have been around Trenton for a long time, they speak of it with fondness and vitality,” he says. “As suburbs have built up, the public has found it hard to invest in places like Trenton. Public resources are invested in suburbia. It’s daunting to deal with the challenges in a place like Trenton.”

Pointing to the 30-year success of Isles, the organization that provides community gardens, job training and brownfield remediation in the capital city, Mr. Zink adds, “We need to reinvest in those places and build them back. If you reinvest public money as a catalyst, it will attract private money.”

The Roebling story has so many facets, with their innovation technology and heroic engineering, says Mr. Zink. “John Roebling gave up his life and his son gave up his health to build the Brooklyn Bridge. These were men of great character.” We get so much bad news about American manufacturing, says Mr. Zink. “This is a story about American ingenuity and great accomplishments.”

The Roebling Legacy by Clifford Zink is available through Princeton Landmark Books:

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3 Responses to Engineering Marvels

  1. Pingback: Art All Day, and All of the Night | The Artful Blogger

  2. Pingback: Trenton Makes Art | The Artful Blogger

  3. Pingback: Roebling: Model Company Town | The Artful Blogger

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