Historical Markers
The Roeblings Historical Marker
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The Roeblings

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
SR 2010 Saxonburg

Dedication Date:
October 6, 1947

Behind the Marker

Engraving of John A. Roebling shows the image of a serious man with a beard in formal attire.
Engraving of John A. Roebling, published in 1881.
Despite the many fantastical stories told about John Roebling - pioneer farmer, visionary bridge-builder, inventive industrialist, ardent spiritualist, amateur philosopher -the classic "penniless immigrant" story cannot be told.

Upon leaving his native Germany, Roebling shipped across the Atlantic first class, together with his older brother, arriving at the port of Philadelphia in 1831. Between them, the Roeblings had the handsome sum of $6,000 and the dream of founding an immigrant colony in the New World.

The brothers bought 7,000 acres of land in Butler County, some twenty-five miles from Pittsburgh, founded a town there, and soon flooded their hometown with the glories of living and farming in "Saxonburg." An engraving from 1835, printed by a cousin in Germany, shows a neat line of eleven houses on the crest of the hill. It does not indicate the colony's isolation nor its relatively poor soil.
Image of a wooden building.
The Roeblings' original shop in Saxonburg, PA.

Truth be told, John Roebling failed as a farmer. In 1837, the year his son Washington was born, he secured work as an engineer with the state of Pennsylvania. His attention soon turned to the ungainly markerAllegheny Portage Railroad that connected the east and west parts of the state. For the thirty-six miles between Hollidaysburg and markerJohnstown where the route passed over the Allegheny mountains at nearly 2,300 feet, canal boats were loaded onto an inclined railway and winched up to the summit by giant hemp ropes nine inches in diameter.

An etching of a boat on rails being pulled up a steep hill, into a large shed. Railroad workers stand near the shed and on top of the boat.
Canal boats being pulled up hill on the Allegheny Portage Railroad, circa 1845.
Roebling first convinced the portage authorities to replace the large, expensive hemp ropes with wire cable, a bit more than an inch in diameter; then in 1841 he built a factory at Saxonburg for making the needed cable. Ten men spliced together long strands of iron, then every week or so a larger crew of up to eighteen men twisted the strands together to form the inch-thick cable. A success on the portage railway, the Roebling's wire cable was quickly adopted on similar inclined railways across the state.

Wire rope dominated the rest of Roebling's life. Orders for the new material poured in and secured the success of the Saxonburg colony (at least until 1849, when Roebling relocated his wire factory to Trenton, New Jersey). Wire ropes also launched his bridge-building career. Roebling built handsome, inexpensive, and successful suspension bridges using his cables in prominent locations in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and at Niagara Falls.
Advertisement Engraving.
Advertisement for Roebling wire rope, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,...
Two men–inspectors–stand upon one of the four cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. One is pointing to a cable which has slipped. New York skyline in background.
New York City inspectors examining a slipped cable on the Brooklyn Bridge, July...

Roebling's most famous bridge was of course the Brooklyn Bridge. His son Washington, who cut his teeth supervising bridge construction with the Cincinnati project, took over when John died of tetanus after having his foot smashed on the construction site in 1869. Years of nervous strain, incessant criticism, and legal challenges took their toll on Washington, however; for several years he was a recluse in a Brooklyn house.

The completion of Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 owes a great deal to his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who was not merely his secretary, nurse, and guardian, but also construction supervisor for the bridge and, some say, behind-the-scenes engineering mastermind.
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