Who Was Emily Roebling? All About ‘The Gilded Age’s Look at the Secret History of the Brooklyn Bridge

The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 5 “Close Enough to Touch” takes a brief detour from the drawing rooms of Manhattan and the dinner parties of Newport to explore what was happening in Brooklyn in this era. Specifically in the neighborhood we now call DUMBO. The HBO show unveils a storyline that intertwines the interests of the Russell family with the real life opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. The engineering wonder connected the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan like never before. However, as The Gilded Age — and specifically Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) — uncover, the iconic landmark’s success was thanks in huge part to the unsung genius of a woman: Emily Warren Roebling (Liz Wisan).

**Mild Spoilers for The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 5 “Close Enough to Touch,” now streaming on Max, and Spoilers for History**

In the wake of his breakup with hot Newport widow Susan Blane (Laura Benanti), Larry’s parents decide he must return to New York City and help his father in some way. Because George Russell (Morgan Spector) is rather preoccupied with the looming union strikes in Pittsburgh, he asks his architect son to be his proxy representing him in dealing with the Brooklyn Bridge project. As he tells Larry, the problem is the project’s chief engineer, Mr. Roebling, is a no show. His house is a “hive of activity,” but no one can ever find the man.

When Larry shows up at the small Roebling house overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge’s iconic DUMBO location, he confirms that work is still underway. However, the person in charge seems to be Mr. Roebling’s wife, Emily. He confronts her about this, confirming that she is herself a genius engineer, and bemoans the fact that sexism ensures she can’t take credit for overseeing the massive project in the wake of first, her father-in-law’s untimely death, and then her husband’s bedridden status due to caisson disease (or decompression disease, caused by the bends).

Larry Russell in 'The Gilded Age'
Photo: HBO

So is The Gilded Age right? Was a woman responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge? And how did The Gilded Age‘s production team recreate the Roebling home in modern day trendy DUMBO? Here’s what you need to know about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Roeblings on HBO’s The Gilded Age…

Who Was Emily Roebling? Did She Really Build the Brooklyn Bridge, Like on The Gilded Age?

Emily Warren Roebling was born in Cold Spring, New York in 1843 to a family who encouraged her interest in education. In 1865, she married Washington Roebling, a civil engineer and the son of Prussian-born engineer John A. Roebling. As early as 1857, Emily’s father-in-law had been pitching his idea to build a suspension bridge across the East River, connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan. It would be a larger version of other suspension bridges he had successfully constructed in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In 1867, the New York State Senate passed a bill calling for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and soon John A. Roebling was named chief engineer. However, in June 1869, the elder Roebling’s feet were crushed by a ferry while he was conducting surveys for the project. He had his toes amputated, but died of a tetanus infection within the month. His son, Washington Roebling, was left in charge.

Building on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1870. Part of the bridge’s design included huge caissons, or a water-tight structure that is designed to be sunk slowly into water until the bottom reaches bedrock. Water is then pumped out of the structure so humans can work inside. Because the bedrock of the East River turned out to be much deeper than initially expected, this caused an influx in caisson disease, or decompression illness, aka the bends, in workers. It was a condition that had hitherto been unknown. Washington Roebling developed a debilitating case of the illness after repeatedly traveling below and back up to the surface too quickly while studying the placement of the caissons.

By 1872, Washington Roebling was bedridden. Emily Roebling, who had studied engineering side-by-side with her husband, quietly took over day-to-day project management. She not only understood her husband’s plans, but is believed to have partaken in the planning. However, she was not the sole architect of the project, despite some rumors. It was more that she kept her husband’s name attached to the project and made sure it saw the light of day a full decade later. She certainly deserves credit, but so do her husband and father-in-law.

Where Did The Gilded Age Film Its Version of the Brooklyn Bridge?

So, if The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 5 went to Brooklyn, certainly the production did, too? Right? Wrong!

As you’ll know from the thousands of Instagram pics snapped under the present day Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, there isn’t a tiny wooden house just hanging out where the Roeblings could have lived. In fact, The Gilded Age production designer didn’t worry about copying the Roeblings’s original house at all.

“Even though we know what the house was, we were looking for an interior and an exterior, which were separate, that worked for our story. We didn’t get so much into slavishly reproducing the Roebling House,” Shaw said.

Shaw revealed to Decider that because production expanded from Troy, NY to the nearby Albany in Season 2, he was able to use a variety of 19th century buildings unavailable in Season 1.

“So we would drive around [Albany] and we were looking for a street to do the opening — the Easter scene [in the Season 2 premiere] — and you know, anything we thought looked even minimally grand enough to be Fifth Avenue,” Shaw said. “And there was this one house that I liked.”

“It doesn’t necessarily relate to the Roebling House. It was a wooden structure. It was older than the rest of the block and it had a front porch and I said, ‘Well, this would be a great place to watch the fireworks from and to see the Brooklyn Bridge.’”

Spoilers, but, yes, there might yet be fireworks this season on The Gilded Age...