The Roebling Story is a classic American tale of immigration, innovation, hard work, and entrepreneurship. The Roeblings designed and built or erected the cables for several of the world’s greatest suspension bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Roebling wire rope helped make possible some of the most important technological achievements of the industrial age: telegraphs and telephones, electrification, deep mines and big ships, elevators and airplanes.
Born in 1806, John Augustus Roebling studied engineering in his native land of Prussia, where, he wrote after immigrating to America, “The study of suspension bridges formed my favorite occupation.” In 1841, he conceived the idea of making a rope of twisted wires to replace the hemp ropes used to haul canal boats over the Allegheny Mountains. Its success launched his wire rope business and brought him commissions to build suspension bridges.
Roebling moved his business and family to Trenton in 1848, and he became famous in 1855 for building a railroad suspension bridge over the Niagara Gorge. When he proposed building the Brooklyn Bridge, he predicted that it would be “the greatest engineering work of the continent and of the age.” But he did not live to build it. He died in 1869 from an injury while surveying for the Brooklyn tower. His oldest son, Washington A. Roebling, completed the bridge in 1883 with help from his wife, Emily Warren Roebling.
Roebling’s three sons, Washington, Ferdinand and Charles, built their father’s company into the world’s leading producer of wire rope, with four factories and nearly 8,000 employees at its peak, inspiring the motto: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.’’ When competition pushed the Roeblings to start making their own steel, they bought farmland here in 1904 and built the Kinkora Works and the adjacent “industrial village” for their workers. “Roebling’s” was a family business, with a multi-generational ownership and workforce.
After World War II, the Roeblings faced massive costs for upgrading their plants to remain competitive, but they were unwilling to take on debt to pay for the upgrades. In 1953, the family sold the business to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which operated it until 1974.
With new awareness of the hazards of industrial waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Kinkora Works in 1983 as a Superfund site in need of cleanup. EPA completed renovating the plant’s Main Gate for the Roebling Museum in 2009, bringing new life to this historic building and honoring the thousands of workers who once walked through its gates.