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A Bridge to Washington made of Mineral and Perseverence

The Roebling Suspension Bridge Connecting Cincinnati, Ohio with Covington, Kentucky

The river is just about a mile wide at this point. Mud colored waves roll along gently, interrupted occasionally by pleasure craft or a mock riverboat filled with sightseers. I am far above the river looking into a blue sky interrupted by light blue steel girders and rock towers. I am standing on the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge with the Ohio River below, Covington, Kentucky behind me and the tall steel and concrete skyscrapers of Cincinnati reaching into the sky along the near horizon ahead. This bridge was completed in 1867 and in its time was considered the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,057 feet in length.

Photo taken from west side of bridge, with demonstrators marching on bridge.

Girders and Towers of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, with Cincinnati, Ohio in the Background

by Cdv1014 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, hBy White-acre – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This bridge is named after, well, John Roebling, and it has an unusual connection to Geology. John Roebling was a Prussian born engineer. After his university studies (where he attended lectures by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, among others) he emigrated to the United States in 1831 with a group of like minded Germans who believed in the possibility of creating a technical based utopia. Quickly finding work, which had been scarce back in the German states, he was gainfully employed up until the American Civil War. The war had many impacts one of which was disruption, slowing or halting of infrastructure projects as money and resources were diverted to the war effort. The bridge over the Ohio was one of the projects affected. It was begun in 1856, but halted with the onset of the war, resuming again in 1863 and eventually completed in 1867. That same year John Roebling started work on an even more ambitious suspension span, this time to cross the East River in New York. This new project would eventually be known as the Brooklyn Bridge and also stand as a marvel of engineering in its day, but Roebling would not live to see its completed. He died of tetanus as a result of an accident, before the plans for the Brooklyn span had been fully drawn up. It was left to his son, Washington Augustus Roebling, thirty-two years old at the the time, to complete the task that his father had begun.

Plaque on the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati, Ohio

by Cdv1014 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Colonel Washington Roebling was a civil engineer, like his father. His title was not honorary – he enlisted in the Union Army upon the outbreak of the Civil War and served until his resignation in 1865 to help his father with Ohio bridge. The colonel’s favorite hobby happened to be collecting rocks and minerals, a hobby he acquired while studying at the Rensselaer Polytechnic institute in Troy, NY. Later in life he would revisit his hobby when, while personally supervising the building of the Brooklyn span, he spent so many hours under high atmospheric pressure while working on sinking the caissons for the foundation of the bridge that he developed a case of the bends. It was so bad that it permanently injured his health, forcing him direct the work on the bridge from a convalescent bed. Casting about for something with which to relax from the stress of the bridge project he turned his attention back to his hobby. Wealthy, but unable to travel while convalescing, he collected specimens by correspondence.

Over the years Col. Roebling dealt with nearly every dealer and collector of importance in his time. He set his sights on the goal of a representative collection – one with a sample of every known mineral in his day, no matter how interesting or insignificant. Over his lifetime he accumulated over 16,000 specimens of unusually high quality. In the end, his came close to achieving his goal: at the time of his death, of the 1,500 established known mineral species at the time, his collection lacked less than 15. Among the many outstanding examples of his collection were: Brazilian and Siberian topaz, California and Madagascar tourmaline, phenacite, paramelaconite, roeblingite, peridot, opal, Russian malachite (“Brought from Russia about 1874 by the Grand Duke Alexis and given by him to Henry A. Ward, of Rochester, for a mounted buffalo head”), kunzite, Brazilian euclase, Arkansas diamond, chrysoberyl, Brazilian beryl, zoisite, afghanite, pyromorphite, apatite, and a beautiful example of carved quartz (variant chrysoprase).

Photograph of a group of fluorites from the National Gem Collection showing a range of colors, Namaqualand, Western Cape, South Africa, Africa, Washington A. Roebling Collection

Photograph of a group of fluorites from the National Gem Collection showing a range of colors, Namaqualand, Western Cape, South Africa, Africa, Washington A. Roebling Collection

Afghanite, Koksha Valley, Badakhshan, Afghanistan, Asia, Washington A. Roebling Collection

Afghanite, Koksha Valley, Badakhshan, Afghanistan, Asia, Washington A. Roebling Collection

Roebling was quite generous, freely letting his specimens be used for scientific purposes, thereby contributing directly to the publication of important papers, although he himself was not inclined to research. He never catalogued the collection, but he did label every specimen personally. Roebling developed a friendly relationship with the National Museum in Washington, D.C. an institution that would eventually become the Smithsonian, and this no doubt played a role in the decision of his son to donate the collection, as well as $150,000 for its maintenance, to the Smithsonian upon Roebling’s death on July 21, 1926.

Opal, Querétaro, Mexico, North America, Washington A. Roebling Collection

Forsterite (var. peridot),
Zabargad Island, Egypt, Africa, Washington A. Roebling Collection

Colonel Roebling had deep contacts in the mineral collecting community, so much so that the mineral roeblingite was named after him in 1927 by Samuel Lewis Penfield and Harry Ward Foote. He was also a charter member of the Mineralogical Society of America which was founded in 1919. He served as Vice President in 1924, and made a $45,000 gift to the Society not long before his death. The Society named the Roebling Medal in his honor. Among the many recipients of the medal are two Nobel Laureates Linus Pauling (laureate in chemistry “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances.”) and Lawrence Bragg (laureate in physics “For their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays“). 

Perhaps no finer tribute to Roebling’s passion for minerals can be made than that of Alexander H. Phillips 1927 memorial to Roebling in the pages of American Mineralogist:

He would always ask a visitor what mineral he was interested in, or what mineral he wished to see, with that quiet touch of pride which is a pardonable companion of a conscious knowledge of completeness. However rare the mineral, the Colonel could go directly to the proper drawer and produce a specimen. He has often remarked that he had a specimen of every known mineral and variety; then he would always add “with few exceptions.” The Roebling collection was never catalogued, nor was a specimen ever numbered to connect it with its label. For this reason he seemed to be very particular in the handling of his specimens, as he had the constant fear of getting the labels misplaced. Very often the history of a specimen would be found neatly folded in the tray, with the opinion of noted mineralogists in regard to it, together with notes by the Colonel, often written in a humorous strain, in that fine and perfect script. The Colonel’s quiet humor was always the delight of his friends, and this is reflected all through the collection. Here and there a tray will be empty, with a note “This specimen has been loaned now for two years. Time it was returned.” These remarks were not always complimentary, but he would record a joke on himself with equal fairness. He loved each specimen, as his collection in his later years was his enjoyment, his pleasure, his complete interest, his life. Near the end, when his sight was failing, he remarked: “My life is over, as I can no longer see my minerals.” He was always willing to sacrifice specimens for research or analysis; and many were the calls for rare minerals or type specimens, and it was indeed seldom that he failed to deliver the material.

Washington Roebling.

Washington Roebling

By RPI Library Collection, Public Domain,

Top photo by Derek Jensen (Tysto) – Own work, Public Domain,

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