Friday, May 07, 2010

Hugo B. Roelker

My great-aunt Minnie is famous in our family as having been the "belle of Hoboken." She was proud of the early American roots of her mother's family tree. Nonetheless, as daughter of Henry Lefman, a German immigrant, she acceded to what was surely her father's wish and merged the Lefmans with the Roelkers, another German-American family. Thus it came about in 1874 that she married Hugo B. Roelker, a German-born engineer who was brother to her uncle's business partner.

{Hugo B. Roelker; source: an article in Refrigerating world, 1906}

In 1861 Hugo left his family's home in Osnabrück, Germany. He was only 18 when arrived in New York and, in making his way as best he could in the new land, he no doubt received help from an uncle, Bernard, and brothers Carl and Alfred, all of whom had arrived before him. In 1862 he got work as a draftsman in a Manhattan iron works. He liked the work and did well. In time he was promoted to chief draftsman and then assistant superintendent, and finally, in 1883, superintendent of what had grown to be a large and successful enterprise.

{Delamater Iron Works at 13th and West Streets circa 1870; source:}

Before his time, the business, Delamater Iron Works, had achieved recognition for supplying the huge iron pipes that carried New York's water from the Croton River 41 miles to the north. Built between 1837 and 1842, the Croton Aqueduct was a great engineering feat, the greatest the U.S. had known til that time. Just before the water began to flow in it, an article in the New York Tribune described its significance:
This stupendous structure is now completed, and in a few weeks, at farthest, the city will have a foretaste of the thousand benefits it is destined to confer. Our citizens may not be generally aware that in this magnificent work they are surpassing ancient Rome, in one of her proudest boasts. None of the hydraulic structures of that city, in spite of the legions of slaves at her command, equal, in magnitude of design, perfection of detail, and prospective benefits, this aqueduct. The main trunk consists of an immense mass of masonry, six feet and a half wide, nine feet high, and forty miles long, formed of walls three feet thick, cemented into solid rock. But this water channel, gigantic as it is, is far from being all the work. The dam across the Croton, which retains the water in a grand reservoir, is a mound of earth and masonry, forty feet high, and seventy feet wide at the bottom, and has connected with it many complicated but perfect contrivances to enable the engineer to have complete control over the mighty mass of water. The river, thus thrown back towards its source, will form a lake of five hundred acres, which will retain a supply for emergencies of some thousand millions of gallons, and also offer, as a collateral advantage, many picturesque sites for country seats upon the woody points which will jut out into its smooth basin. A tunnel leads the water from this reservoir into the aqueduct, and eleven more of these subterraneous passages occur before reaching Harlem river, having an aggregate length of seven-eighths of a mile, and many of them being cut through the solid rock. At intervals of a mile, ventilators are constructed in the form of towers of white marble, which give to the water that exposure to the atmosphere, without which it becomes vapid and insipid; and these dazzling turrets mark out the line of the aqueduct to the passengers upon the Hudson.
The iron pipes, each three feet in diameter, were used on the elevated portions of the aqueduct, including the magnificent bridge transit over the Harlem river.

The iron works was owned by Cornelius H. DeLamater, who was, most unusually, a skilled engineer, excellent businessman, and talented manager.

{Cornelius Delamater, ca. 1880; source: wikipedia}

By the time Hugo became its superintendent, the works employed over 1000 men at its plant on West 13th St. on the Hudson shore in Greenwich Village. By that time, the firm had been responsible for some important advances in naval warfare. It pioneered the use of the screw propeller to replace the unweildy paddles of early steamships. It constructed ironclad ships which helped the US Navy dominate the Confederate Navy in the Civil War. It designed and built the first submarine, the first self-propelled torpedo, and the first torpedo boat. When destroyers evolved from torpedo boats, it designed and constructed them as well.

Hugo worked on these projects as draftsman during the 1860s and as designer and supervisor in the 1870s and 80s. His work was not limited to naval engineering however. As the author of a brief biography put it: "Many of the large industries of the day started in Mr. Roelker's office, — sugar mills, air compressors, ice machines, etc."

Here are some images showing work in which the Delamater Iron Works was involved.

{Workman standing by aqueduct pipe; source: The Century illustrated monthly magazine, 1877}

These photos show the valves (stop cocks) that controlled the massive water conduits.

{Harpers Weekly illustration, 1881, showing iron pipe supplied by the Delamater Iron Works; source: Library of Congress}

{Engineering drawing showing a stop-cock for 36-inch pipes; source: Library of Congress}

{Map of the aqueduct; source: The Century illustrated monthly magazine, 1877}

{Old postcard showing the aqueduct crossing over a bridge at Ossining, NY; source: Library of Congress}

{High Bridge and Croton Aqueduct spanning the Harlem River to the pumping station and reservoir by D.T. Valentine, lithographic print, ca. 1845; source: Library of Congress}

{High Bridge from east end in the Bronx, by Detroit Publishing Co. ca. 1900; source: Library of Congress}

{High Bridge & Washington Bridge, Harlem River, N.Y.C., looking south, by William Henry Jackson for the Detroit Publishing Co. ca. 1890; source: Library of Congress}

This modern photo shows the tunnel lined with brick which made up most of the aqueduct.

{Roots in the Old Croton Aqueduct, Manhattan, NYC, 2007; source:}

{An early sub built under Hugo's supervision in 1881; source: }

{A later sub, partially submerged, with four members of crew standing on top, at close range, Oyster Bay, 1905; source: Library of Congress}

This photo shows the aft end of a torpedo boat revealing the distinctive twin screw propellers.

{U.S.S. Porter, in dry dock, Brooklyn Navy Yard, taken between 1897 and 1901; source: Library of Congress}

This shows a torpedo boat at sea. These small, fast, maneuverable boats were at first used only against enemy ships anchored in harbor, but came to be seen as useful weapons when the enemy was at sea as well.

{A torpedo boat of the U.S. Navy by Detroit Publishing Co, between 1890 and 1901; source: Library of Congress}

The Iron Works closed down after the death of Cornelius Delamater in 1889. Left without a job, Hugo went into business for himself. He set up a general mechanical and marine-engineering practice and, in time, came to specialize as a manufacturer of an early refrigeration unit, the Allen Dense Air Ice Machine, which he successfully marketed for use on steamships both Naval and maritime.

{Diagram of the Allen Dense Air Machine; source: The elements of refrigeration; a text book for students, engineers and warehousemen by Arthur Maurice Greene}

{Allen Dense Air Machine, front view of upright model; same source}

{same, side view}

{An advertisement}

See also:

Biographical sketch of Hugo B. Roelker in Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Volume 43 (American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1922)

Croton Water in The Century illustrated monthly magazine, Volume 14, ed. by Josiah Gilbert Holland and Richard Watson Gilder (Scribner & Co.; The Century Co, 1877)

Description of the New-York Croton aqueduct: in English, German and French by T. Schramke (The author, 1846)

Illustrations of the Croton aqueduct by Fayette Bartholomew Tower (Wiley and Putnam, 1843)

Croton Aqueduct on


Other blog posts on my family history: ----------------

Some extra images of the Croton Aqueduct. These all come from Croton Water in The Century illustrated monthly magazine, 1877.

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