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The Great Bridge : The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

My grandfather spent his whole life in Brooklyn and he loved the place.  His apartment walls were lined with etchings of the city's buildings and landmarks by the now largely forgotten artist Joseph Pennell.  Several times he took us to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which we often drove over when we went to visit them from New Jersey.  So I, like David McCullough, and Ken Burns who made a nice film about it, and many New Yorkers, have always loved the Bridge.  In a city which long ago came to be dominated by modernistic skyscrapers, the Bridge is such an obvious throwback, with its stonework, web of steel cables, and gothic arches, it just looks like it has a tale to tell.

In this outstanding book, McCullough tells that tale--of how the bridge came to be built (from 1869 to 1883) and of the extraordinary difficulties, both man-made and natural, that had to be overcome.  The story starts with the post-Civil War social milieu that gave rise to the project and the recognition on the part of the powers that be in Brooklyn that they had to be physically joined to Manhattan to keep pace in the emerging industrial world.  The design for the project and the initial phases of building are largely the product of one unusual man, John Rebelling.  In particular, the structure, much longer than any prior suspension bridge and required to bear significantly greater weight, was made possible by the steel cabling which Roebling himself had perfected.  By contrast, the greatest challenges he faced mostly stemmed from corruption; recall that this was Tammany Hall era New York.

John Roebling was ably assisted by his son Washington, who took over the project when his father died, as a result of a poorly treated injury (the elder Roebling believed in hydrotherapy among his many odd ideas) sustained during construction of the bridge.  Washington was also physically debilitated by his bridge work, one of the many victims of the greatest challenge that he faced : caisson sickness.

If you remember the grade school experiment where you put a tissue in the bottom of a cup, then press the cup (mouth down) to the bottom of a sink full of water, and when you lift out the cup the tissue is still dry, you'll understand the basic concept of the pneumatic caisson.  Huge wooden structures were built and pressed down to the bottom of the East River, air pressure keeping the water from flowing in.  Men worked inside of these caissons, digging out river bottom to get down to bedrock, upon which they intended to moor the arches.  However, when bedrock on one side of the river proved much deeper than predicted they were forced to keep going lower and lower and tremendous difficulty began occurring with men sickening and even dying, from what we now know to be the bends.

Washington Roebling was himself struck down by this condition. He went for years without ever even visiting the Bridge, though he could see it from his apartment window.  But the Roebling family had yet another remarkable builder ready to take over, in this case, his wife.

Between these three formidable characters, and a host of other interesting folks who pop up in the narrative, the bold and enduring design of the Bridge, and the obstacles that had to be tackled, McCullough has all the materials for a thrilling story and he does not disappoint.  If the Brooklyn Bridge was a part of your childhood too, you owe it to yourself to read this book.  Even if you don't care a wit about it, you'll marvel at the Roeblings' accomplishment.  And if you live near Boston and you've grown distraught watching the disastrous Big Dig, you'll wonder where folks like the Roeblings are when we need them.


Grade: (A+)


David McCullough Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: David McCullough
    -OBIT: David McCullough, Best-Selling Explorer of America’s Past, Dies at 89 (Daniel Lewis, Aug. 8, 2022, NY Times)
    -OBIT: David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author, dies at 89 (AP, 8/08/22)
    -OBIT: Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough has died (Neda Ulaby, 8/08/22, NPR: All Things Considered)
    -TRIBUTE: David McCullough, 1933-2022 (Tevi Troy, August 11, 2022, Washington Examiner)
    -TRIBUTE: Remembering David McCullough Off the Page, as a Champion of Preservation (Richard Moe, 8/14/22, HNN)
    -TRIBUTE: Ultimately, David McCullough Succeeded by "Writing the Book I Wanted to Read" (Cary Heinz, 8/21/22, HNN)
    -TRIBUTE: The Rediscovering of David McCullough: The prize-winning writer of history, acclaimed documentary narrator, and best-selling biographer of John Adams and Harry Truman has died at 89. (LINDSAY M. CHERVINSKY AUGUST 9, 2022, The Bulwark)
    -INTERVIEW: PW Talks with David McCullough (Edward Nawotka, Apr 02, 2001, Publishers Weekly)
    -PROFILE: A Sickbed Call From Historian David McCullough: Our national narrator saw America’s best values. (Danny Heitman, Aug. 8, 2022, WSJ)
-ESSAY: The Personal is Critical: How Should Early Americanists Think of David McCullough as a "Gateway" to History? (Rebecca Brenner Graham, 8/28/22, HNN)
    -ESSAY: Founders Chic (H. W. Brands|Sep. 1st, 2003, The Atlantic)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO: (American Experience, PBS)
    -American Experience (PBS)
    -BOOKNOTES: Truman  Author: David McCullough   Air Date: July 19, 1992 (CSPAN)
    -ESSAY: HARRY S. TRUMAN (Excerpted from an essay by David McCullough, Character Above All, PBS)
    -ESSAY: Aviator Authors (David McCullough, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of OF AMERICA EAST & WEST  Selections From the Writings of Paul Horgan (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE SKYSCRAPER. By Paul Goldberger  (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   THE LIFE OF HERBERT HOOVER The Engineer, 1874-1914. By George H. Nash  (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE MAPMAKERS By John Noble Wilford   (David McCullough, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Tempo Shock David McCullough is the author of such works as Truman and The Great Bridge. We asked him to apply a historian's perspective to understanding the ways in which the world is changing today (Martha Rogers and Bruce Kasanoff, May 2000, Inc.)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with David McCullough  The National Book Foundation presents a conversation with National Book Award Winner David McCullough, author of Mornings on Horseback  (National Book Foundation)
    -INTERVIEW: TALKING HISTORY WITH: David McCullough; Immersed in Facts, The Better to Imagine Harry Truman ( ESTHER B. FEIN, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: ( John Koch, Boston Globe Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: The Panama Canal: 'A brave, noble undertaking done superbly' (CNN)
    -INTERVIEW: History is the Story of People. Not Events  (Interview and photography by Paul Giambarba from CapeArts 2, 1981)
    -INTERVIEW: All presidents do this?   Don't believe it, historian says (Monday, October 26, 1998, Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Oregonian)
    -PROFILE : John Adams has a huge fan in David McCullough (HILLEL ITALIE, ASSOCIATED PRESS)
    -ARCHIVES : "david mccullough" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "david mccullough" (MagPortal)
    -AWARDS: Winners of the 1993 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism, Literature and the Arts
    -REVIEW: of TRUMAN By David McCullough (Alan Brinkley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Truman by David McCullough  WHERE THE BUCK STOPPED (Walter Isaacson, TIME)
    -REVIEW: Jul 16, 1992 C. Vann Woodward: Made in the U.S.A., NY Review of Books
       Truman by David McCullough
    -REVIEW: of MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. By David McCullough (Geoffrey C. Ward, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. By David McCullough (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Aug 13, 1981 Gore Vidal: An American Sissy, NY Review of Books
       Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough
    -REVIEW : of John Adams (H.W. BRANDS , News Observer)

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "brooklyn bridge"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Roebling, John Augustus (1806?69)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Roebling, Washington Augustus (1837-1926)
    -Brooklyn Bridge (Railroad Extra)
    -ESSAY : THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE (Harper's Monthly, 1883)
    -Brooklyn Bridge (NY Crossroads)
    -Brooklyn Bridge--photo tour  (NYC Tourist)
    -Brooklyn Bridge - John Augustus Roebling (Great Buildings)
    -Ira's Periperal Vision-Brooklyn Bridge Page