The Great Bridge

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Great Bridge
by David McCullough

I’ve always had a strange fascination with the Brooklyn Bridge. Long before I saw it in person, I thought it was one of the most beautiful architectural structures in the world. Like the Taj Mahal and Rome’s Colosseum, images of the Brooklyn Bridge have always made me stop dead in my tracks with awe. I can’t explain it. It only got worse when I was able to walk across the actual bridge. There’s something so majestic about those gothic arches and images of it have become iconic. So when I saw a book about the story behind the bridge, written by the famous presidential biographer McCullough, I knew I had to check it out.

The book tells the epic tale of the building of the bridge. It begins with the plans created by John A. Roebling. Unfortunately, he died early in the project. He was injured on the site, but was so stubborn that he resisted care until it was too late. He even tried to tell his doctor how he should be taking care of him. His son, Washington Roebling, took the reins and was the driving force behind the completion of the project.

The bridge broke all the molds on how bridges had been built in the past. It was more ambitious and in the end, more successful than most bridges that were created before it or that have been created since. One interesting aspect of the story was the surprising part that “the Bends” played in the building of it. The disease, caused by rapid changes in pressure, was almost unknown before this. Many men died from the condition while working on the bridge and because of that, some of the earliest reported cases came from this construction project.

It gets a little dry in the middle. I love learning about the people behind the bridge, but hearing the specifics of the timber and structure beams got a bit old. I did love the way McCullough mixed in bits about the history of Brooklyn and the way the bridge changed the destiny of the New York borough. I also was surprised and delighted to find out that Washington’s wife Emily played a big part in managing the project once her husband became ill and was confined to his home. How wonderful that a woman played a role in the creation of such a beautiful structure.

“The towers, the ‘most conspicuous features,’ would be identical and 268 feet high. They would stand on either side of the river, in the water but close to the shore, their foundations out of sight beneath the riverbed. Their most distinguishing features would be twin Gothic arches – two in each tower – through which the roadways were to pass. These arches would rise more than 100 feet, like majestic cathedral windows, or the portals of the triumphal gateways.”

“True life is not only active, but also creative.” – John A. Roebling

Image from here.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Dry or no, I do like books like this. I like to learn something that might come in handy some day. Now bridges? I think they are amazing, but I have a phobia with the high ones. I almost go faint when I cross them, walking or in a car.

Jenners said...

I've always wanted to walk across this bridge … and I plan to do that someday. I'm sure after that, I shall want to peruse this book.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I like these kinda of books too, but I think I would have liked it better as an audio. I've always been fascinated by bridges. They defy logic in my mind... which is probably why I'm not an engineer.

Jenners - Definitely do it if you got to NYC, it was one of my favorite things.

Allie said...

I actually have this one on my shelf, and I'm sure I'll get to it one day (my mom bought me a bunch of his books one year for Christmas because I loved 1776 so much).

I love that he really makes the history come to life in his books! Have you read anything else by him?

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Allie - I actually haven't, but 1776 has been on my shelf for too long. I'll have to pick that one up soon!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I have so so so wanted to read something by McCullough! I'm not sure about starting here--while it sounds fascinating, I could leave some of the construction details (had some problem with Devil in the White City).

LOVE the picture you included! So amazing how things change.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Trish - Isn't it amazing that they built something so massive, so long ago!