on September 26, 2003
It is hard for me to be objective about this book. First off, I am a great admirer of David McCullough's histories. Second, I have published two novels which are set in New York during the mid-19th Century. But what probably makes it hardest for me to be objective is that I have walked over that bridge for my own personal pleasure so many times over the decades that I consider it an old friend. It's my bridge.
Having said all that, I can say that Mr. McCullough has written a history that is not only about a bridge and its builders, which are fascinating subjects in their own right, but it is also about what New Yorkers were thinking back then. This was still a horizontal world; the era of early skyscrapers was a few decades away. Because of this and the rapid growth in population after the Civil War, Manhattan was mostrously choked by block after block of four- and five-story tenements, warehouses and factories. The need for a reliable means to get to the vast open spaces of Brooklyn was urgent. Ironically, however, it wasn't the horizontal--the length of the bridge--which stunned the witnesses to the construction. Instead they marvelled at the height of the towers and the height of the roadway over the East River.
Not as ironic, however, were the people who didn't marvel at the bridge's beauty and the strength of its construction. They were too busy licking their lips, wringing their hands and wondering how much of the bridge's budget would make its way into their wallets. The elements of corruption, then as now, always lurked near a great public work in New York. McCullough covers this tainted side just as carefully as he reports on the glory of the growth of the bridge. Heroes (the Roeblings) and villains (Tweed & Co.) abound, while New York's most beautiful and efficient structure comes to life.
I've been as honest as possible. I recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest in engineering, New York history, or just a good story with great characters.
Instructor, College of New Rochelle
on May 11, 1999
Although finished over a hundred years ago, Mr. McCullough reminds us not to take the Brooklyn Bridge for granted. By interweaving hundreds of key participants and placing the events in the context of their times, Mr. McCullough reveals how hard it was to build, but how a determined few persevered. In fact, with all of the political opposition and in-fighting, it's a miracle that it did get finished during the height of the "Gilded Age." Mr. McCullough accomplishes one of the historian's hardest tasks by explaining why something we take for granted should be important to us living a century later; in other words he puts the struggle for the bridge in its proper backdrop with all of the colorful charactors who either contributed to or tried to prevent the bridge's construction. I have never been to the Brooklyn Bridge, but after reading this book, I plan on seeing it soon. Although the Bridge's story is unique to its turbulent time, it does transcend that context by celebrating the will and genius of men and women who know they are right. The story is universal in its testimony to the importance of following your beliefs. Washington Roebling and his wife Emily stand as true heroes who are still making a difference. Mr. McCullough is one of our best historians, as this book so ably proves. Highly recommended.
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+
on December 14, 2000
It would be difficult to overpraise this splendid book - and indeed one might have thought it a unique achievement had McCullough not pulled off the trick equally well in "The path Between the Seas". The main theme may be the conception, design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, but into this are woven absorbing accounts of the social and political history of Gilded Age New York, the development of the technologies of underwater-foundations and of cable manufacture and spinning, the agonising quest to understand and treat the phenomenon of "the bends', the challenge of managing a project of a size unprecedented since classical times and, above all, the characters of a remarkable collection of men and women who were undauntedly resourceful in taking on the impossible. The story may be dominated by two engineers, the Roeblings, father and son, and by the latter's formidable wife, but a host of other fascinating personalities are brought to life, ranging from audaciously corrupt politicians, through noble and heroic army officers, down to individual technicians and workers. Mr.McCullough has a special gift for explaining technical complexities in simple and fascinating terms - this applies not only to the construction of the bridge and its foundations, but to the horrific and initially misunderstood challenge of what was termed "caisson sickness". The narrative never flags and the dangers and discomforts - indeed the sheer dreadfulness of working under pressure in the foundation caissons - are brought vividly to life. The writer excels at the moments of the highest drama - such as the almost catastrophic fire in one of the caissons, when the tension is almost unbearable, even when the final outcome is known to the reader a century and a quarter later. Every aspect of American life of the period seems to be covered somewhere in this book - the experience of immigration and assimilation, service in the most bloody campaigns of the Civil War, Spiritualism, the Beecher adultery scandal and the apogee, decline and fall of Tammany, all described with verve and elegance. The well-chosen illustrations complement the text admirably. In summary this is a book to treasure - to read once at the gallop, breathless to know what happened next, and then to read again at leisure - and again, and again. Wonderful!
on August 19, 2000
While reading this I went to visit the Brooklyn Bridge again and I saw things I'd never noticed before. Isn't that why we read? A great book with lot's of fascinating details about the technical challenges and the determination of the Roeblings to see it through. I'll never cross another suspension bridge without thinking of this story. Highly recommended.
McCullough is an amazing researcher and writer. His narrative style turns almost unknown historical events into "epic stories." And "The Great Bridge" is no exception. I came to know McCullough after "John Adams" was published, but have since decided to take the time to read all of his works. He never ceases to amaze me. "The Great Bridge" is a well-written, interesting, detailed history of the Broklyn Bridge, the Eight Wonder of the Modern World.
The characters come to life in this story, and the reader is transported into late nineteenth century New York City as an insider to watch the bridge rise from the caissons below the East River to the two gothic arches that dominated the skyline at their completion. From there, the reader can vividly visualize the wire and roadway stretch across the river until the bridge's completion. The book then ends with a spectacular grand opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. McCullough also focuses on the politics and people behind the bridge, and finishes his masterpiece by quoting an elderly woman from Long Island that remembers that the excitement in 1969, when two men walked on the moon, was nothing compared to the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened.
I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates good history. This book is not just for lovers of New York City and civil engineers. "The Great Bridge" is another McCullough masterpiece.
on June 16, 2011
McCullogh's The Great Bridge is greatly diminished in the Kindle edition by the absence of bridge construction diagrams and pictures that are included in print editions. A good read could have been even better if the pictures and diagrams were included in the Kindle.
on January 1, 1999
If you've even been to the Brooklyn Bridge and stared with awe, this book is definately for you! And if you've never been there, it'll make you want to go!
McCullough is one of the greatest historians of our time and he does a good job of showing how much time, money, graft, corruption, and human lives went into the building of this bridge. McCullough interweaves tales from New York and Brooklyn to make the reader understand the people and the times that went into and affected its construction.
The only drawback is sometimes these interweaved tales sometimes seem to disrupt the flow of the story. These are however, quite informative and interesting in themselves. So if you can deal with a distrupted timeline and the girth of the book, you are in for a really good read!
on January 13, 2005
If you have read McCullough, this is as good as anything he's ever written. If not, this is a great place to start.
The Great Bridge tells the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. As McCullough always does, he starts with a story about people, in this case, the Roebling's who designed and built the bridge. Into that story McCullough seamlessly weaves a portrait of life and politics in New York in the 1870s and 1880s and the engineering and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
It is a completely readable story that leaves you with a real appreciation for what it was like to live at a time when everything seemed to be changing and it felt like man and technology could conquer all.
A great read.
on November 7, 2005
McCullough's biographies and histories are among the best available, combining superb scholarship with easy reading, and this history of the Brooklyn Bridge is superb.
While I was carrying this around, several people asked why I was reading it, and three immediate answers came to mind: First, because it's a great read! This is every bit as good as most novels, and more fun that most. Second, it's a wonderful study in character. When most of our news is filled with controversy and scandal, here are two men (father and son) who stood as exemplars of honesty, determination, courage and faithfulness. If you want someone to model your life after, I recommend either of these men - or Emily Roebling, Washington's wife and assistant. And third, because 130 years later, the Brooklyn Bridge remains one of America's great engineering feats, as well as a work of art.
The father, John Roebling, was a true genius. Arriving from Germany as a young man, he founded a city (Saxonburg), perfected the concept of suspension bridges, and built one of the great companies of the 19th century. Then in a tragic accident during the preliminary surveys for the bridge, he was injured and died a horrible death of tetanus shortly afterward.
His son, Washington, took over work on the bridge and devoted the next fourteen years of his life to seeing it through. The details of the construction, by themselves, make this an amazing read!
This is one of those books that may not come up as a topic in most social situations, but it'll make you a better person and you'll like yourself for having read it. It's not a casual weekend read, but it's well worth the effort. Highly recommended.