Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Notes: The Brooklyn Bridge

The Great Bridge:  The Epic Story of the Building the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1972, 636 pages.

A Picture History of The Brooklyn Bridge, by Mary J. Shapiro, Dover, 1983, 122 pages.

May 23, 1883 was the last day that people commuting between New York City and Brooklyn needed to take a ferry.  The next day, the Brooklyn Bridge was officially opened for business.  The opening celebrations that day included everyone and anyone who was a dignitary or connected to the building of the bridge.  The review committee was headed by President Chester A. Arthur and Governor of New York, Grover Cleveland.  The mayors, the aldermen, the trustees of the bridge company, all were in attendance.  Everyone was there except the Chief Engineer, Washington Roebling.  Roebling, in fact, had not set foot on the bridge once in the entire 14-year history of the construction of his bridge.  That fact is part of what makes the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge such an epic.  And no one writes a better historical narrative than David McCullough.

I read McCullough's book just this week.  I must confess, for someone who professes to enjoy all things historical about technology, I have had his book for years but it has gone unread.  Maybe it was my reprinting his speech on history here in this blog a few weeks ago.  Maybe it was the fact that I came across Mary Shapiro's wonderful photo documentary of the bridge in a used bookstore.  Whatever the reason, I sat down and started to read them both together.  I am so glad that I did.  McCullough writes beautifully about the characters and events that shaped the bridge.  He writes at great length about the engineering and the construction of the bridge itself.  But when it comes to visualizing something so complex, the old saw that "a picture is worth a thousand words" remains true.  The Great Bridge does have photos and illustrations in the middle of the book but there are so many more good photos and engravings in Shapiro's Picture History.  If you are interested in reading McCullough's book, I would seriously suggest getting a copy of Shapiro's book as a reference companion.

As the subtitle of McCullough's book suggests, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge really was a saga.  Construction of a bridge across the East River had been thought about for years - as far back as 1811 when Thomas Pope imagined his Rainbow Bridge that I wrote about a while ago.   It was on an East River ferry that became trapped in the ice in 1852 that John A. Roebling conceived of an idea for a great bridge spanning the river between New York and Brooklyn.  John Roebling was the pre-eminent bridge builder in America and with him that day was his young son, Washington Roebling.  Because of the Civil War and economic problems, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge would not start until 1869.

John Roebling was the engineer who designed the bridge, including its massive gothic towers and the multiple traffic lanes and pedestrian walkway.  But on June 28, 1869, before any work could be done on even the footings of the bridge towers,  John Roebling badly crushed his foot in an accident at the ferry dock.  He contracted tetanus and died a horrible death 24 days later.

From the beginning, John Roebling had intended that his son, Washington, would be the Chief Engineer on the bridge.  Washington Roebling (photo) was trained as an engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.  In 1861, Washington enlisted as a private in the Union Army.  Over the course of the Civil War he would become a hero at Gettysburg and finally resign his commission in 1865 at the rank of Colonel.  Shortly afterwards, he joined his father in Cincinnati to help him complete the suspension bridge over the Ohio River (the bridge still stands today).  Washington Roebling was no novice when he assumed full responsibility for constructing his father's design in 1869.

The building of the bridge was inevitably linked to politics and scandal in both New York City and Brooklyn.  Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall was an early backer of the bridge and it was only Tweed's downfall from other disclosures that removed that particular opportunity for pillaging the public coffers.  Politicians were always trying to use the bridge for their own political purposes.  Through it all, Washington Roebling refused to become embroiled in any of the controversies or to bend to any of the political pressures.

Washington Roebling himself would be crippled for years afterward from Caisson's Disease, otherwise known as the Bends, when he was down in the New York caisson, 70 feet under the East River, in December, 1872.  Roebling was in such pain that he requested a leave of absence and from that time forward performed all his duties as Chief Engineer by mail and written instructions.  His wife, Emily, acted as his corresponding secretary, caretaker, and confidant.  She became well-known to the assistant engineers of the bridge and later would often visit the construction site to convey instructions from her husband.  By unanimous choice, Emily Warren Roebling was the first person to walk across the decking of the bridge when it was completed in late 1882.  The Brooklyn Bridge was very much a family legacy: father, son, and daughter-in-law.  It is a story about honorable engineers and far less honorable politicians.  Mostly, it is a story of the triumph of will - personal and collective.

The Great Bridge was McCullough's second book following The Johnstown Flood (1968).  Several publishers offered him advances to write other disaster stories including one on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  But McCullough decided that he didn't want to become labeled as a writer of disaster stories and wanted instead to write a positive story - the building of the  Great Bridge.  Virtually every book after The Great Bridge has won McCullough awards, including two Pulitzers (Truman and John Adams).  If this book had come later in his series of books, it probably would have won a Pulitzer as well.  But the book did receive wide-spread critical acclaim at the time and now, 38 years later, it is still in print and still thought to be the single best history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

McCullough began his book with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, written for Harper's Weekly, May 24, 1883 (the day the bridge opened).  Shuyler was in some ways the first of the architectural critics in this country.  Schuyler wrote:

It so happens that the work which is
likely to be our most durable monument,
and to convey some knowledge of us to the
most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility;
not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.


If you are more the visual type, instead of reading the books I would recommend watching Ken Burns' 1981 documentary entitled The Brooklyn Bridge.  David McCullough is the narrator.  You can download the video from iTunes for a couple of bucks.

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