The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough

Five stars (of five)

In all my years of biography reading, this was the first time an inanimate object, the Brooklyn Bridge, took centre stage. Under the guidance of McCullough, the story of the Bridge’s conception and realisation emerged not only as an architectural feat, but as an exciting part of New York history. McCullough takes the reader through a historical adventure, similar to some of the other journeys he has undertaking in his biographical works, filling pages and chapters with the impact numerous characters played on the larger historical footprint. The ‘great’ moniker is aptly given to the Brooklyn Bridge because of the politics behind its inception, the creative ingenuity behind its building, and public response in its realisation. The attentive and patient reader is in for a classic tale, which highlights many worthy people, along an arduous and painstaking effort to build a single bridge. The symbolism of this one structure is not lost on McCullough, for which he gives his greatest effort. A wonderfully crafted tome, well worth a thorough exploration.

That the Brooklyn Bridge brought out politics at all levels is not lost on McCullough. As with any piece of public work, its essential nature runs parallel with the opportunity for politicians and businessmen to make decisions for the larger populace. Creation of a bridge executive committee allowed a few men to line their pockets while they oversaw its development. McCullough first tackles the political angle of the Bridge through a discussion steeped in ward and district bosses ready to capitalise on share development and ownership. McCullough spends much time outlining the role Boss Tweed played in the Bridge’s investment opportunities. Tweed was able to create a shareholders’ system that saw his own pockets lined, while also steering the Bridge’s conceptual passage though the state legislature. Tweed handled some of the red tape and benefitted greatly, as he argued for the need to create a direct route from Brooklyn into New York proper. Politics remained a thread of the rest of the biography, through the selection of builders and the reaction by the public to the choices made by the aforementioned select few. Even the debate among general contractors was rife with political infighting, to the point that illness and time away from the project became stepping stones to seeming greatness. Politics plays a central role in the creation of public works, and always has; a topic McCullough does not try to bury while discussing one aspect of the Bridge’s greatness.

The momentous nature of building the Brooklyn Bridge is not lost on McCullough. Early in the preface, McCullough mentions to the reader that he is no architect, engineer, or even well-versed in physics or construction. That said, even to those with an expertise in the field, building such a colossal structure in the 1860s and 1870s was by no means a small feat. Connecting Brooklyn and New York required passage over a significant waterway at a time when construction capabilities paled in relation to 21st century options. The Bridge was not only an architectural marvel, but also a piece of creative ingenuity. The concept came from John A. Roebling, whose life McCullough details in the early chapters. Roebling passed along this building passion to his son, Washington, who headed up the building process of the Brooklyn Bridge after his father’s conceptual idea had been approved. Roebling was by no means alone in his venture, working with a slew of engineers, builders, and architecturally-savvy men whose experience with bridges varied greatly. While the Bridge’s construction was filled with many wonderful feats, McCullough discusses the early use of caissons–a relative gamble by Roebling in those early days– to help ground the Bridge in the earth below the water. While the reader may not take the time to think about this feat, iron or cement posts could not simply fall from the sky and embed themselves in the ground, leaving only wires and roadway to complete the suspension bridge. Slow and methodical drilling and excavating took time and ingenious thinking. Caisson usage was still new and brought about the development of many detriments as well as benefits. Use of compressed air chambers helped bring to light the discovery of ‘the bends’ amongst those who worked for extended periods of time within the caissons, as well as the horrors of fire while trapped far below the surface of the water. McCullough does, however, show how use of this technology helped hone the skills of bridge-makers and those who died did not do so in vain. In the latter portion of the biography, McCullough moves on to the importance of wires, key to the Bridge’s suspension nature and exemplifies how Roebling developed his own patent for strengthening wire. Detailing tensile strength and material ruggedness, the builders had to factor in many variables to ensure the Brooklyn Bridge did not come apart and yet could withstand all that Mother Nature and Father Transportation threw its way. The technology advancements on offer laid the groundwork for many more public works all over the world, with the Brooklyn Bridge acting as a symbol of an architectural feat worthy of duplication.

The significant response by the public reveals McCullough’s third persona of the Bridge. As with anything, there will be those on both sides of the issue, some favourable and others highly critical. While McCullough has addressed those with financial and political investment in this structure, as well as those who took the time to erect it, the general public’s response plays a central role in its success. Some thought the best means to connect Brooklyn and New York might have been some form of tunnel, keeping the connection buried deep below the East River. Others took great pride in flocking to the bridge to traverse from one side to the other. When the passenger portion of the bridge opened to the public, people from all over the world sought to make their personal mark. When the Bridge opened to all forms of non-pedestrian traffic (from cart to livestock to equine), it became symbolic of New York much like its recently built Statue of Liberty. McCullough goes so far, in his updated preface, to discuss how the Brooklyn Bridge has become such an important part of New York’s skyline that as the World Trade Centre towers smouldered, the Bridge’s image in the foreground stood to reassure the world that the city remained intact. Public perception plays a central role in the success of the bridge, for it is the general populace whose investment in the final product that led to its long-term success and eventual greatness.

McCullough is a masterful storyteller, bringing history to life with each book he writes. I have seen this in all the tomes penned by this great historian. McCullough seeks to go beyond simply amassing information together and letting the reader learn through what history books have on offer, he tries to tell a story behind the history and brings characters to life in such a way that their own personal journeys become a thread the reader wishes to follow as well. While the Brooklyn Bridge is a symbolic means of getting from A to B, McCullough makes it about those who played a role and build the bridge with their own blood, sweat, and tears. For that, the reader ought to be eternally grateful. Creating his own historical conduit, McCullough takes the reader on an adventure never told before at a time when written documents were likely not as plentiful or have lasted the test of time. Add to that, the free and detailed discussion of technical aspects of engineering and architecture provide the reader with some added knowledge. For over one hundred years the Brooklyn Bridge has served the greater New York area and McCullough chose to look onto the horizon and tell the story as he would any great historic figure.

Kudos, Mr. McCullough for yet another masterful tale that sheds light on those whose names or efforts I knew nothing about. I cannot thank you enough for all you have done.