I bought “The Great Bridge” at Strand in Manhattan, partly because I was trying to be very “New York” that day and partly because I’m doing a little research on the topic of bridges for another project. But I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this book once I got around to starting it.
I was quite wrong. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and I guarantee it is a book with themes, characters, and lessons that will stay with me for many years.
McCullough deftly takes a single topic—the building of the Brooklyn Bridge—and produces a story that is, yes, about a bridge, but also about a brilliant and misunderstood engineer, politics in 19th century New York, and about an American spirit that challenges us to do big things. This book, more than any book I’ve read in some time, was totally absorbing.
Early on in the book, McCullough writes elegantly about bridges and he sets the tone for how we should think about the challenge that was the Brooklyn Bridge:
“…a bridge seemed such a magnificent example of man’s capacity to master the forces of nature, and that, according to the preponderant wisdom of the day, was what the whole age was about. Building a bridge seemed such a clean, heroic thing for a man to do.”
I’m struck by that line. To do something for the greater good—to build a bridge—was seen as heroic. And I’m frightened that we don’t do much of that anymore. Now we build bridges to get to a new piece of developable land that is suitable for a mall or we build buildings when we are sure there is a solid return on investment. But we don’t seem to do much anymore because it is a “heroic thing for a man to do.”
Sure, the corruption that McCullough describes makes it clear that the original bridge builders intended to make a heroic amount of money as well. Yet the majesty of the bridge comes about because of the desire to make a statement, and not just make a profit.
Two characters illuminate this story in a way that I think will be unfamiliar to most. First, Washington Roebling is introduced early on as the son of John Roebling. John designed the Cincinnati Bridge and also the Brooklyn Bridge. He and one other man, James Eads, were the two most famous bridge-builders of the day. John Roebling’s specialty was suspension bridges. Yet John is not the hero of the story; in fact, he dies very early on, before nearly any of the work on the Brooklyn project had begun. The real story here is about Washington Roebling. Largely forgotten by history, he grapples most of his life with the fact that many thought it was his father John who was building the bridge. But it was Washington that was the true engineer of the project. He possessed a brilliance and political endurance and his story alone is worthy of generous study. Just prior to the completion of the caissons, Roebling takes ill—suffering from a mysterious condition never quite perfectly explained—and engineers the bridge from afar. At times he watches the bridge from a window in his home in Brooklyn.
Which brings me to Emily.
Edith Wilson had nothing on Emily Roebling. When her husband took ill, she cared for him fully, and also helped him maintain control of the project. She became his translator, communicator and deputy, and by assuming these roles, very likely became one of the most talented engineers in history. By the end of the bridge construction, many assumed it was Emily who was guiding the process and not her husband. All of the directions were in her handwriting and many of the construction supervisors only interacted with her. She planned the grand opening and deserves a larger place in history than she currently occupies.
The engineering discussion in the book was at times a challenge for me. McCullough makes it mostly understandable—building, sinking, and working in the caissons was the bulk of the story, and thanks to an impromptu demonstration from my lovely bride at a local bar, I was able to better understand how to sink a caisson into the water while keeping an air pocket underneath. I had a bit of trouble with how the wires were strung, but generally speaking, I understood more of the construction than I expected to.
A good portion of the story is dedicated to these caissons and to the conditions that killed the more than 20 men who were working in the East River to build the bridge. Many more were exposed to the tortuous caisson disease, now known simply as “the bends.” Amidst the biography, politics, engineering, and history, McCullough is careful to remind readers of the tragedies that surrounded the bridge construction.
The politics, of course, I loved. Repeatedly throughout the project, narrow-minded and self-serving legislators and politicians attempted to obstruct the project. Often it was for reasons of personal gain and a stubborn unwillingness to suffer short-term sacrifices in the cause of long-term good. Careful readers will love a Chester A. Arthur cameo during the celebration of the opening of the bridge.
McCullough brought the period to life beautifully. The story begins just after the Civil War—at a time when our nation was still in its adolescence and as fragile as ever. That they did something of such scale, while under such pressure, with limited technology, is a testament to their grit and pride in our nation. McCullough summarizes the bridge as a symbol in the epilogue:
“And possibly its enduring appeal may rest on its physical solidity and permanence, the very reverse of rootlessness. It says, perhaps, as does nothing else built by Americans before or since, that we had come to stay.”
Ah, I just love the notion that America is best represented by a bridge.
I’m going to editorialize here for a moment. In Cincinnati, we are in the midst of discussions (discussions might be too polite) on how to repair and rebuild the Brent Spence I-71/75 Bridge over the Ohio River. It is a critical piece in our nation’s infrastructure, and the bridge is considered structurally deficient. Everyone knows we must have a new bridge, yet when it all comes down to it, we are allowing petty fights and turf wars to get in the way of progress. Washington Roebling and a core group of visionaries encountered many of the same kind of roadblocks and still they persevered. Their singular focus was connecting New York and Brooklyn via a beautiful bridge. I doubt they would have let a dispute over tolls stop them. (Indeed, it cost a penny to walk across the bridge when it first opened.)
This Roebling drive may have been hereditary. When Washington Roebling’s father, John, was designing and building the Cincinnati Bridge (now the Roebling Suspension Bridge), he wrote about how our bridge would be built during a difficult period for our country:
“It is a fact, worthy of historical notice, that in the midst of a general national gloom and despondency, men could be found, with unshaken moral courage and implicit trust in the future political integrity of the nation, willing to risk their capital in the prosecution of an enterprise which usually will only meet support in times of profound peace and general prosperity.”
It is indeed worthy of historical notice, and it should serve as a reminder to us today. I have to believe that we can still build a spectacular bridge that remedies our infrastructure challenges and also one that says something about us as a people in this still early part of the 21st century. One-hundred-and-fifty years from now, I want our new bridge to show that we didn’t do things on the cheap, that we were still capable of evoking wonder from the world as we demonstrate our ingenuity, and that we were able to do it all in spite of our differences. I want us to build something heroic. We still have it in us, I know we do.
Thanks for reading.