By Ellen Campbell
I’ve just finished reading a book that I found so intensely interesting and well-written that I felt led to recommend it to others.
It is one of author David McCullough’s excellent books, The Great Bridge. Thinking it was McCullough’s newest after reading a newspaper review, I requested it at our library. Instead, I found it was copyrighted in 1972, but has been republished in 2012 with some additional notes. I believe I’ve read every one of his other books, but missed this one the first time around. His books are all documentaries, thoroughly researched, but they read like novels.
The Great Bridge is the story of engineer John Roebling who had the vision for this bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time) spanning the East River between Brooklyn and New York City. He drew the original plans and conceived of ways to do the job, but met with a freak fatal accident when the work was barely begun. His son, engineer Washington Roebling, took over the building of the bridge, which took fourteen years to construct, 1869 to 1883. If it had not been for the son’s skill and courage as well as his wife’s dedication, the bridge would never have been built. It met with opposition from some politicians and newspaper editors from the outset, and there were many delays.
One of the very worst problems was in the early stages of building the caissons that had to be sunk clear down to bedrock many feet below the surface. The mysterious disorder called “the bends” sickened a number of employees who had to descend to the bottom to work. No one was familiar with it at the time, though deep-sea divers encountered the same phenomenon later.
Chief Engineer Washington Roebling himself succumbed to it and remained in ill health the rest of his life. For the last few years of construction he didn’t even appear at the worksite. Instead, he sat in an upper window of his nearby house watching the proceedings through a telescope. Amazingly, from that remote supervision, when the sub-engineers brought problems to him he was able to figure out exactly how to solve them.
There are many interesting side issues mentioned in the book, including interaction with the infamous Tweed Gang. I was intrigued with it all, even the engineering diagrams. The book holds one’s interest through all the criticisms of the bridge, the outright skullduggery, accidents, wire fraud, and the fascinating description of spinning the suspension cables. My own emotions included fear and apprehension, then pure joy and exhilaration when the bridge was finished.
There was a huge celebration when the great bridge was dedicated on May 24, 1883 with special guests President Chester Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland. Now, each time I catch a glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge on a New York TV show or in a photograph, I recognize it and have a feeling of pride and ownership.