The Great Bridge

by David G. McCullough

Paperback, 1972





New York : Simon and Schuster, 1982, c1972.


McCullough gives the classic account of one of the greatest engineering feats of all time--the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

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LibraryThing member cyderry
The Brooklyn Bridge - just the words conjure up the image of a stately icon with twinkling lights and a spider-like web of cables. But it is so much more. The Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883 replaced nearly all the dozens of ferries that had been used to transport goods and people from Brooklyn into New York City. At the time of its construction Brooklyn was not part of the city, but due to the connection and constant traffic eventually Brooklyn became one of the 5 boroughs of the city.

The construction was the greatest of its day but not without its difficulties. The caissons built for the massive spans resulted in 12 deaths due to "caissons disease" or what we now call the bends. Men worked deep below the river in areas using compressed air and without knowledge of the effects, no decompression was used for the workers. In fact, the General Engineer, Washington Roebling, suffered from the debilitating effects of the bends for over 30 years and because of it, he was unable to be present at the open ceremonies or be the first to cross the bridge (his wife had that honor).

This book is an engaging chronicle of the efforts of Washington Roebling and the men who struggled to create and build this masterpiece of engineering. The author makes it seem like a love story as well as a documentation of a building of a Landmark.
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LibraryThing member Hagelstein
Once called the eighth wonder of the world, by some, the Brooklyn Bridge stands as one of the great engineering feats in American history. In this substantial and comprehensive book, David McCullough details the history of the bridge from conception to completion.

Until the bridge was built, Brooklyn, although the third largest city in America at the time, was considered something of a backwater. One man, asked why he wanted to cross the footbridge into Brooklyn (before the entire bridge was completed) replied:
“I am a stranger here.”
“Where are you from?” asked Murphy.
“From New York,” the man replied gravely.

The personalities involved are integral to the story, from John and Washington Roebling – the father and son designer and Chief Engineer, to the politicians that both helped and hindered the effort. The bridge and its builders survived bribery, contractor fraud, and the many machinations of the corrupt Boss Tweed and other politicians from both sides of the river.

When the bridge opened in 1883, after fourteen years of construction, one woman who was alive for both events described the public excitement as being more than when man walked on the moon, years later.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
The Great Bridge (1972) has a couple notable points. Foremost, McCullough was the first to discover important primary source documents about the bridge, stacked in a closet somewhere, thus making it an important history book that moved understand of events forward. That he wrote it for a general audience is a bonus. Second, while reading I was continually reminded of a Ken Burns films. After finishing I learned Ken Burns in fact made a film based on this book, but more significantly, it was Ken's first! The one were he invented the docu-story telling style now so familiar. It's apparent he was strongly influenced by McCullough's storytelling techniques. This is no small thing considering how influential those films have been. For these reasons it may end up being his most influential book. Finally, the book came out almost 50 years ago.. which is about the same lapse of time between when the bridge builder died and the book came out. I personally knew very little about the bridge or why it was so important, so this was helpful to understanding. McCullough brings the time period into focus and makes you feel as if you are there, the 1870s do not feel remote.… (more)
LibraryThing member Mac66
One of the finest books I've ever read, combining history, engineering, politics, and biography into a fascnating mix of characters and place. Just a great read, and one you won't forget. Inspirational, enlightening, and technical without being inaccessible. I've met the author, and he's a fine gracious man who speaks with a true love of American history.… (more)
LibraryThing member bacreads
This was a bit cumbersome with a lot of side trips that really didn't affect the building of the bridge. Some of the history was necessary but at times I felt he was using it as filler. He jumped around a bit which became a little confusing. I like McCullough and expect him to be wordy but this was a bit of a disappointment. I did learn about the building of the bridge and next time I go to NYC I will go there to explore the details that were in the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member santhony
Through his long line of books on some of America's greatest figures (Truman, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt) and historical events (Johnstown Flood, Panama Canal, Brooklyn Bridge), David McCollough has earned the title of America's greatest historian.

As in his previous works, McCollough masterfully crafts his prose around one of the most historically significant and interesting events of 19th century America, the design and construction of the Brookly Bridge. Prior to reading this book, I must admit to an almost complete lack of appreciation for this feat. Suffice it to say that in the mid to late 19th century, construction of a suspension bridge on the scale of the Brooklyn Bridge was almost a leap of faith during a time when many if not most bridges failed soon after construction.

This is largely a story about John A. Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, the former having initially designed and "sold" the bridge, the latter being left with the task of constructing the bridge following the gruesome death of his father from tetanus. Also a key player in the story is Washington Roebling's wife Emily, who many allege was actually in charge of the bridge project during the frequent periods of incapacity suffered by her husband.

The background on both Roeblings was very interesting and key to an understanding of the personal dynamics involved in the politics and administration of the bridge project, and some of the most enlightening segments of the work deal with the politics of the era and region (this period spanning the reign of "Boss" Tweed over Tammany Hall).

McCollough's best work, however, is taking the very complicated and cutting edge engineering principles of the time and explaining them through well crafted language and numerous sketches in such a way that most can be followed and understood (maybe not completely) by the reader. The novel concept of the caissons, by which the monstrous bridge piers were embedded into bedrock, and the resulting discovery of "the bends", was riveting reading.

All in all, a typical McCollough tour de force. As in many of his previous works, most similar in style to Panama Canal, McCollough takes a historically significant event, explains why it was so significant, points out the extreme difficulties faced by the participants and puts a human face on the travails and suffering endured by the key players. As in Panama Canal, politics plays a key role in this story.

If you're like me, most of the background to this story will be almost entirely new to you. Did you know that in 1880, Brooklyn was the third largest city in the United States (prior to its merger into New York City). I highly recommend this book, not just for its entertainment value, but for its great history lessons.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
What's the longest period that a book has been on your "to read" list before you actually read it? For me, it may be 33 years as I got a copy of this book around the time of the Brooklyn Bridge centennial in 1983, looked at the pictures a lot, but never got around to reading. Since my copy of the book is falling apart, I listened to it as an audiobook. It's a straightforward history of the planning, construction, and aftermath of Brooklyn Bridge and it's effect on the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Central to the story are three people: John Roebling - the great bridge builder who designed Brooklyn Bridge but died as construction was begining in 1869, Washington Roebling - who emerged from his father's shadow as chief engineer but suffered greatly from illness and injury that kept him away from the job site, and Emily Roebling - who stepped in to manage the chief engineer responsibilities when her husband was indisposed. The construction of Brooklyn Bridge faced many challenges including the physical demanding work of the laborers leading to injury and death (particularly the notorious caisson's disease), a rivalry with James Eads - then constructing a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis, and the revelations of corruption of the Tweed Ring that were tied up in the bridge project. All three of these things lead to efforts to remove Washington Roebling that would be defeated. If there's one flaw to this book it's that McCullough tends to pile on the details and repeat himself in ways that make this a less engaging read than it could be, but otherwise it's a fascinating story of a significant monument in American history.… (more)
LibraryThing member datrappert
Detailed story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge is one part engineering (exhilarating) and one part politics (exasperating). Washington Roebling emerges as a true genius, with a photographic memory and the ability to write instructions for his loyal band of engineers that are so detailed the work can proceed without his presence after he is crippled by the bends. Aided by his wife, who soon amazes everyone with her own capabilities, he struggles against the politicians from Brooklyn and New York who are looking to use the bridge for their own self-aggrandizement, by either supporting it or condemning it. The political intrigue is a necessary part of the book and McCullough does a good job of sorting fact from fiction from rumor, drawing upon papers only available long after the events in question, including Washington Roebling's own private notes. You'll hold your breath during these intrigues hoping things turn out okay--but the real joy of the book is the story of how the bridge was conceived and built and its monstrous scale (for its time) and enormous amount of material - stone, steel - and incredibly brave (or desperate for work) men who risked death in the caissons to sink the foundations for the Brooklyn and New York towers. McCullough does a good job of explaining the science, and the book's pictures help, but even more diagrams would have made it better. As the cover says, there is a cast of thousands, and some are familiar villains (Boss Tweed) while others are obscure heroes such as Ludwig Semler, the Brooklyn Comptroller, who spoke up on Roebling's behalf when the mayor of Brooklyn, Seth Low, was trying to have him removed.

This book took a long time to read--not because it was difficult to read, but because every time another bridge or feat of engineering was mentioned, I had to look it up on the Internet and read all about it. If you have an interest in bridges, you definitely won't want to miss this book. But it will also demonstrate the individual genius of certain men, such as Washington Roebling and his father John, that drive the world forward even while so many can only think about what' s in it for themselves.
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LibraryThing member sblock
Loved this book, although some of the engineering descriptions were a little deep in the weeds for this non-technical reader. Still, a fascinating account and must reading for anyone who has ever walked over the Brooklyn Bridge.
LibraryThing member brewergirl
I'm not particularly interested in engineering or construction, but I found this book riveting. I couldn't put it down and thought it presented a good picture of engineering, politics, and culture at that time.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
It is not easy to build bridges.

Let me bring up a local case, of a bridge between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada, has led to years of heartache, political opposition from stubborn 80-year old billionaires, controversial political deals with the devil, and years of time spent. And the thing hasn't even been built yet.

McCullough covers not only the political side of Bridge-building, but the technical side well. This is arguably his most famous book, and with good reason. He makes the dullest of technical details shine. The obscure historical characters of a century past are given a new luster. The great bridge is almost a natural formation in the city now, like the Hudson River, but now the reader is taken back to the triumphal opening, where president Chester Arthur shook the hand of the mayor of Brooklyn, and P. T. Barnum sent a parade of elephants across, a show of durability that is uniquely American.

Excellent stuff. McCullough is a phenomenal narrative historian and biographer, and it's good to revisit him again.
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LibraryThing member drudmann
Overall, very good; the need to move between the technical aspects and the political aspects of the creation of the bridge create some real challenges for the reader, however, since the narrative may move from one to the other for a hundred or more pages before returning. Does not have the smooth, chronological feel that "John Adams" had. The technical aspects are highly detailed, yet were still hard to imagine.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcvogan1
Makes you want to be an engineer.
LibraryThing member lindap69
While I enjoyed the people parts of the story, I became bogged down in the engineering of the bridge parts, may try to finish it up with the book so I can skip over the parts of little interest to me.
LibraryThing member 5hrdrive
Entirely fascinating narrative history, as only David McCullough can do it. One-third engineering, one-third politics, and one-third graft and corruption. A tale like this could only happen in America, and especially at the end of the 19th century. I really appreciate the appendix at the end listing all the vital statistics of the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope to visit New York some day, and a walk across the promenade is at the top of my list of things to do when I get there.… (more)
LibraryThing member furriebarry
It is a rare book which causes a catch in the chest when you complete it. A feeling of saying goodbye, a journey finished. This is one of those books. Immaculate.
LibraryThing member TerriBooks
This was a really interesting book; who knew it was so hard to build the Brooklyn Bridge? Or that it took so long? There's a lot of fascinating history here and some great information about the engineering challenges. McCullough manages the transitions between politics and economics, between the personal lives of the leaders and the shenanigans of Tammany Hall, between Brooklyn and St Louis, gracefully. I especially enjoyed the vivid descriptions of working in the caissons, and of the response of the people of Brooklyn when the bridge was open.… (more)
LibraryThing member LarryMicheli
The author goes into great detail about the building of the bridge. You have to concentrate as it is so detailed. The book is over 500 pages. I've been fascinated by this bridge, as having lived in Cincinnati for many years and seeing the Roebling Suspension bridge which connects Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky, everyday. The Cincinnati's bridge was built before the Brooklyn bridge and is still in use. It's a beautiful structure.
It was nice to see the connection between the two bridges.Very interesting book.
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LibraryThing member cygnet81
An epic story - and compelling even though it was historical.
LibraryThing member oldman
A great book about a great bridge and how it was built, both the political, financial and engineering facts and processes. It focueses especially on Col. Roebling and his father, the original designer of the bridge. Difficult to get started, after a time the book was not able to be put down, 4 stars
LibraryThing member mikedraper
David McCullough's richly detailed account of the inception and building of the bridge is an expertly compiled history.

Not only does the reader learn what the Bridge meant to New York but also, we experienced the history and the politics around it.

McCullough takes his readers through the difficulty in engineering the project. John Roebling and his Brooklyn Bridge team had to get Albany's blessing and then Congress had to approve the project since they were concerned that it might affect the navigation of the East River and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

As the building went along, McCullough also takes his readers through newspaper accounts praising the project and we see Mark Twain in the group expressing his support.

Before the Bridge, New York City was landlocked. The only way to reach Brooklyn was the ferries which could be dangerous in rough weather and with navigating the busy East River.

We see a man with a vision in John Roebling. When age and ill health prevented his seeing his dream to conclusion, his son, Washington Roebling took over as the Chief Engineer.

This history unfolds like a tv documentary and the author takes his readers through the corruption and patronage of Boss Tweed and his gang.

This is a sweeping saga that is among the wonders of the world and sharing it as I did recently, made me feel I was a small part of its ongoing legend.
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LibraryThing member snash
[The Great Bridge] is the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge along with the politics and personalities involved. Interesting and entertaining except that John A. Roebling was hardly likable and some of the technical descriptions were tedious.
LibraryThing member Scarchin
Incredible story told in classic McCullough style!
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Epic retelling of the construction of what at its time was an unprecedented feat of civil engineering. McCullough presents technical details in an accessible manner while also exploring the New York City and the Brooklyn of the period, including the political considerations which hampered progress on the project. More than anything, though, the book is the story of the three individuals who brought the project to fulfillment.
The original plans were laid by John Roebling, a German-born wire manufacturer whose genius led him to design and build multiple suspension bridges. But early in the construction process, a workplace accident cost him the toes of one foot. Tetanus set in, and he died a terrible death.
Upon John's death, his son (Washington Roebling) was promoted to replace him as Principle Engineer. Many think that his father had planned to eventually put his son (an engineering graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in charge all along. But the younger Roebling became a housebound invalid following a bad experience of decompression sickness. Nevertheless, he continued to manage the construction from his sickroom.
Washington's wife, Emily Roebling, provided invaluable assistance in mediating between him, his assistant engineers, and the Board of Directors.
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LibraryThing member eraderneely
Ed Herrmann narrates this, so it's like having Richard Gilmore read you a history book. So engaging and comforting.




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