Monday, May 25, 2015

New York Reading List - The Great Bridge

   The Great Bridge by David McCollough is one of those wonderful pieces of non-fiction where a great historical event is rendered into such a irresistible narrative that the pages fly through your hand. The bridge to link Manhattan to Brooklyn for the first time took almost two decades and twisted through years of corruption, scandal, dedication, construction, illness, and tragedy. The Great Bridge is a detailed yet evocative report of every aspect of how the Brooklyn Bridge was built, from conception to completion.

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   More than 100,000 people cross the Brooklyn Bridge every day by car, bike, and foot. The bridge is a beloved icon by almost everyone. But few take the time on their crossing to consider the incredible achievement of its construction. One of the most amazing features of the bridge is just how old it is. It opened in May of 1883--132 years ago as of this writing--and was by far the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. The New York City of 1883 was a very different place. For one, New York and Brooklyn were separate cities. The Statue of Liberty was still awaiting funds, Ellis Island and Carnegie Hall had yet to open, Times Square was a collection of stables, gas lamps lit the city, elevated trains were powered by coal, ships' masts lined the East River, and the tallest building in the city was Trinity Church. There's an incredible audacity to Brooklyn Bridge; a road in the sky than few in New York had even dreamed.
   McCullough has a wonderful way of bringing that audacity to life. He links the story of the bridge to the family who are chiefly responsible for creating it, the Roeblings. John Roebling was a German immigrant who began life in the U.S. as a homesteader and instead turned to industry and built an engineering and wire making company from scratch. He completed major bridges throughout the country before proposing his grandest span over the East River. Sadly, he would die from a construction accident only months after work began and his son Washington would take over. Washington too suffered greatly in the construction of the bridge from physical ailments and pain caused by "the bends" compounded by nervous anxiety and stress. Even his wife Emily shouldered the burden of caring for him and for the bridge for years.
   The construction difficult and often deadly. The entire project had to negotiate the pitfalls of the corrupt New York government of Tammany Hall, the swindling of the bridge company by unscrupulous subcontractors, and the constant haranguing of the press that cast doubt over the project from almost every angle. But politicians, con-men, and a rabid penny press didn't prevent the Roeblings from building one of the greatest pieces of engineering in the world. Through the whole book, McCullough paints the Roeblings as faithful workers who always do the job the right way. And the bridge stands today as a testament to that success. The Great Bridge is a wonderful look into New York of the booming years of the 1870s and 80s. And when you walk across the bridge today, you'll be able to imagine the ships and small buildings beneath you, look up at the immense stone towers, and stand in absolute awe of the incredible feat of its construction.

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