The Great Bridge…David McCullough

August 1, 2007. Four days after my wedding. I was happily soaking nose-deep in a bubble bath upstairs when my husband burst into the bathroom, babbling incohrently about bridges and explosions and rush hour and I-35W. I looked at him, uncomprehendingly, until he handed me a towel and told me to come downstairs and see what was going on.

It was hard to taken in what the television showed us. Big concrete sections of roadway folded up like cardboard. Metal girders twisted like ribbons. Cars clinging to the torn-up sections of road like Matchbox cars. And a big gap in the road where a bridge used to be, during rush hour, of all times.

There was literally nothing else on the news here for about a month. Suddenly everyone was an expert on bridge construction and knew just where the blame should be placed for the failure. Gusset plates and stress cracks were more popular conversation topics than who would be running for president. It changed how all of us here in Minnesota, and I’m sure how people all over the United States, felt about bridge safety and construction forever. For those of you living under a rock, I present the video of the collapse here for you.

Until I read David McCullough’s inspiring and sweeping 1972 epic, The Great Bridge, I had absolutely zero knowledge of the engineering and science that go into building a bridge, and I closed the book last night with great respect for anyone who has ever designed a bridge or helped build one. To me, bridges were just one of those things that built themselves, like skyscrapers and airplanes. Someone has to design the bridge to be strong to hold everything that will cross it, tough to withstand all of the elements like wind and weather that will act on it, and beautiful to look at. That’s an amazingly tall order.

Washington Roebling

In 1869, that someone was John A Roebling, a German immigrant who began to build beautiful suspension bridges where others before him had failed mightily.Only two of those bridges stand today: the John A Roebling Suspension Bridge in Covington, Kentucky, and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. His design for a bridge extending across the East River from the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn was approved in 1869, and ground was broken for the bridge in 1870. Unfortunately, Roebling crushed his toes during the surveying for the bridge, which went untreated and led to tetanus and his untimely death. His son Washington, edcuated in America at the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, took over the project as Chief Engineer after his death until the completion of the bridge in 1883.

It was amazing to read about bridge construction back before CAD-CAM technology, OSHA regulations, and even before the electric light bulb. The digging of the bridge’s foundations underwater was fascinating to me. The foundations of the bridge rested on a pressurized chamber, where men would go down and literally dig the foundation of the bridge deeper into the ground. Little was known back then about the effects of high pressure on the body, so many men, including Washington Roebling, contracted ‘caisson disease’, which is better known today as ‘the bends’, a horribly crippling and painful disorder caused by coming out of compression too quickly. Gas bubbles would build up in the bloodstream at the joints when men would come up out of the air lock too quickly, and these bubbles could cause paralysis and/or death. Many things were tried to limit the severity of the disease, such as shortening work hours as the caisson traveled deeper into the ground, turning away unhealthy applicants, or refusing to allow workers who had the disease to return to work. As it was, Roebling would struggle with the effects of the disease for the rest of his life. Unable to physically work on the bridge or be there in person, he would direct its building through highly detailed letters to his subordinates. Many politicians and citizens would question Roebling’s fitness to continue as Chief Engineer over the years, but his staff and those who knew him would defend him to the last, allowing him to remain as Chief until the bridge opened.

In addition to these letters, Roebling relied heavily on his devoted wife, Emily, who amazingly for the time period was well-versed in mathematics and engineering. She was the face of the Chief Engineer when Roebling could not go out, and she visited the bridge many times during its construction. Many of the engineers who worked with her solicited her opinions and trusted her judgment. Her contribution to the building of the bridge is memorialized by a plaque on the bridge near the one that hails her husband and father-in-law.

Emily Warren Roebling

Besides the actual construction of the bridge, McCullough reveals the politicking and sometimes backdoor dealing that went on to get the bridge plan approved. The infamous Tweed Ring was poised to make millions on the bridge construction by giving all of the construction contracts to its own members and then charging taxpayers exorbitant costs for materials and labor, pocketing the profit for themselves. Luckily the Tweed Ring was taken down early in the bridge’s history, but to this day, many of the famous names associated with the building of the bridge, such as Henry Murphy and William Kingsley, have still not been totally cleared of suspicions of money laundering and embezzlement. It was also discovered during construction that the company chosen to provide the steel for the bridge’s great cables was charging prices for good quality steel rope but were actually providing poorer quality rope, which unfortunately was not discovered .until the steel was already part of the bridge’s cables. Thanks to Roebling, whose own family company made the same product,he was able to compensate for the sub-par steel because he had already designed the bridge to have a higher margin of safety than it would ever need. When the bridge opened in 1883, it was strong enough to hold two lanes of horse and/or buggy traffic, two railroad lines for commuters across the bridge, and a promenade for pedestrians.

Even to this day, excepting the removal of the streetcar tracks and a bridge widening to six vehicle lanes completed in 1950, and recent construction to the bridge approaches, very little renovation has been made to a bridge that is already over 100 years old. Most notably the bridge was recently used by New Yorkers fleeing the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001.

This was a fabulous book, well written and engaging. I was never overwhelmed by the engineering; in fact, that was one of the interesting parts of the book for me. Google became my best friend as I eagerly searched for videos and graphics explaining cable spinning, caisson digging, and anchorage systems. I wanted to know what was going on! The family story of the Roeblings and how Washington fought against his disabling condition and weakening popular support to maintain his position as Chief Engineer, and how Emily rose above the traditional role of women to become an active, respected part of the bridge building was inspiring. In the end, the fact that a bridge of this size and stamina was able to be built back before today’s technology, and is still standing and in use today, is a testament to American ingenuity. 

According to Wikipedia, the collapse of the 35W bridge prompted a re-evaluation of the Brooklyn Bridge’s stamina in 2007. It was discovered that the approaches to the bridge had become weakened on both sides, and construction was begun in 2009 to replace the approaches.

This book is the 2nd book for the Birth Year Reading Challenge (right under the wire, I know!). It was a fantastic read and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Grade: A


4 thoughts on “The Great Bridge…David McCullough

  1. I would never have expected a book about bridges (with lots of engineering details, yet) to be such an interesting read. We take all that for granted every day, and thank goodness for modern technology to help reduce the risk to the builders. What a pleasant, perspective-shifting surprise!

  2. Wow — I remember the Minneapolis bridge collapse. That was the first piece of news that brought me back to the real world after finishing an awesome backpacking trip in 2007. McCullough’s book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge sounds awesome; I’ve read his 1776 and I have John Adams on my list for the presidential bio I’ll read this year. I may have to put The Great Bridge on my list for this year, too. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Pingback: A Literary and Culinary Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge #travel #NYC | Book Club Traveler

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