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The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

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Published on the fortieth anniversary of its initial publication, this edition of the classic book contains a new Preface by David McCullough, “one of our most gifted living writers” (The Washington Post).

Built to join the rapidly expanding cities of New York and Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge was thought by many at the start to be an impossibility destined to fail if not from insurmountable technical problems then from political corruption. (It was the heyday of Boss Tweed in New York.)

But the Brooklyn Bridge was at once the greatest engineering triumph of the age, a surpassing work of art, a proud American icon, and a story like no other in our history. Courage, chicanery, unprecedented ingenuity and plain blundering, heroes, rascals, all the best and worst in human nature played a part. At the center of the drama were the stricken chief engineer, Washington Roebling and his remarkable wife, Emily Warren Roebling, neither of whom ever gave up in the face of one heartbreaking setback after another.

The Great Bridge is a sweeping narrative of a stupendous American achievement that rose up out of its era like a cathedral, a symbol of affirmation then and still in our time.

608 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1972

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About the author

David McCullough

86 books9,512 followers
David McCullough was a Yale-educated, two-time recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize (Truman; John Adams) and the National Book Award (The Path Between the Seas; Mornings on Horseback). His many other highly-acclaimed works of historical non-fiction include The Greater Journey, 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, The Wright Brothers, and The Johnstown Flood. He was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the National Humanities Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in addition to many other awards and honors. Mr. McCullough lived in Boston, Mass.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,652 reviews
Profile Image for Kalliope.
687 reviews22 followers
May 2, 2018

I first became interested in the story behind the design and building of the Brooklyn Bridge a few years ago when I watched the TV documentary 'New York' by Ric Burns. In one of the episodes it focused on this land-and-river-mark - on its novelty, its innovations and the human tragedy that it also brought about.

Around that time also I read, and was fascinated by, David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas. I have therefore wanted to read this book for several years.

I have to acknowledge, though, that though I have enjoyed greatly learning more about this historical episode of human ingenuity, McCullough's treatment was too good for me. I have felt that I was facing far too large a load of information when reading it. The descriptions of technical details were often over my head. As I am a visual person, I needed more graphs than textual accounts, so I resorted to the web for additional videos, graphs and drawings.

I enjoyed the way McCullough puts the building of the bridge in the context of similar and earlier engineering feats. There are so many aspects in the structure of this bridge, that one cannot say that it is "The First" except in a few of its characteristics. The building took from 1869 to 1883, so it is to be expected that during the fourteen years many incidents happened; most were related to the Brooklyn enterprise directly and some indirectly, as it happened with the tragedy of the Tay Bridge disaster in Scotland in 1879.

The most fascinating part of the construction was the design and sinking of the two huge 'caissons'; structures that were different and had to be dealt with differently at either side, the Brooklyn and the Manhattan sides; the latter having to go a great deal deeper than the former.

Also over my head went the stories of the local politics - both at the city level and at the corporate level. These sections I scanned for the most part except for a couple of episodes. Most fascinating of all was the account around the highly corrupt Boss Tweed, politician and significant landowner, and his fall after the Orange Riot of 1871.

The most engaging aspect was however the human. Learning about the outstanding Roebling family - the father, the son, the other sons, and particularly the wife of the son - is sufficient for recommending the book.

In particular Washington Roebling (1837-1927), the eldest son, stands out. Not just for what he did - he was right in that we should consider him as the maker of the bridge and not his father - but also for his personality. Men like him are enigmatic. How can one accumulate exactly the right qualities that are required when one's role is extremely difficult? With his health severely damaged from an early age, he however outlived them all. May be his life was suspended from an invisible thread of supernatural steel.

And he married the right woman. Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) comes across as the angel of steel, also wonderfully suspended over the construction of the bridge taking over the responsibilities of the Chief Engineer when her husband became too weak.

As with the Panama story - when not just engineering but a biological and medical obstacle had to be solved, malaria - also here the physiological problem made the building project more complicated. The effects on the human body when going down to great depths were not understood. Some investigation on the effects on people when submerging had been done in France but the new and greater depths required in the sinking and reinforcement of the Brooklyn Bridge 'caissons' was occasioning the little understood 'Bends' that took several lives. Indeed, the too fast decompression that the workers endured is also what severely damaged the health of Washington Roebling himself.

This is a great read even if for some readers McCullough's astounding command of data and fastidiousness in his narration can leave as if one had sunk in one of the Caissons. But when closing the book one is certainly going to feel differently when crossing this marvelous bridge.

I understand there is a documentary by Ken Burns on this Bridge, solidly based on this book, but I have not seen it.

This is the one I have:

Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,698 reviews1,478 followers
November 17, 2016
If you haven't read a book by David McCullough you are missing a VERY good author. He writes non-fiction. He works in collaboration with a large staff. Some people may call that cheating, but I don't care b/c everything he writes is thoroughly investigated, interesting and expressed with flair. His books are never dry, never boring. He knows what to put in and what to leave out. Here he writes about the Brooklyn Bridge! How in the world can you write about a bridge and make it fascinating? He has succeeded. Again!

The book covers all the details related to the making of the Brooklyn Bridge, from conception to completion. It is also a biography of two amazing people, John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), a German immigrant and engineer who conceived of and designed the bridge, and his son Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926) who was the chief engineer during the bridge's construction from 1869-1883. It is also about Emily Warren Roebling, Washington’s first wife; she played an essential role in the making of the bridge! It is a book about the two cities, New York City and Brooklyn, which came to be linked by the creation of the bridge. It is about the political corruption of the era. I am sure you’ve heard of the shenanigans of Tammany Hall, well here they are again. People that really get you mad! It is about how the bridge forever changed New York City. It was a time of great innovation played out and shaped by the people of this great metropolis. The bigwigs, the politicians, the business men, the artisans, the immigrants, the small people and the big, the dreamers and the workers.

Read this book to meet Washington Roebling! His engagement is utterly inspirational. When mistakes were made he never shirked his responsibility and he wanted the Board of Trustees to shoulder their responsibility too.

In making a solid foundation for the bridge, workers excavated the riverbed using massive wooden boxes called caissons. These airtight chambers were pressed to the river’s floor by mammoth granite blocks; pressurized air was pumped in to keep water and rubble out. Workers succumbed to what is today known as “caisson disease”, "decompression sickness" or “the bends”: joint pain, numbness, paralysis, convulsions and sometimes death. Very little of this was understood then. In 1870 Washington Roebling worked from within a caisson to extinguish a fire that had broken out. Working often alongside men in the caissons he too came to suffer from the disease, as well as other nervous ailments.

I would have appreciated a more in-depth discussion of his medical problems resulting from "decompression sickness". Probably he also suffered from what is known as neurasthenia and perhaps secondary drug addiction. Due to his illnesses he worked in close corroboration with his wife holding his position as chief engineer "in absentia"! That he could later in 1921 become president of John A. Roebling's Sons Company at age 84 is hard to comprehend! It is for this reason I would have liked a fuller understanding of what afflicted him!

I did have trouble sometimes understanding the minute and detailed description of the component parts of the bridge construction. Yet I never felt that even the details which I didn’t completely understand should be removed. A picture says simply what a thousand words try to explain. I did look in internet for detailed drawings but you need more than just a diagram. What you really need is someone pointing out the respective parts of the diagram to fully understand. Listening and listening and still not completely understanding was frustrating to me.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Nelson Runger. He does a totally fantastic job. He reads slowly. He reads clearly. He reads with feeling. When the bridge is completed, the author's lines and Runger's intonation allows one to appreciate the beauty and the magnificence of what had been created. There was a huge celebration with firecrackers, with bells tolling, whistles shrilling, firecrackers, tugs tooting, children scrambling and huge crowds marveling at the spectacle! I felt like I was there. When the electric lights of the bridge were first illuminated I could feel the wonder of the lights and the two dark stone towers, along with the thousands that watched.

An epilog completes the book so you know what happens to the central characters in the years after the bridge is completed.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
August 28, 2015
This is an engaging history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge was one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. The book goes into great detail about the bridge itself, its design and construction techniques.

But most of the book is devoted to the people involved. And the two people who were most involved were father and son, John and Washington Roebling. Thus, the book can also be classified as a biography. These two men had a great vision, and the skills and experience to bring the vision to a reality. John Roebling made the initial design. Washington Roebling carried it out. He was a very competent man; he was a hero during the American Civil War.

A lot of the book also centers on the huge amount of corruption that engulfed many political figures in New York. The immense undertaking gave plenty of opportunities for roguish figures to get rich. There is an amazing story about how a steel contractor delivered sub-par quality of steel. So, Roebling had inspectors go to the warehouse at the point where the steel was being sent out, to ensure that the steel met the specifications. But lo and behold, the steel that arrived at the bridge was found to still be sub-quality! It turned out that in mid-trip to the bridge site, the carriage containing high-grade steel had been switched with another containing low-grade steel!

Another interesting aspect of the story is how many of the workers who worked at great atmospheric pressure inside the caissons were subjected to the bends. At the time, the cause of this malady was unknown. It was finally realized that it could be alleviated by rising up to atmospheric pressure more slowly--but the rate was still too fast. Washington Roebling himself encountered a near-fatal exposure to the bends.

This is a well-researched, comprehensive history of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the men who worked on it, designed it, and managed it. It is also an insightful look at the politicians of the time. I recommend this book to all who are interested in a good history.
14 reviews4 followers
October 15, 2010
When I picked up this book, I was daring McCullough to get me to read the whole thing. How could a 562 page book about a bridge -- not to meantion an antiquated bridge, not the modern technological wonders of today -- keep me going that long, I thought? Yet I had heard reviews...I had to find out what they were talking about.

I finished the book in two weeks, and as it turns out, it's not just a book about a bridge (that really would be boring), it's a book about the people and events in one of them most famous, celebrated, and exciting times in American history. A time when people were choosing to expand westward and upward; when iron and coal were king; a time when anyone could be anything; it was America's time of manifest destiny, and the building of the bridge was a symbol of it all: east-west expansion, independence, unity, power, technology, urbanization, money, politics, corruption, immigration, just to name a few.

True to McCulloughs style, he finds those larger-than-life people: engineers, politicians, soldiers, seedy crooks, and socialites and tells their fascinating stories in the context of the building of the bridge. At times I wondered that McCullough hadn't been an engineer himself the way he described sinking caissons, raising stone towers, stringing steel suspension cables, and constructing trusses. I also wondered that McCullough had not personally watched the bridge rise out of the east river as an eyewitness in a former life , and whether in that same former life those dynamic figures in his book had not been his own personal confidants.

The only negative that I have to say about the book is that more pictures and diagrams would add immensely to his masterful descriptions of such complex things like bridge anchorages and compression caissons. He forgot to apply that age old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words.

The book was definately worth the read.

The only thing left is to see the bridge for myself.

Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
278 reviews65 followers
May 11, 2022
I love McCullough's work- from Truman to John Adams, to Mornings on Horseback, and many more- I have read and given everyone 5 stars. This book is well written, thoroughly researched, and has some very interesting information in it. That said, it seemed that I could have built the bridge in a shorter time than it took to slog through all the detail in this book. I am certain that there are many detail oriented, engineer types who would appreciate it all but I am not one of them. Too much detail about every bit of material that went into the bridge, every step and correction that needed to be made and information about other people unrelated to the bridge that had no place in the book in my opinion.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,673 reviews12.8k followers
February 18, 2015
In all my years of biography reading, this was the first time an inanimate object, the Brooklyn Bridge, took centre stage. Under the guidance of McCullough, the story of the Bridge's conception and realisation emerged not only as an architectural feat, but as an exciting part of New York history. McCullough takes the reader through a historical adventure, similar to some of the other journeys he has undertaking in his biographical works, filling pages and chapters with the impact numerous characters played on the larger historical footprint. The 'great' moniker is aptly given to the Brooklyn Bridge because of the politics behind its inception, the creative ingenuity behind its building, and public response in its realisation. The attentive and patient reader is in for a classic tale, which highlights many worthy people, along an arduous and painstaking effort to build a single bridge. The symbolism of this one structure is not lost on McCullough, for which he gives his greatest effort. A wonderfully crafted tome, well worth a thorough exploration.

That the Brooklyn Bridge brought out politics at all levels is not lost on McCullough. As with any piece of public work, its essential nature runs parallel with the opportunity for politicians and businessmen to make decisions for the larger populace. Creation of a bridge executive committee allowed a few men to line their pockets while they oversaw its development. McCullough first tackles the political angle of the Bridge through a discussion steeped in ward and district bosses ready to capitalise on share development and ownership. McCullough spends much time outlining the role Boss Tweed played in the Bridge's investment opportunities. Tweed was able to create a shareholders' system that saw his own pockets lined, while also steering the Bridge's conceptual passage though the state legislature. Tweed handled some of the red tape and benefitted greatly, as he argued for the need to create a direct route from Brooklyn into New York proper. Politics remained a thread of the rest of the biography, through the selection of builders and the reaction by the public to the choices made by the aforementioned select few. Even the debate among general contractors was rife with political infighting, to the point that illness and time away from the project became stepping stones to seeming greatness. Politics plays a central role in the creation of public works, and always has; a topic McCullough does not try to bury while discussing one aspect of the Bridge's greatness.

The momentous nature of building the Brooklyn Bridge is not lost on McCullough. Early in the preface, McCullough mentions to the reader that he is no architect, engineer, or even well-versed in physics or construction. That said, even to those with an expertise in the field, building such a colossal structure in the 1860s and 1870s was by no means a small feat. Connecting Brooklyn and New York required passage over a significant waterway at a time when construction capabilities paled in relation to 21st century options. The Bridge was not only an architectural marvel, but also a piece of creative ingenuity. The concept came from John A. Roebling, whose life McCullough details in the early chapters. Roebling passed along this building passion to his son, Washington, who headed up the building process of the Brooklyn Bridge after his father's conceptual idea had been approved. Roebling was by no means alone in his venture, working with a slew of engineers, builders, and architecturally-savvy men whose experience with bridges varied greatly. While the Bridge's construction was filled with many wonderful feats, McCullough discusses the early use of caissons--a relative gamble by Roebling in those early days-- to help ground the Bridge in the earth below the water. While the reader may not take the time to think about this feat, iron or cement posts could not simply fall from the sky and embed themselves in the ground, leaving only wires and roadway to complete the suspension bridge. Slow and methodical drilling and excavating took time and ingenious thinking. Caisson usage was still new and brought about the development of many detriments as well as benefits. Use of compressed air chambers helped bring to light the discovery of 'the bends' amongst those who worked for extended periods of time within the caissons, as well as the horrors of fire while trapped far below the surface of the water. McCullough does, however, show how use of this technology helped hone the skills of bridge-makers and those who died did not do so in vain. In the latter portion of the biography, McCullough moves on to the importance of wires, key to the Bridge's suspension nature and exemplifies how Roebling developed his own patent for strengthening wire. Detailing tensile strength and material ruggedness, the builders had to factor in many variables to ensure the Brooklyn Bridge did not come apart and yet could withstand all that Mother Nature and Father Transportation threw its way. The technology advancements on offer laid the groundwork for many more public works all over the world, with the Brooklyn Bridge acting as a symbol of an architectural feat worthy of duplication.

The significant response by the public reveals McCullough's third persona of the Bridge. As with anything, there will be those on both sides of the issue, some favourable and others highly critical. While McCullough has addressed those with financial and political investment in this structure, as well as those who took the time to erect it, the general public's response plays a central role in its success. Some thought the best means to connect Brooklyn and New York might have been some form of tunnel, keeping the connection buried deep below the East River. Others took great pride in flocking to the bridge to traverse from one side to the other. When the passenger portion of the bridge opened to the public, people from all over the world sought to make their personal mark. When the Bridge opened to all forms of non-pedestrian traffic (from cart to livestock to equine), it became symbolic of New York much like its recently built Statue of Liberty. McCullough goes so far, in his updated preface, to discuss how the Brooklyn Bridge has become such an important part of New York's skyline that as the World Trade Centre towers smouldered, the Bridge's image in the foreground stood to reassure the world that the city remained intact. Public perception plays a central role in the success of the bridge, for it is the general populace whose investment in the final product that led to its long-term success and eventual greatness.

McCullough is a masterful storyteller, bringing history to life with each book he writes. I have seen this in all the tomes penned by this great historian. McCullough seeks to go beyond simply amassing information together and letting the reader learn through what history books have on offer, he tries to tell a story behind the history and brings characters to life in such a way that their own personal journeys become a thread the reader wishes to follow as well. While the Brooklyn Bridge is a symbolic means of getting from A to B, McCullough makes it about those who played a role and build the bridge with their own blood, sweat, and tears. For that, the reader ought to be eternally grateful. Creating his own historical conduit, McCullough takes the reader on an adventure never told before at a time when written documents were likely not as plentiful or have lasted the test of time. Add to that, the free and detailed discussion of technical aspects of engineering and architecture provide the reader with some added knowledge. For over one hundred years the Brooklyn Bridge has served the greater New York area and McCullough chose to look onto the horizon and tell the story as he would any great historic figure.

Kudos, Mr. McCullough for yet another masterful tale that sheds light on those whose names or efforts I knew nothing about. I cannot thank you enough for all you have done.

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Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,128 followers
September 22, 2018
… on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”

On the inside cover of my copy of this book its previous owner has inserted a little love note. The brief message is written in a very neat script, in red ink, apparently on the eve of a long separation. Now, you may think that a book about the Brooklyn Bridge is a rather odd gift for a lover—and, considering that the book ended up in a used book shop, this may be what the recipient thought, too—but, now that I have read McCullough’s chronicle of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can see why it might inspire such sentimental attachment. For it is a thoroughly lovable book.

This is my first McCullough work, and I am pleased. He is a fine writer. His prose is stylish yet unobtrusive, striking that delicate balance between being intelligible but not simplified. He has a keen eye for the exciting details of a seemingly dry story; and effectively brings together many different threads—the personalities, the politics, the technology—in such a way that the past looms up effortlessly in the imagination. The only parts which I think could have been improved were his explanations of the engineering, since he used too many unfamiliar terms without explaining them, perhaps thinking that such explanations might swell the book to unseemly proportions. In any case, he is a writer, not an engineer, and he shines most when discussing the human experience of the Bridge.

The bridge’s designer was John A. Roebling, who deserves a book unto himself. An eccentric polymath, who among other things studied philosophy under Hegel, he came to America to found a Utopian village and ended up the foremost expert on suspension bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was his project; but tragically he died during the first year of the project, after his foot was crushed, his toes amputated, and he contracted tetanus. His son, Washington, immediately took over—in many ways just as remarkable a man. A Civil War hero with a tenacious memory, the bridge ruined his health, too, through a combination of stress and the bends.

In those days the bends were known as “caisson sickness,” named for the compartment sunk underwater in order to excavate for the bridge’s foundations. These were filled with pressurized air in order to prevent water from seeping in. Unfortunately, back then the dangers of rapidly depressurizing were not understood, so many people fell ill during the construction—including Roebling himself, who spent the final years of the bridge’s construction as an invalid, observing the work through a telescope from his apartment. Luckily for him, his wife, Emily, was a remarkable woman—diplomatic and brilliant—and helped to carry the project to completion.

These personalities come alive in McCullough’s narration, turning what could have been a dry chronicle into an enthralling book. And this is not to mention the political corruption, the manufacturing fraud, the deadly accidents, and the glorious celebrations that took place during the fourteen years of the bridge’s construction.

Yesterday I revisited the Brooklyn Bridge, which is beautiful even if you know nothing about it. As a friend and I strolled across in the intense summer heat, elbowing our way through crowds of tourists, I blathered on about all the fun facts I had learned from this book—which I am sure my friend very much appreciated. Sensing his discomfort, I made sure to emphasize that a fraudulent wire manufacturer had tricked the engineers into using sub-par cables, and that a panic broke out a week after the bridge’s opening, which resulted in twelve people being trampled. You see this book has already helped my social life. Maybe next I can write my own love note inside.
Profile Image for Ridgewoodmom.
35 reviews
August 17, 2012
What an amazing book! Very well researched, and quite captivating from the Brooklyn to Manhattan politics to bridge building. Some of the technical things went over my head, but the writing was really fantastic and easy to understand. For anyone interested in New York City History, Brooklyn history, bridge building. I would highly recommend this.
May 26, 2018
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. David McCullough is one of the very best authors of all times to me. I'm not great at history, but he has a way of telling a story that penetrates into my heart and brain and soul such that I actually learn something. Then I get excited and start researching and reading more and more about whatever topic grabbed me. This time being the Brooklyn Bridge. Very interesting and a great way to learn about it. I'm including some very interesting information I learned in my studies.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge in New York City and is one of the oldest roadway bridges in the United States. Started in 1869 and completed fourteen years later in 1883, it connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, spanning the East River. It has a main span of 1,595.5 feet (486.3 m) and was the first steel-wire suspension bridge constructed. It was originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge and the East River Bridge, but it was later dubbed the Brooklyn Bridge, a name coming from an earlier January 25, 1867, letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and formally so named by the city government in 1915. Since opening, it has become an icon of New York City and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1972

DESIGN: Although the Brooklyn Bridge is technically a suspension bridge, it uses a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge design. The towers are built of limestone, granite, and Rosendale cement. The limestone was quarried at the Clark Quarry in Essex County, New York. The granite blocks were quarried and shaped on Vinal haven Island, Maine, under a contract with the Bodwell Granite Company, and delivered from Maine to New York by schooner.

The bridge was built with numerous passageways and compartments in its anchorages. New York City rented out the large vaults under the bridge's Manhattan anchorage in order to fund the bridge. Opened in 1876, the vaults were used to store wine, as they were always at 60 °F (16 °C). This was called the "Blue Grotto" because of a shrine to the Virgin Mary next to an opening at the entrance. When New York magazine visited one of the cellars in 1978, it discovered on the wall a "fading inscription" reading: "Who loveth not wine, women and song, he remaineth a fool his whole life long."

CONSTRUCTION: The bridge was conceived by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling in 1852, who spent part of the next 15 years working to sell the idea. He had previously designed and constructed shorter suspension bridges, such as Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky. While conducting surveys for the bridge project, Roebling sustained a crush injury to his foot when a ferry pinned it against a piling. After amputation of his crushed toes, he developed a tetanus infection that left him incapacitated and soon resulted in his death in 1869, not long after he had placed his 32-year-old son, Washington Roebling, in charge of the project.
In February 1867, the New York State Senate passed a bill that allowed the construction of a suspension bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Two months later, the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company was incorporated. The company was tasked with constructing what was then known as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869. The bridge's two towers were built by floating two caissons, giant upside-down boxes made of southern yellow pine, in the span of the East River, and then beginning to build the stone towers on top of them until they sank to the bottom of the river. Compressed air was pumped into the caissons, and workers entered the space to dig the sediment, until the caissons sank to the bedrock. The whole weight of the bridge still sits upon 15-foot-thick southern yellow-pine wood under the sediment.

Many workers became sick with the bends during this work. This condition was unknown at the time and was first called "caisson disease" by the project physician, Andrew Smith. Washington Roebling suffered a paralyzing injury as a result of "caisson disease" shortly after ground was broken for the Brooklyn tower foundation on January 3, 1870. Roebling's debilitating condition left him unable to physically supervise the construction firsthand.

As chief engineer, Roebling supervised the entire project from his apartment with a view of the work, designing and redesigning caissons and other equipment. He was aided by his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who provided the critical written link between her husband and the engineers on site. Warren Roebling studied higher mathematics, calculations of catenary curves, strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and intricacies of cable construction. She spent the next 11 years helping to supervise the bridge's construction.
When iron probes underneath the caisson for the Manhattan tower found the bedrock to be even deeper than expected, Roebling halted construction due to the increased risk of decompression sickness. He later deemed the sandy subsoil overlying the bedrock 30 feet (9.1 m) below it to be firm enough to support the tower base, and construction continued.

The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is detailed in The Great Bridge (1972), the book by David McCullough, and in Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the first PBS documentary film by Ken Burns. Burns drew heavily on McCullough's book for the film and used him as narrator. It is also described in Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, a BBC docudrama series with an accompanying book.

OPENING: The New York and Brooklyn Bridge was opened for use on May 24, 1883. Thousands of people attended the opening ceremony, and many ships were present in the East Bay for the occasion. President Chester A. Arthur and Mayor Franklin Edson crossed the bridge to celebratory cannon fire and were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low when they reached the Brooklyn-side tower. Arthur shook hands with Washington Roebling at the latter's home, after the ceremony. Roebling was unable to attend the ceremony (and in fact rarely visited the site again), but held a celebratory banquet at his house on the day of the bridge opening. Further festivity included the performance of a band, gunfire from ships, and a fireworks display. Since the New York and Brooklyn Bridge was the only one across the East River at that time, it was also called East River Bridge.

On that first day, a total of 1,800 vehicles and 150,300 people crossed what was then the only land passage between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross the bridge. The bridge's main span over the East River is 1,595 feet 6 inches (486.3 m). The bridge cost US$15.5 million in 1883 dollars (about US$393,964,000 in today's dollars) to build, and an estimated 27 men died during its construction.

On May 30, 1883, six days after the opening, a woman falling down the stairway caused a stampede, which was responsible for at least twelve people being crushed and killed. On May 17, 1884, P. T. Barnum helped to squelch doubts about the bridge's stability—while publicizing his famous circus—when one of his most famous attractions, Jumbo, led a parade of 21 elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge.
At the time it opened, and for several years, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50% longer than any previously built—and it has become a treasured landmark. Since the 1980s, it has been floodlit at night to highlight its architectural features. The architectural style is neo-Gothic, with characteristic pointed arches above the passageways through the stone towers. The paint scheme of the bridge is "Brooklyn Bridge Tan" and "Silver", although it has been argued that the original paint was "Rawlins Red".

At the time the bridge was built, engineers had not discovered the aerodynamics of bridge construction. Bridges were not tested in wind tunnels until the 1950s, well after the collapse of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, known as Galloping Gertie, in 1940. It is therefore fortunate that the open truss structure supporting the deck is by its nature less subject to aerodynamic problems. Roebling designed a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as he thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished or been replaced. This is also in spite of the substitution of inferior quality wire in the cabling supplied by the contractor J. Lloyd Haigh—by the time it was discovered, it was too late to replace the cabling that had already been constructed. Roebling determined that the poorer wire would leave the bridge four rather than six times as strong as necessary, so it was eventually allowed to stand, with the addition of 250 cables. poorer wire would leave the bridge four rather than six times as strong as necessary, so it was eventually allowed to stand, with the addition of 250 cables.

LATER YEARS: In 1915, the city government officially named the structure the "Brooklyn Bridge", a name first mentioned in print in a January 1867 letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
During the Cold War, a fallout shelter was constructed beneath the Manhattan approach. The abandoned space in one of the masonry arches still contained the emergency survival supplies for a potential nuclear attack by the Soviet Union when rediscovered in 2006 during a routine inspection.
In 1964, the bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark, having become an icon of New York City since its opening, and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1972.
The centennial celebrations on May 24, 1983, saw a cavalcade of cars crossing the bridge, led by President Ronald Reagan. A flotilla of ships visited the harbor, parades were held, and in the evening the sky over the bridge was illuminated by Grucci Fireworks The Brooklyn Museum exhibited a selection of the original drawings made for the bridge's construction, some by Washington Roebling. Media coverage of the centennial was declared "the public relations triumph of 1983" by Inc.

Beginning on May 22, 2008, five days of festivities celebrated the 125th anniversary of the bridge's opening. The events kicked off with a live performance of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in Empire–Fulton Ferry State Park, followed by special lighting of the bridge's towers and a fireworks display. Other events held during the 125th anniversary celebrations, which coincided with the Memorial Day weekend, included a film series, historical walking tours, information tents, a series of lectures and readings, a bicycle tour of Brooklyn, a miniature golf course featuring Brooklyn icons, and other musical and dance performances. Just before the anniversary celebrations, artist Paul St George installed the Telectroscope, a video link between New York City and London, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The installation lasted for a few weeks and permitted viewers in New York City to see people looking into a matching telectroscope near London's Tower Bridge. A newly renovated pedestrian connection to the DUMBO neighborhood was also unveiled before the anniversary celebrations.

RENOVATION: After the 2007 collapse of the I-35W highway bridge in Minneapolis, public attention focused on the condition of bridges across the U.S. The New York Times reported that the Brooklyn Bridge approach ramps received a rating of "poor" during its inspection in 2007. According to a NYC Department of Transportation spokesman, the poor rating did not indicate a dangerous state but rather implied it required renovation. A US$508 million project (equivalent to US$570 million in 2017) to renovate the approaches began in 2010, with the full bridge renovation beginning in early 2011 which was originally scheduled to run until 2014, however the project did not finish until April 2015.

Work included widening two approach ramps from one to two lanes by re-striping a new prefabricated ramp; raising clearance over the eastbound Interstate 278 at York Street, on the double-deck Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; seismic retrofitting; replacement of rusted railings and safety barriers; and road deck resurfacing. The nature of the work necessitated detours for four years.

In August 2016, after the renovation of the bridge had already been completed, the New York City Department of Transportation announced that it would conduct a seven-month, US $370,000 study to verify if the bridge could support a heavier upper deck that consisted of an expanded bicycle and pedestrian path. As of 2016, about 10,000 pedestrians and 3,500 bikers use the pathway on an average weekday. Work on the pedestrian entrance on the Brooklyn side was underway by 2017.
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews301 followers
June 25, 2014
A well spun tale of vision, dedication, brilliance, hard work and achievement. The stories of John Roebling and Washington Roebling, the designers and builders of the Brooklyn Bridge take their place among the stories of the great men who built America. McCullough delivers on the human and the technical front, although the construction details can get tedious at times. The Brooklyn Bridge was a pinnacle of engineering success and a monument to the times. In addition to the bridge and its creators we are treated to stories of people like Boss Tweed, Henry Ward Beecher and many other salient figures of the day. We get a peek into the New York of the 1870’s as we witness a city, state and country leaping into the modern age. Highly recommended.
4 reviews
September 24, 2007
As David McCullough is one of my favorite writers about history, I expected a lot from this book and was not disappointed. Aside from the immensely engaging story of the obstacles, both engineering and human, faced and overcome to build the bridge, I was struck once again by the cavalier way most of us take great accomplishments for granted. Thank goodness there are people like David McCullough who do not!

I've read this book and listened to it a couple of times on CD, and it never fails to fascinate.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,051 reviews100 followers
May 20, 2022
This is a non-fic about the construction of Brooklyn bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed and also much the tallest structure on the skyline of then-New York. I read it as a part of buddy reads for May 2022 at Non Fiction Book Club group.

The contents of the book can be spit thematically into three broad categories: [1] engineering & engineers; [2] politics & corruption and [3] curiosities about the Gilded age. The book isn’t written that way, it is more a chronological story from initial plans to great opening of the construction, with some diversions to tell a biographies of important characters or what happened as well during the project.

Engineering & Engineers is a story of John A. Roebling, the German-American genius of suspension bridges, who pushed for the creation of the bridge, but died of blood poisoning just before the work has begun; his eldest son Colonel Washington Roebling, who supervised the works, initially on site but remotely, after a mental/physical breakdown caused by one of the accidents during the lowering of the caisson that created the foundation for one of two towers; his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who, despite no specialized education first become a messenger between her husband and people working on the project and later – the woman to go to in order to discuss many aspects of the project.

The engineering part describes what kinds of suspension bridges existed before, as well as main stages of the construction. I started with lowering the caissons in times before not only the cause and treatment of bends or caisson disease were unknown, but when there has been neither telephone nor electric lights, so people worked under the light of candles and communicated between the surface and depth with different mechanical contraptions. Then there is a spooling of wire, miles and miles of it (Each cable would contain just over 3,515 miles of wire and the wire in all four cables would come to more than 14,000 miles), the construction of towers, the joining of the bridge. There is a lot of specific details, like the debate about what steel (Bessemer or crucible) to use for wires, how the caissons were built, lowered, how they operated (e.g. on New York side where sand was the most common, they used narrow sand pipes extended down through the roof and into the chamber to within a foot or so of the work surface. If opened, such a pipe worked as a giant cleaner, sucking everything due to the differences in pressure: When the caisson was down about sixty feet, for example, the air was blasting out of the sand pipes with such force that fourteen men could stand in a circle around one pipe and shovel sand under it with all their strength and the sand would disappear as fast as they could shovel.

Politics & Corruption - the 1860s and 70s were the period of Democratic party machines, of Boss Tween and Tammany Hall, Common Council of New York destined was known as “The Forty Thieves.” The idea behind them was simple: get elected to receive cashbacks on public projects handed down by your office to people able to give you votes for re-elections or ‘feed’ new emigrants on budget money but so that they knew, who their provider is and voted as requested.

For example, several years prior to the time Tweed developed an interest in bridgebuilding, he had commenced a new County Courthouse on Chambers Street, just across the park from City Hall, or almost directly in line with where the New York entrance to the bridge was to be. The architect’s plans called for a three-story building, of iron and marble, in the style of a Palladian country house, and it was to cost, according to law, no more than a quarter of a million dollars. At the outset it had looked like a straightforward, relatively modest piece of business. But by 1868 it was still being built and rebuilt—and ever so slowly. The “city fathers” (Tweed’s people) had authorized some additional three million dollars to keep the job going (such an edifice certainly ought to be in keeping with the greatness of New York itself, Tweed would say), and there seemed no end to the number of people needed to work on the structure, or to keep it running smoothly. It took, for example, thirty-two full-time employees just to maintain the heating apparatus. By the time it would be finished, in 1871, Tweed’s courthouse would cost more than thirteen million dollars, or nearly twice the price paid for Alaska.

The longest bridge in the world cannot be cheap and therefore watered mouths of local politicians. They got the building company’s stock, prepared to have a nice boost to their wealth, but then Tweed’s ring fell, he was arrested and supplied a lot of incriminating evidence, newspapers, either in reformist fury or paid by interested parties started to actively discuss e.g. whether Roebling, as both the main engineer and a stockholder in the largest US wire-making company can be trusted in setting requirements for the wire. They took the supply contract from formally his company (he sold his stock, but his brothers were still owners) to J. Lloyd Haigh, contractor for the cable wire, who sold the more expensive wire and additionally had been perpetrating a colossal fraud: all wire leaving the factory was tested, but on route it was replaced with rejected wire and the good wire returned to the factory to pass the test (again).

Curiosities. these range from the spiritualist movement in the US at the time to pneumatic trains. The former is linked chiefly to Andrew Jackson Davis, “The Poughkeepsie Seer,” a pale, nearsighted son of an alcoholic shoemaker, who had become a clairvoyant, healer, and overnight sensation in 1844, at age seventeen, when he took his first “psychic flight through space” while under hypnosis in Poughkeepsie, New York. A New Haven preacher who took down everything he uttered while under the spell, all of which was turned into books, a strange mixture of occult mystery, science, or what passed for science, progressive social reform, intellectual skepticism, and a vaulting imagination. (One such book ran to thirty-four editions.) As to a pneumatic train, a brainchild of Alfred Ely Beach, who dug New York’s first subway and without Tweed or anyone else knowing about it, the idea was to have a cylindrical car, large enough to carry twenty-two people, and it would be sent plummeting back and forth along its track by an enormous, reversible fan mounted at one end of the tunnel.

The things ‘in the moment’ are interesting, but also is the idea Roebling voiced in the 1884:

To build his pyramid Cheops packed some pounds of rice into the stomachs of innumerable Egyptians and Israelites. We today would pack some pounds of coal inside steam boilers to do the same thing, and this might be cited as an instance of the superiority of modern civilization over ancient brute force. But when referred to the sun, our true standard of reference, the comparison is naught, because to produce these few pounds of coal required a thousand times more solar energy than to produce the few pounds of rice. We are simply taking advantage of an accidental circumstance.

Overall, a great deeply researched story written in flowing prose. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
970 reviews222 followers
March 20, 2017
This is only the second David McCollough book I’ve ever read, and my motivation for it was exactly the same as with the last one: someone is planning on adapting it into a feature film. Unlike that other film, though, a biopic of Teddy Roosevelt’s years in the Dakotas that has disappeared from the American Film Company website, this one has an announced starring cast. *fangirl drumroll* DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Washington Roebling. Need I say more? Well, all right, that Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley as his father, John Roebling, and Brie Larson as his wife, Emily. I knew nothing about the Roeblings going into this book, so the images of those three actors completely dominated my reading of the book, as did thoughts like, “That will translate beautifully into film,” and “How are they going to pull that one off?”

The books is over 500 pages, and the bridge took fourteen years to build, so naturally, the film will have to skip plenty. Truth be told, there’s plenty about the book I just skimmed through myself, particularly the engineering sections. But David McCollough knows how to weave the human story into the details, and the Roeblings’ story is ripe for it.

The bridge began as the brainchild of engineer John Roebling, already known by then as one of the greatest bridge builders in the world with four significant bridges to his name. He won himself backers, but when the building began, he was injured on site and died of tetanus shortly thereafter. The descriptions of the violence of his seizures put me right into movie director mode. If they stage it the death as the book describes it, Sir Kingsley is going to win another Oscar.

John Roebling’s son Washington, then in his late twenties, succeeded his father as Chief Engineer of the bridge. Because he was so young, there were some who objected to him, but it turned out that nobody understood John Roebling’s design and intentions better. He was every bit as devoted to the bridge as his father was, and spent almost all of his time on site, solving whatever problems arose, and there were many of them. Remember, this was the late nineteenth century. There weren’t that many machines that could be sent underwater to build the caissons. Human beings had to do it, which meant they were subject to a condition that deep sea divers sometimes suffer: “the bends.” At worst, “the bends” were fatal, but at other times, they resulted in paralysis, sometimes temporary and sometimes not. When a fire broke out during construction, Washington spent too long submerged underwater fixing the problem that caused it, and he emerged with “the bends.” To make a long story short, he never fully recovered.

Washington Roebling’s condition varied over the remaining years, but for most of it, he was basically a shut-in. The most famous image of him, one that the movie will no doubt play up, is of him sitting at the window in his Brooklyn apartment, watching the progress on the bridge.

Note the binoculars beside him. The book said he had a telescope, too. So he would watch the bridge’s progress, and then dictate instructions to his wife Emily, who would take them down and deliver them to the assistant engineers and mechanics. In this way, she became well-versed in the principles of engineering herself, sometimes getting credit in the press for being the real brains behind the bridge. That she had brains and talent is undeniable, but the truth is that they really were partners. Emily was her husband’s secretary, nurse, and forewoman. She also served as diplomat to the bridge’s Board of Directors, and it was in this capacity that he valued her most as there were several attempts to remove him as Chief Engineer. As with any major accomplishment, it was a fight every step of the way.

Though I didn’t really “get” the engineering sections of this book, I’d imagine that for some people, they would be the most interesting part. I didn’t get all the details of the corruption scandals the bridge faced, either. Boss Tweed figured in heavily in the beginning, but worse was a man named J. Lloyd Haigh, who supplied the bridge with shoddy wire. It could never have happened had Washington Roebling been on site, watching every detail as he did at the beginning. But even if there are facts about this story that I missed, here’s one that I’m pretty sure will stick: in the fourteen years it took to build the bridge, both the telephone and the lightbulb were invented. In other words, this book is not just about the bridge or the Roeblings; it’s about the Industrial Revolution. Great things were happening. Bridges were being built, as were railroads. But in order to make our modern world possible, plenty of unknown workmen gave their lives. The movie will no doubt pay tribute to the Roeblings and their sacrifices. The bridge opening, complete with fireworks, will make one heckuva triumphant scene. But if you want to learn about the sacrifices of the average nineteenth century workman, David McCullough doesn’t let you forget him either.

And on that note, here’s my favorite historic picture of the Brooklyn Bridge: Jews doing the ritual of tashlich in the early 20th century:

Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books196 followers
May 22, 2020
In an age when simply knowing a lot about something is enough to see you denigrated and dismissed, it's nice to read a work of history celebrating the Expert and the Expert's achievements. It's also telling to read that political wits even in the second half of the 19th century were aware of this, with a journalist saying one engineer like John Roebling was worth more than a hall of bickering, petulant politicians.
I don't have little to add other than that. Like all of McCullough's works, this is a fine history of something you might not necessarily give two shakes about. But you should, because although the Brooklyn Bridge is impressive in and of itself, the building of it was a most mythical undertaking. As always, McCullough sets the event against its proper backdrop: NY politics, Boss Tweed, all the scandalous shenanigans of the time, the Bridge's place amidst other innovations at the time. Finally, it is the story of a father and son, John and Washington Roebling, the former who died before work really got going, the latter who took over, despite years of sickness that meant he was mostly directing work from afar, with his wife's help.
If you want the real meat of what America as a society can accomplish, stop reading the news and go find your local bridge-builder.
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,445 reviews105 followers
August 25, 2013
Now wouldn't you think that a book about the building of a bridge would be rather dry and uninteresting? Not if it is written by historian David McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. An amazing amount of research has gone into this history of the Brooklyn Bridge.....from the dream of a father (John Roebling) to a reality by the son (Washington Roebling). We sometimes take for granted such icons as this bridge spanning the East River and never realize what it takes to make an idea a reality.....the "bends" caused by being in the caissons which killed and crippled, the involvement of "Boss" Tweed and the political machinations that surrounded the project. This is beautifully written and almost reads like fiction. It will have you from page 1 and I highly recommend it to any reader, regardless of your favorite genre.....it is that good!!
Profile Image for Dave.
668 reviews18 followers
August 25, 2016
As expected with a David McCullough book, this one is excellent, at least 4.5/5 stars. The book encompasses the entire 14 years of construction from 1869 to 1883. Those were years of rapid growth of the country, spanning from immediately after the devastating Civil War, to the dawning of electricity and the edge of the twentieth century. McCullough does a good job of giving the reader that historical perspective. The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was an undertaking of mammoth proportions at that time. They attempted things in this project on a scale never before tried. The story of the man responsible for the design and construction of the bridge, Washington Roeblings, is as fascinating as the story of the bridge itself. Key characters are brought vividly to life. I recommend this book to anyone interested in U.S. history or the development of the modern industrial age.
Profile Image for Kimba Tichenor.
Author 1 book111 followers
September 16, 2018
As the title makes clear, this book tells the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. The book is well-researched, but for my tastes there were just way too many detours from the main story, such as very lengthy descriptions of the flora and fauna around the bridge as well as of some individuals who only played a minimal role in the building project. Still it is a fascinating story, and so if such detours do not bother you, it is worth the read.
Profile Image for Lynn.
839 reviews122 followers
October 15, 2017
I apparently liked this book more than I originally thought I had (see below). There is an awful lot of detail in this book, maybe too much. I now know way more about caissons, the bends and different types of steel than I ever thought I would ever know or ever needed to know. I do understand why all the information was included, but it was a slog to get through it all. I also have a better understanding of the Tammany Hall scandal. The political scandals of that era were amazingly blatant.
The book is filled with so many interesting people, especially Washington Roebling and his wife Emily. He sacrificed his health and nearly his life to build that bridge, and she became his eyes, ears and legs when he became incapacitated. The level of engineering that went into building the Brooklyn Bridge is just extraordinary, given the time. It stands as a monument to the people who believed in it and built it.
I usually enjoy David McCullough's books a bit more than this one, but I felt it got bogged down in the engineering aspects of the subject matter. When he was writing about the people and the times, the book was much better. Either way, I know I'll never regard the Brooklyn Bridge the same way again. I absolutely have a new found respect for it. Last night I was watching Law and Order SVU and there it was in the opening credits. It brought a big smile to my face. I honestly had never noticed it before. Now I can't not notice it. Good job, David McCullough!

10/15/17: I just raised my rating to 4 stars. I realized that after all this time, I just can't get this book out of my mind, so it must have made a bigger impression on me than I had imagined at the time of writing my initial thoughts of the book. When we were in NYC this summer, one of my goals was to see the bridge in person, and we did. I am now obsessed with the Brooklyn Bridge. Well played, David McCullough!
Profile Image for Brian.
680 reviews324 followers
October 29, 2016
I love David McCullough. I have yet to be disappointed by a book of his, and I have read most of them, and will read them all. “The Great Bridge” is no exception, but there were times when I had to push myself to read through (only a few times). This is not the fault of the author, but my own. As this book is about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge McCullough at times (appropriately) talks about engineering and other matters of science and my mind does not naturally attach itself to such things. If yours does, then there will not be a dull moment. If you are a humanities guy (like me) there will be moments of struggle, but they are short and necessary.
Like all history, this book is really the about the times and people, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge is a catalyst around which to illuminate the times. As I told someone the other day, this text is “about all of the things about the Brooklyn Bridge that I did not know I needed to know.”
In McCullough’s capable hands the era comes alive and one cannot help but be astonished at the amazing engineering and genius that allowed such a marvel to be constructed in the manner in which it was conceived and executed, in the 1870s no less!
“The Great Bridge” is about us really, as we are today, because people are people and the struggles, triumphs, foibles and follies of those whose lives intersected with the construction of this bridge are our own. Read this book to learn something about an amazing engineering marvel, a piece of iconic American history, and to jump into the lives of some interesting people. You will find the past for sure, but you will also recognize a bit of the present. Good historians do just that, and David McCullough certainly fits that bill.
4 reviews
November 6, 2012
The book The Great Bridge by David McCullough was a very detailed account of the long and troublesome building of the Brooklyn Bridge. It starts with John Roebling and his design and plans for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. When he eventually passes away his son Washington Roebling takes over and continues where his father left off. Washington Roebling and his team encounter many different problems and political situation that add time and frustration to the total time it will take to build the bridge. This book was a little slow moving due to all of the details. There were many different people mentioned throughout the story and I had trouble following who was who, except for the main characters. I often found myself falling asleep because I had lost interest. Unless you are a true history person, then I would not recommend reading this book.
Profile Image for Albert.
358 reviews47 followers
June 15, 2020
The Great Bridge was David McCullough’s second. It is throughly researched, and is not only a history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, but also the politics that enabled and hindered that accomplishment and a history of the times. What makes this history very readable, though, are the personal stories revealed. John Augustus Roebling, the architect, Washington Roebling, son and chief engineer, and Emily Roebling, wife of Washington and true partner to both Washington and the project, are the characters around which the story revolves. The price that Washington and Emily paid to see the project through is quite remarkable. Washington’s intellectual powers, the knowledge he had acquired by such a relatively early age and the attention to detail and level of commitment he brought to his responsibilities are truly amazing.

In school I learned about Boss Tweed, Tammany Hall and corruption in New York City politics during that period in history, but I can’t say the topic and events ever really grabbed my attention. In McCullough’s book they are provided in the context of a specific story and therefore much more interesting. The book also reveals though that there were worse villains in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge than Boss Tweed. The Great Bridge also does a great job of uncovering the individual motivations of different players that generated the various swings in public opinion and efforts to control the project.

While I enjoyed understanding the challenges such a construction project posed given the knowledge and technology of the time, I did feel there was too much of this detail in places. Part of this is due to my difficulty in visualizing some of the efforts and physical constructs described. As a reader I also couldn’t help but want more insight into some of the personal details of the characters: the relationship between Washington and Emily, the intricacies of the politics and relationships within the Roebling family and the true causes of some of Washington’s health issues. Despite the enormous amount of detail that McCullough apparently had available to him, some of those details are lost in the past and some of the detail provided comes across as a bit dry. Ultimately, though, I am today a great admirer of the Brooklyn Bridge, the architectural feat it is and what it took to make it happen.
Profile Image for Frank.
1,888 reviews20 followers
April 12, 2022
This was an absolutely fascinating history of the conception and building of the Brooklyn Bridge which took 14 years to complete from 1869 to 1883. It tells the story of John Roebling who originally planned the bridge. He died before it could be constructed which left the work to his son, Colonel Washington Roebling, a Civil War veteran and who had assisted his father in building other bridges including the bridge over the Ohio River at Cincinnati.

The book goes into great detail on the construction of the bridge and was very enlightening on how it was even possible. This included the construction of two mammoth "caissons" which were like boxes sunk into the river bed to allow men to work under air pressure to excavate the rocks and sand beneath. As the refuse was dug out, the towers of the bridge were built on top of the caissons until they reached bedrock. This work resulted in many of the workers getting "caisson disease" or the bends as it is commonly called. At the time, little was known about the disease and how to prevent or cure it. Washington Roebling was also afflicted with it which made him an invalid during much of the bridge construction. After the two stone towers were complete, the massive cables were strung using steel wire. Some of the descriptions of the men working on the cables actually gave me a feeling of vertigo; I've always had a fear of heights and how men can work at altitudes without fear always amazes me.

In addition to the bridge construction, the book tells of the politics involved including possible fraud and kickbacks. The infamous Boss Tweed was on the board of directors for the bridge along with others who may have had their own self interests at heart rather than the interests of Brooklyn and New York.

The book really makes you feel awe for how large engineering projects were ever even feasible. I have been to New York a couple of times but have never walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. If I ever make it there again, that will be one of my top priorities!
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,995 reviews1,104 followers
April 28, 2013
McCullough has improved as a writer since this book came out in 1972, but he was writing well enough even back then to carry this reader through almost seven hundred pages in three days.

One of the first grownup books I remember reading was a history of scams involving the sale of the Brooklyn Bridge. Now, finally, I've read about the construction of the thing, years after having lived in Manhattan and driven across it repeatedly and unappreciatively.

Of course McCullough, a social historian, writes about a lot more than engineering in this book. Along with the accounts of its centerpiece, he provides biographies of the chief players, a brief history of bridge--particularly suspension bridge--building, a discussion of "the bends", a review of New York politics and the infamous Tweed ring etc. etc. etc.

Most touching--and McCullough often seeks to be touching--is the portrayal of Emily Roebling, wife of and assistant to the chief engineer of the bridge and its outworks.
1 review
November 12, 2012
One of the best non fiction books I've read. David McCullough is an extraordinary historical writer. To understand that this bridge was built over 150 years ago without all the modern excavation tools and equipment that we have today is amazing. The Brooklyn Bridge is still standing and still a valuable asset to travelers to this day.
Profile Image for Sheila.
53 reviews
June 15, 2017
I couldn't believe that I was hooked on a 500 page book about bridge building. This is truly an eloquently written and expertly researched epic story of building the Brooklyn Bridge in the late 19th century.

McCullough, a masterful storyteller brought the history of the Brooklyn Bridge to life. The Brooklyn Bridge would not have existed without John and Washington Roebling, father and son. John Roebling was a German immigrant and engineer who designed the bridge with great ingenuity, but died of an accident before the bridge building began. Here are some memorable quotes from the book about him. "His success in everything he turned his hand to was generally attributed to an inflexible will and extraordinary resourcefulness.” "One of his strongest moral traits was his power of will, not a will that was stubborn, but a certain spirit, tenacity of purpose, and confident reliance upon self . . . an instinctive faith in the resources of his art that no force of circumstance could divert him from carrying into effect a project once matured in his mind. . . ."

Washington Roebling became the chief engineer of the bridge after his father’s death and led the arduous and painstaking construction effort for fourteen years. He endured not only many technical challenges and setbacks, but also debilitating “caissons disease” and tremendous political pressure at all times. I was amazed by the brilliance, courage and determination of Washington Roebling as his sacrifice and accomplishment was utterly inspirational.

A significant portion of the book was also dedicated to the politics and corruption associated with this immense public undertaking. Reading “The Great Bridge” gave me a renewed appreciation of the iconic American history of the ongoing growth of immigration, multiculturalism and technological progress.
Profile Image for Brian Eshleman.
819 reviews101 followers
January 19, 2021
Meh. The texture of the times and the contours of personalities are lost, for me, in technical details.
Profile Image for Claudia.
1,199 reviews35 followers
May 22, 2022
I had heard that David McCullough provides extensive and fascinating books about subjects that claim his attention so when I was looking for a book about the Brooklyn Bridge and found one by him, I figured it was worth a shot to see if the hype was deserving.

In my opinion, it definitely is righteous and provides an author that I will be looking into reading more of. Thanks to a friend that encouraged me to actually make the time to read this one.

On to the book - the Brooklyn Bridge is an icon of the American Progressive Era. Connecting the cities of Brooklyn and New York on Manhattan, it was designed by John A. Roebling and constructed under the guidance of his son, Washington Roebling, who suffered a debilitating case of the bends while sinking the Brooklyn caisson and was rarely ever seen in person, much less available to mentor the sites themselves. Of course, this was also the time of the Tammany Ring and all the greed and political corruption so the maneuvering to get the bridge construction and later the material contracts approved takes up a portion of the book.

McCullough goes into the details of the construction as well as the antics of the Bridge Company with the scandalous accusations of mismanagement and bribes during the entire 14 years of construction. Of course, many times, individuals on the company board attempted to remove the homebound Roebling or accused him of impropriety as the family company was considered the one of the best wire manufacturers in the world.

The book ends with lists of details regarding the bridge - miles of cable, height of the towers, weight of a tower, and so on which can be interesting but I would have appreciated more modern photos or detailed line drawings instead of the artists' portrayals from newspapers at the time.

Just for fun, I looked up what the final rounded cost of $15,000,000 in 1885 dollars would be today - even at $447,075,773., it would have been a bargain as the economic growth that it provided to the city of New York back then and even today would be well worth the cost.

Seriously, fascinating and absorbing. Certainly know more about the bridge than likely many of those that cross it every day. Maybe if I ever return to NYC, I'll have to make a point to walk across the Bridge instead of do some other touristy thing.

Profile Image for Crystal.
210 reviews8 followers
May 9, 2022
Non Fiction>US History
I read this as a Buddy Read, the discussion is with the Non Fiction Book Club here on GR.

I had not planned to read this as the topic didn't really interest me. It's always great to read with others, though, so I joined in. I was going to actually read it but the audio was available at the library first and I had an 8 hour drive for a weekend trip, so I decided to start reading with the audiobook. I started to play it and was really impressed with the narrator and thought he sounded like an actor I tally like. I ended up looking into it further and realized that Edward Herrmann was indeed the narrator (in the original edition CD). I decided to stick with the audio. Additionally, I wanted to participate in the discussion and felt there was more than enough detail and the newer edition audio is 27 hours whereas the original is 10. So... original Herrmann version it was! I read along once I got the newer edition text and it was verbatim where I checked so idk what was consolidated or removed.

Lots of detail about all the men (and a wife) involved in the Brooklyn Bridge...too much for me but I guess at least it's all documented for those who want that much detail.
For the sheer length of the book I expected more about the technicalities of building the bridge. There was some and it is more detailed than what I already knew but I wish the bridge and not the people were the focus.

What was most enjoyable for me was putting this all in context...NYC transforming into what it will become, the peri industrial revolution building concepts, the beginning of steel, barely a generation removed from the Gold Rush and Civil War... just tying NYC and the Northeast into some recent reads about the Gold Rush, Little Big Horn, and The Reconstruction.

America's tallest office buildings weren't as tall as this bridge at the time.

General Custer and Roebling were the same age.

This was the first and last large stone bridge in North America and it will likely outlast the steel ones that were built since.

My favorite quote...
"To say that this occurrence was an accident would certainly be wrong, because not one accident in a hundred deserves the name. In this case it was simply the legitimate result of carelessness, brought about by an overconfidence in supposing matters would take care of themselves.”
Profile Image for Michael Jones.
310 reviews53 followers
December 1, 2015
For anyone not familiar with the great struggles involved in these terrific public works projects, this is a real eye-opener. This book is very THOROUGH. I was amazed by 3 things:

1. The brilliant engineering ingenuity and hard-fought struggle to implement.

2. The totally horrible corruption surrounding politics of that day. Makes me feel like our day is not necessarily the worst.

3. How totally captivated the general public was by the spectacle of its construction. Nowadays things are being built and we don't pay much attention.

The author does a very fine job of relating many of the correspondences and legal proceedings which add great depth to understanding what is involved to convince people to try something very innovative.
Profile Image for Mattthew McKinney.
31 reviews3 followers
May 9, 2019
Writing this from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge! I give the author 5 stars for his research, but ultimately I found the subject matter somewhat ordinary and slow. Plus, too much of the book was taken up with highly technical descriptions of how the bridge was constructed and mundane details of bureaucracy. If a large chunk of the lengthy material had been cut down, it probably would have made for a more compelling story.
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