Having a love for cars and driving cars, it is no wonder that I would want to read a book about the building of our modern-day interstate system. As a child born in the 50’s, I can recall many trips having to get off these marvelous roads for an incomplete section still under construction. Today, we would not even think about what alternate routes we might have to take to detour around lengthy, not yet completed sections of this super highway. Any delays we might experience today would be for the seemingly endless row of orange barrels signifying repairs ahead.
When deciding upon a particular book to read about a certain topic, I often have a number of choices. In picking this one among the many choices I had, I can’t recall any one factor that helped me select it over others but I must say this book by Earl Swift has been one of my favorites to read.
Rather than starting with the construction process, this book began with the very beginnings of automobiles and the need for improved roads on which to drive them. It also explored the multi-faceted political landscape of special interests of city, county, state, and federal governments and the inevitable conflicts that arose between local and national needs for better roads.
This book traces road history from our very first transcontinental road—The Lincoln Highway—which just this year celebrated its 100th anniversary to the beginnings of the national or US highway system that interconnected our states. Having driven for over 40 years, I already knew that North-South US highways always were designated with odd numbers and East-West routes were always even numbered roads (picture US Route 66). When the interstate system was conceived, much debate transpired over how to number these so that a US highway and an Interstate highway of the same number would not overlap each other resulting in confusion. In the end, it was decided to designate interstate roads using the same odd-even directional numbering system but starting the numbers exactly opposite of the US system (US highways start on the North-East coast and Interstate highways start on the South-West coast). Thus the lowest odd numbered interstate roads started with I-5 on the West coast and paralleled all across the country to I-95 on the east coast. Similarly the even number roads started with I-10 at the southern part of the country and moved to I-90 in the north.
Probably the most interesting learning beyond the construction aspects was dispelling the common belief that President Dwight Eisenhower is the father of the Interstate system. When the newly elected president took office in January 1953, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) had already been working on the system for more than eight years. Rather than Eisenhower, Thomas Harris MacDonald—“Chief”—the true visionary of the interstate system and head of the BPR for over 30 years—serving under seven different presidents—supervised the creation of 3.5 million miles of highways. Sadly I did not know this true story, as most Americans also have never heard of MacDonald and the rightful credit he deserves for the highway system we take for granted today.
Another structure of national and international fame that I wanted to read about was the 102-story Empire State Building. My first visit to this building was when I was in high school on a family vacation to New York. Beyond the incredible views you get from the 86th floor observation deck, my most vivid memory was of while waiting in line for the last elevator ride to the top, reading the bronze plaque on the wall dedicated to those men and women who helped the survivors of the B-25 bomber that due to fog in the area, crashed into the building in July 1945. This was not an event I had ever heard of, nor did I know that on my next visit to the building in 2002, I would be looking down on the six-month-old site of yet another airplane crash tragedy of monumental proportions.
I can’t recall what led me to the choice of this book over other options but it was a perfect choice. It again told the human side as well as the engineering side of the story that I had now grown to expect from my previous readings. I learned more about the plane crash—with historical photos—and the men who brought the building to reality. My two favorite story lines from the book were of the design and construction but unsuccessful use of the mooring mast that sits atop the building for docking dirigibles and of the competition between the builders of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building for tallest building in the world.
My third visit to the building was just this year when our youngest son accompanied us for his first trip to New York and the Empire State Building. On this trip, I wanted to be sure and point out to him some of the things I remembered from my previous visits as well as of the reading of this book. Interestingly on this trip, our southern view was of the rapidly rising Freedom Tower. As I write this, I now realize over my three ascensions to the observation deck, that each time I had a different view in this direction: one of the World Trade Center (WTC) twin towers newly constructed and eclipsing the Empire State Building, one of their absence from the Manhattan skyline and one of their replacement by 1 WTC.
Sadly another structure that I cannot visit today is Penn Station in New York City. Having a love for trains, this was another story I was eager to learn about; I was not disappointed. I chose this particular book over others since Jill Jonnes wrote it, an author I had previously read for two other building stories.
The engineering challenge in this story was of the early 20th century tunneling under the Hudson River to connect the planned majestic station in Manhattan with the transcontinental railroad tracks coming from New Jersey. The human visionary in this story was Alexander Cassatt, brother to the famous impressionist artist Mary Cassatt, and chief antagonist to Commodore Vanderbilt, owner of the PRR’s main competition, New York Central and builder of the Grand Central Terminal (which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary).
I devoured the story of digging the tunnels and the technical challenges overcome. But even though I knew how the story would end, tears welled in my eyes upon reading about the construction of the magnificent station and its demolition a mere half century later. A victim not only of the decline of passenger rail service, its demise was further accelerated by its owner’s failure to capitalize on the ever-escalating property value of Manhattan real estate. Fortunately, one of the two great train terminals from this era survived until today.
Another building book from the New York City area is about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. For my book selection on this topic, I again went with one of my tried and true authors, David McCullough. However, this time, I chose the book on CD as I was travelling to a wedding in Tulsa, OK.
This was the first time I had listened to a book while driving on a long trip and it was a most enjoyable trip. I found that the 6 hours I spent listening to this book made the trip to Tulsa seem quite short. Before I knew it, I was at my destination and on my return was listening to the end of the audio book within miles of home.
I know this was an abridged version of the book but I still thoroughly enjoyed the story. One of the most interesting things was the knowledge gained from digging the bridge pier foundations inside the caissons and the recognition of the debilitating disease for which it is so named (Caisson Disease) and for which scuba divers today must be wary. Much like seeing a movie first and then wanting to read the book afterwards, this is one story I know I will read the unabridged version sometime in the future.
This year for the first time, I got a chance to visit and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. This was in conjunction with a site visit to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a project that our oldest son is working on. Walking across the bridge, I recalled the story of the building of the piers and the lives lost in the bridge’s construction. It truly is an impressive structure even more so when you consider the era in which it was built (1870 to 1884).
These books each told the story of building structures: bridges, highways, and buildings. But there are other equally interesting stories out there to explore…