Building Books – The Great Bridge

After reading this book, you could say I put another “notch” in the proverbial workbench of my building book series (just search the key words “Building Books” for several other of my blog entries). For a long time, I have been a fan of David McCullough having read many of his works. McCullough originally published The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1972, at a time when I was not an active reader. Thankfully I am now. The 40th anniversary hardback edition came out in 2002 and ran a lengthy 608 pages long.

It was five years ago this summer that I actually listened to the book on CD on a road trip I took to my nephew’s wedding in Oklahoma in my new at the time Fiat 500.

It was the perfect length book for the 800 mile, approximately 11 hour round trip as the last CD finished just as I was pulling back into town. It was an enthralling story I thoroughly enjoyed only lessened by my discovery that the book on CD was an abridged version. As soon as I found that out, I knew I had to read the entire book and so added it to my list of books in waiting. That wait came to an end in May of this year when I purchased a Kindle version of the 40th anniversary edition.

Without any long airline trips during the month of May in which I could have enjoyed lengthy uninterrupted time for reading, it took me most of the month to finish the book. In no way a criticism of the book or of McCullough, I found there were times when my reading speed got bogged down with some of the background information included on many of the characters involved with the story. This level of detail certainly painted a more complete picture of what it took to overcome the challenges and build the bridge but there were times that I longed to get back to the technical details of the epic construction of the bridge. Fortunately, I have long ago accepted that the actual building of a large public project is often overshadowed by the backstory—the politics of its undertaking. That was particularly true in this case.

The Brooklyn Bridge majestically stands today, over 130 years after its completion, a one of a kind of bridge as it was conceived and begun at an age just prior to significant change in construction technology.

Certainly the father of the bridge, the one who envisioned it in the first place, was John A. Roebling head of his family’s wire producing business at the time. But while it was John who conceived the idea for a bridge to link New York with Brooklyn, it was actually his son, Washington A. Roebling who ultimately built it in his role as chief engineer due to his father’s untimely death. And tremendous credit must also be given to Washington’s wife Emily, who served as his surrogate in many ways while her husband was too ill to even go to the construction site. The part she played in this epic story would make her life alone an interesting read.

Construction began in 1869 at a time when steel was just coming into wider use as a construction material. Look at any suspension bridge after it and you will see towers of steel, rather than the unique stone of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was also built at a time when the engineering demands of such a structure were not fully comprehended and on average 1 in 5 bridges collapsed within 10 years of being constructed. It was no small task for the Roeblings to achieve.

The behemoth towers, which at the time dwarfed any other building and the graceful spans are what we see today. But what we cannot see and where the building actually began was with the sinking of two tremendous iron and wood caissons that ultimately became the base of the two towers (one for Brooklyn, and one for New York). These floorless, inverted chambers, the size of four tennis courts, progressively made their way down to a solid bedrock foundation as hundreds of workers manually dug out beneath them allowing the caissons to be forced downward by the sheer weight of hundreds of tons of granite being puzzle-like assembled on the top.

To keep the chambers watertight, since the towers were being built in the East River, the work environment had to remain pressurized with pressure being progressively increased as the caissons sank further and further. An interesting fact was that this site, as well as a similar bridge site in St. Louis, was the first reported episodes of what we now know today as the bends. Only at the time, it was a big mystery as it did not afflict every worker in the same way. The doctor on staff didn’t realize how close he came to solving the puzzle when he failed to recognize that symptoms immediately abated any time a sufferer returned to the pressurized caisson. This disease ultimately robbed Washington of his own health which prompted the key role his wife Emily played.

The bridge was also undertaken at a time of extreme political corruption. Predominantly spearheaded by Boss Tweed of Tammany hall, Tweed and cohorts would ultimately perpetuate tremendous fraud that would tarnish Roebling’s character and even bring into question the reputation and integrity of the bridge. For it would be these political machinations and others that would prevent Roebling from using his own company’s wire—recognized as the finest in the world—for much of the spans and even allow the use of rejected wire lots in the spinning of the individual wires that eventually made up the massive bridge cables.

It took seven years to complete the two towers and the anchorages that would secure the four suspension cables to solid ground. The cable spinning would take another two years and the bridge floor understructure, trusswork, and promenade another five years to complete (mainly caused by work stoppages due to New York City not providing their agreed upon funding and material delays at inferior suppliers selected for political reasons). And for much of this time, Roebling was absent from the construction site due to poor health. But his mind was ever sharp and his plans precise and detailed ensuring the success of the bridge. Driven by political reasons, it was terrible how Roebling was treated during this time by the Bridge Board with numerous attempts to oust him as chief engineer.

When the bridge was finally completed, it was one of the largest celebrations in our country’s history attended by no less than New York Governor Grover Cleveland and US President Chester Arthur (vice president to the assassinated James Garfield).

But beyond simply my interest in wanting to read about the building of the bridge, a more personal reason was that my oldest son, for the three years he lived in New York, had an active role in the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park, a remarkable green space created through the repurposing of the old eye-sore Brooklyn wharves sadly decaying in the shadows of the namesake bridge.

And it was upon the occasion of a visit there and tour of the park under construction that I got to walk from New York to Brooklyn on the century old promenade just like millions upon millions of people have been able to since its completion in 1883 thanks to John A. Roebling, Washington A. Roebling, and Emily Warren Roebling.

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