Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough

Today I'm looking at another book from historian David McCullough, which you may remember as the author of two other books I've read, John Adams and 1776. Obviously this is not in the same historical era as the Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in the late nineteenth century, but McCullough still brings excellent writing to a subject making it engaging and entertaining. If you're interested in the history of engineering projects in the nineteenth century, such as I am, this is definitely worth taking the time to check out.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of many massive civic engineering challenges undertaken in the nineteenth century, each of which came with its own unique challenges. Whether it was building a canal through the Suez, railroads through the Rocky Mountains, or building bridges across the busiest harbor in the United States, each construction project came with its own engineering challenges, as well as financial and political problems that always follow such projects. Perhaps most impressive is the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the few suspension bridges to be built with stone towers, and remains in continuous use to this day, requiring only minimal maintenance and upkeep.

In addition to talking about the unique engineering challenges, McCullough provides plenty of context about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge including the personal life of the Roebling family, the interference of infamous Boss Tweed, and the various financial issues which almost prevented the bridge from being completed. I am left wondering if this was an abridged copy of the book that I listened to, though, because it didn't seem quite as in depth as I thought it would be. And for a project that took fourteen years to complete, McCullough doesn't seem to spend as much time talking about the actual construction of the bridge as he does about other topics like the life of Washington Roebling and the influence of Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. I tried looking on the library website and I didn't see anything about it being an abridged version so I'm not sure.

Despite my concerns I think this is a really good book about a civic engineering project of the nineteenth century. McCullough provides information and context without getting overly bogged down in the technical details, such as details about exactly how many tons of stone and steel were used in the bridge construction project, which certain other histories about engineering projects can fall prey to. If you're interested in this sort of history, this is definitely a book worth checking out.

- Kalpar

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