Great Bridge (Review)

Labels: Great Works


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

David McCullough, 1972
562 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2011

After having read his book years ago, David McCullough made a believer of me. To this day I believe richly told narrative histories are some of the best reads ever—even one about engineering and construction. And I'm a girl.

Of course, we're talking about building the Brooklyn Bridge—one of the earliest, and still one of the most beautiful, span bridges in the world. As the book's title says, it's a "great" bridge. It is, and this is a great story.

Like all of McCullough's books, this one reads like a novel—in this case, more like a family saga. John Augustus Roebling, the brilliant, innovative patriarch of the Roebling family sells the Brooklyn Bridge (the idea of it) to the City of New York. But before Roebling can begin construction, a terrible accident costs him his life...whereupon his son, Colonel Washington A. Roebling, as brilliant and innovative as his father, takes the helm. But the son succumbs to the dreaded "bends" disease...whereupon the son's brilliant wife, Emily Roebling, takes over. It is she who guides the project to completion.

That's just the bare bones. McCullough sets his story in its time—giving us a broad panorama of late 19th century New York culture, politics, and corruption. There are heroes and villains aplenty (Boss Tweed is on hand to add local color).

Nor does McCullough skimp on the technical aspects of the bridge building. He is exacting as to the geology of the city, the staggering dimensions involved, the disasters, the improvisations, and the hideously painful "bends" (decompression disease) that killed many in the workforce.

You'll find this a long work; split it up into two months...or just get on with it and read it all in one month. However you approach it, I guarantee you'll come away dazzled by American courage and ingenuity. You'll feel yourself part of the great if you were there. It's wonderful!

Be sure to see our Reading Guide for The Great Bridge.

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