Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with David McCullough

Wow, David McCullough’s last name is hard to spell.  I Googled, just to make sure I got it right (I hate misspelling words.  Hate it.  Like the ex-spelling bee contestant that I am).

Having finished the audio version of The Great Bridge, by DM, I now really want to go to Brooklyn to see it for myself.  It is one of those sweeping historical epic books about sweeping historical epic structures, and it was fascinating to learn the path the bridge took from the drawing board to its present-day existence.

Although the hero of the story, Colonel Washington A. Roebling, is a central figure (he was the son of the original engineer of the bridge and went on to become the chief engineer following his father’s death of lockjaw), other major historical players dance through the tale.  Ulysses S. Grant, Boss Tweed, even the epically mutton-chopped Chester Arthur crop up.  The political machinations of New York City in the late nineteenth century add a whiff of scandal and flavor to the bridge’s development and construction, although Roebling and the men around him escape, free from corruption.  Roebling’s wife, Emily, also emerges as a pivotal person after her husband falls ill from the bends.  It’s nice to see a rare woman in the manly world of bridge construction, and McCullough devotes large swaths of his book to her story.

The construction and engineering of the casons, which are the massive foundations of the bridge at either end, take up a good chunk in the middle of the book, as their construction forms the most tragic and dramatic elements of the entire bridge.  The severe air pressure caused the men inside the cason (which I imagined like a house-sized diving bell) to develop what’s now known as “the bends” — something that today scuba divers are more likely to suffer from.   Apparently coming up too quickly releases too much nitrogen gas in the blood, and it’s like having heart attacks throughout your body, especially in places like the joints.  (Medical professionals, please feel free to correct me here.)  Maybe it’s because present-day America is so litigious about workman’s compensation, but the small recompense that these workers received (and some men died) is shocking.  The bridge company hired a physician who somewhat diagnosed the problem, but the men who worked in the cason were not patient enough to submit to his remedy for the air pressure difference.  Roebling, who spent vast amounts of time inside the cason himself, had compromised health for the rest of his long life.

The engineering aspects of the Brooklyn Bridge completely went over my head — so maybe this is an instance where reading the physical book would help, because there might be drawings.  But I enjoyed Edward Herrmann’s voice (I think he used to do Dodge minivan commercials, and he’s been on Law and Order), which is resonant and pleasant to listen to for eleven hours.

Only in the last year or so have I gotten into historical reading.  I’ve especially focused on World War II history, so this was a nice break from the death and destruction of Europe.  My knowledge of American history is pretty bleak, otherwise, so it’s nice to fill it in here and there.

What about you?  Is history your cup of tea?

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2 responses to “Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with David McCullough

  1. Yo Lauren, like your review; we need to visit the B-Bridge; it must be on everyone’s bucket list. Did you see David M is upset that New York has approved building a high rise that will block the view of the bridge? Talk soon, Love Dad

  2. History is not my cuppa, but I bet my husband would really like this one. Especially the engineering stuff. I shall look for it. Thanks!!

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