In this day and age, what the name David McCullough means to part-time history buffs and amatuer historians (like myself) is excellence in writing, research and comprehensiveness. This reputation was undoudbtedly built based on classics like "The Great Bridge", written in 1972. Herein, the reader is exposed to spectactular writing and research that not only covers the planning and building of the Brooklyn Bridge, but indeed a history of the Gilded Age in New York city. With an enlightening style and insight that exceeds most other histories, McCullough defines "readable history" and in the process produces a classic that has and will continue to be the apex of literary history.
And what a story it is! Following the Civil War, master bridge builder John Roebling decides that a great suspension bridge between Brooklyn and New York city (present day Manhattan) is not only needed, but would continue his reputation as bridge builder par-excellance. His son, Civil War General Washington Roebling (notable at Gettysburg and Petersburg) becomes Chief Engineer when his father tragically dies during the initial stages of construction on the bridge and proceeds to project an aura of moral integrity and spiritual "high-ground" that sets the tone for the subsequent 14 years that it took to complete this masterpiece. McCullough's account documents this and goes on to explain the initial planning and technical issues of such a massive project. The theory of suspension bridges and all the engineering technicalities is succinctly described by McCullough and this base understanding is what the rest of the story is based on (wires/cable hung form two large towers is the base format).
The construction of the (2) towers is eloquently descibed at the sinking of the timber caissons (large "rooms" made of timber that the stone towers were to be built upon) and the subsequent details of working within them. Frustration abounds as the the Brooklyn side tower caisson goes slower than planned and McCullough describes the technical problems along with an amazingingly comprehensive discussion of the "mysterious maladay", ultimately known as the "bends". Worker-level stories surface here to give immediacy to the story and McCullough is masterful at describing them. The cable construction and subsequent controversey surrounding the contract and testing of the steel/iron would be boring to most readers, but McCullough makes this an intriguing part of the story.
The political side of the bridge construction is not given short-shrift either as McCullough deftly descibes New York city Gilded era politics and specifically discloses the rise and fall of the "Boss Tweed Ring" and Tammany politics in general. This side of the bridge story, McCullough states, is as important to the final product as the engineering and construction...again, he makes this exceedingly readable while extolling it's importance to the story. Commitee upon commitee are formed to decide on both the technical and personal issues associated with project completion and here is where the controversy surrounding Washington Roebling's health (he was an unfortunate victim of the bends among other things) and mental capacity are manifested upon the completion...McCullough is again masterful at integrating this major poltitcal milestone with the story.
The last few chapters are dedicated to describing completion and subsequent public reaction to the bridge and McCullough is superb at depicting late 19th century life in New York. The celebration on May 20th 1883 is a grand one and is placed in perspective in the last paragraph of the book:
"In another time and in what would seem another world, on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen 'on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge' "
Having walked and driven over the bridge many times, and having derived the name for my daughter from it, I can say that I have a somewhat personal stake and appeal in it. I also can say that I never gave a second thought about it's construction or the fascinating story that went into building it when I walked and drove it, until now. My compliments to David McCullough for giving us a marvelous story and book and giving those of us who've taken the bridge for granted a new perspective. I can't wait to go back and view it with this new knowledge of it's consruction and I'd wager that this is David McCullough's greatest gift...I give this work my highest recommendation.