Happy Birthday to the Great Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is 125 years old today. Its reputation as a marvel of engineering and architecture has only grown through the years.

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David McCullough has become more famous than ever with works like 1776 and John Adams, but my favorite of his books is still The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

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The Great Bridge is full of colorful characters, including John Roebling, the great designer of suspension bridges; his son Washington, one of the heroes of Gettysburg who assumed responsibility for the bridge when his father died; Washington’s wife Emily, the daughter of Civil War general Governeur Warren, who, some said, took over the project after Washington was disabled by a fire in one of the bridge’s caissons; and many more.

The Great Bridge abounds in memorable anecdotes, like the story of how John Roebling got the first length of steel wire across the Niagara River when he was building a suspension bridge just above Niagara Falls. (Usually they would just row the first wire across the river in a boat, but they couldn’t do that above the falls, so Roebling set up a line of spools and wires, and offered $1 to the first kid who could fly the end of a wire across the river on a kite.) It has villains, like the politicians who decreed that Washington Roebling couldn’t buy the steel wire for the bridge from John A. Roebling’s Sons, the leading steel wire company in America, with the result that large quantities of defective wire were incorporated into the bridge.

There is much more; all I can say is, if you have ever driven across a bridge whose towers seem to rise magically out of a river and wondered how the heck they do that, buy this book.

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