Reader reviews for The Great Bridge by David McCullough

Through his long line of books on some of America's greatest figures (Truman, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt) and historical events (Johnstown Flood, Panama Canal, Brooklyn Bridge), David McCollough has earned the title of America's greatest historian. As in his previous works, McCollough masterfully crafts his prose around one of the most historically significant and interesting events of 19th century America, the design and construction of the Brookly Bridge. Prior to reading this book, I must admit to an almost complete lack of appreciation for this feat. Suffice it to say that in the mid to late 19th century, construction of a suspension bridge on the scale of the Brooklyn Bridge was almost a leap of faith during a time when many if not most bridges failed soon after construction. This is largely a story about John A. Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, the former having initially designed and "sold" the bridge, the latter being left with the task of constructing the bridge following the gruesome death of his father from tetanus. Also a key player in the story is Washington Roebling's wife Emily, who many allege was actually in charge of the bridge project during the frequent periods of incapacity suffered by her husband. The background on both Roeblings was very interesting and key to an understanding of the personal dynamics involved in the politics and administration of the bridge project, and some of the most enlightening segments of the work deal with the politics of the era and region (this period spanning the reign of "Boss" Tweed over Tammany Hall). McCollough's best work, however, is taking the very complicated and cutting edge engineering principles of the time and explaining them through well crafted language and numerous sketches in such a way that most can be followed and understood (maybe not completely) by the reader. The novel concept of the caissons, by which the monstrous bridge piers were embedded into bedrock, and the resulting discovery of "the bends", was riveting reading. All in all, a typical McCollough tour de force. As in many of his previous works, most similar in style to Panama Canal, McCollough takes a historically significant event, explains why it was so significant, points out the extreme difficulties faced by the participants and puts a human face on the travails and suffering endured by the key players. As in Panama Canal, politics plays a key role in this story. If you're like me, most of the background to this story will be almost entirely new to you. Did you know that in 1880, Brooklyn was the third largest city in the United States (prior to its merger into New York City). I highly recommend this book, not just for its entertainment value, but for its great history lessons.
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I listened to this story on audio book. There were a couple of spots where it was a little slow, but for the most part this was an intriguing story. One of the most interesting aspects, for me, was learning of the involvement of Emily Roebling. John Roebling was the man with the idea of the Brooklyn Bridge, but he died before the bridge had hardly taken off. His son, Washington, became the chief engineer, but he became very ill during the construction, so his wife, Emily, took over many of the responsibilities. She was literally his eyes, ears, and legs, and seemed to have had a great understanding of the science and engineering of the bridge. She was her husband's secretary and nurse, and even made some of the decisions when he was too ill to be disturbed. Most of the other engineers respected her and followed her direction. This, to me, is truly amazing for the time period during which the bridge was being constructed, which was the late 1800s. Another interesting topic, was the bends, which many of the workers suffered from while working in the caissons. It was fascinating to see how they went about, through trial and error, to understand the causes and to try to find a solution for them. Also interesting was the information about New York's politics, and how they affected the building of the bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge to this day is such a wonder to view, and it is great to have such a detailed biography of what it took to build it.
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I must say that if David McCullough had written before I was in school, I might have ended up a history major instead of a math major. His style and manner of writing makes his books not only informative, but a pleasure to read, as well.
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One of the finest books I've ever read, combining history, engineering, politics, and biography into a fascnating mix of characters and place. Just a great read, and one you won't forget. Inspirational, enlightening, and technical without being inaccessible. I've met the author, and he's a fine gracious man who speaks with a true love of American history.
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It is not easy to build bridges.

Let me bring up a local case, of a bridge between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada, has led to years of heartache, political opposition from stubborn 80-year old billionaires, controversial political deals with the devil, and years of time spent. And the thing hasn't even been built yet.

McCullough covers not only the political side of Bridge-building, but the technical side well. This is arguably his most famous book, and with good reason. He makes the dullest of technical details shine. The obscure historical characters of a century past are given a new luster. The great bridge is almost a natural formation in the city now, like the Hudson River, but now the reader is taken back to the triumphal opening, where president Chester Arthur shook the hand of the mayor of Brooklyn, and P. T. Barnum sent a parade of elephants across, a show of durability that is uniquely American.

Excellent stuff. McCullough is a phenomenal narrative historian and biographer, and it's good to revisit him again.
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Once called the eighth wonder of the world, by some, the Brooklyn Bridge stands as one of the great engineering feats in American history. In this substantial and comprehensive book, David McCullough details the history of the bridge from conception to completion. Until the bridge was built, Brooklyn, although the third largest city in America at the time, was considered something of a backwater. One man, asked why he wanted to cross the footbridge into Brooklyn (before the entire bridge was completed) replied:“I am a stranger here.”“Where are you from?” asked Murphy.“From New York,” the man replied gravely.The personalities involved are integral to the story, from John and Washington Roebling – the father and son designer and Chief Engineer, to the politicians that both helped and hindered the effort. The bridge and its builders survived bribery, contractor fraud, and the many machinations of the corrupt Boss Tweed and other politicians from both sides of the river.When the bridge opened in 1883, after fourteen years of construction, one woman who was alive for both events described the public excitement as being more than when man walked on the moon, years later.
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While I enjoyed the people parts of the story, I became bogged down in the engineering of the bridge parts, may try to finish it up with the book so I can skip over the parts of little interest to me.
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Entirely fascinating narrative history, as only David McCullough can do it. One-third engineering, one-third politics, and one-third graft and corruption. A tale like this could only happen in America, and especially at the end of the 19th century. I really appreciate the appendix at the end listing all the vital statistics of the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope to visit New York some day, and a walk across the promenade is at the top of my list of things to do when I get there.
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The author goes into great detail about the building of the bridge. You have to concentrate as it is so detailed. The book is over 500 pages. I've been fascinated by this bridge, as having lived in Cincinnati for many years and seeing the Roebling Suspension bridge which connects Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky, everyday. The Cincinnati's bridge was built before the Brooklyn bridge and is still in use. It's a beautiful structure.It was nice to see the connection between the two bridges.Very interesting book.
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It is a rare book which causes a catch in the chest when you complete it. A feeling of saying goodbye, a journey finished. This is one of those books. Immaculate.
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