New Thing #290: The Great Bridge

The_Great_BridgeI've been working on this New Thing for a while. I bought The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough, a couple of years ago. I tried reading it then, but barely 50 pages in I realized I wasn't ready to give it the necessary attention.

This summer - June, probably - I started it again. I had hoped to finish before school started, because I knew once September hit my already slow non-fiction reading pace would slow down even more.

I didn't finish before August was over and sure enough, it took another month-and-a-half before I finished the book.

But I finished it this week, and though it wasn't as interesting to me as McCullough's John Adams biography, it had its moments.

For a while I thought the book wasn't grabbing me because the Brooklyn Bridge just didn't have all that interesting a history. But then there was some corruption in the finances and some danger for the workers and the story appeared juicy enough. It might just be I don't find non-fiction about a bridge as interesting as non-fiction about a person. (Or maybe in the 30 years between writing this book and the John Adams book David McCullough became a much better writer.)

Here's one undercurrent of the book that I found interesting and that I'd like to learn more about: 19th century New York City. I don't have a full understanding of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed and the goings-on in New York City government at that time, but I know there was a lot of corruption and I feel like it's something I should look into more. The end of the Boss Tweed ring coincided with the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and there was a pretty significant crossover between those two pieces of New York history.

Probably the piece of the bridge building that I found the most interesting was the sinking of the caissons. I still don't know that I completely understand exactly how it all happened, but I had a fortuitous coincidence as I read that section of the book. In August or so and within a week or two of me reading about the caissons, Stuff You Should Know, one of my favorite podcasts, did an episode on diving bells. As an example they talked about how you can trap air in a cup when you turn it upside down and push it to the bottom of a bunch of water, like if you're in the tub. (I know I did that when I was younger.) Anyway, they also mentioned this happened with the building of the bridge. It was a serendipitous moment for me, helping me understand how people went down in these structures to dig into the earth without oxygen tanks or something like that.

The end of the book was the fastest read for me. I liked reading about the celebratory atmosphere in New York leading up to the opening of the bridge - for some reason this part was much more interesting to me than the rest of the book. (I especially liked the description of an image on display in May of 1883, when the Bridge opened, depicting how the bridge looked then and how it might look in 1983 on its 100th anniversary. I'd love to find that in some kind of New York City archival something-or-other.)

So, needless to say at this point, it wasn't my favorite book ever. But it was still a decent read. And it inspired me to take a trip down to the bridge itself.

More on that tomorrow.