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Cheap at Twice the Price

The Great Bridge By David McCullough Simon and Schutter, 636 pp., $10.95

By Seth M. Kupferberg

THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE stands near Manhattan's lower tip, where Broadway and both of New York's rivers threater to converge. If you wait out to the bridge's center, you can watch the harbor sparkling in the sun, listen to the automobiles drone, feel the river and the city all around you. There is no way to describe the splendor of the view. Hart Crane wrote an epic poem about the bridge, and he scarcely even tried to deal with it, writing instead of easier things like the nature of America and the meaning of its history.

It would be hard to improve on Crane's choice of a symbol, but one could argue that David McCullough's The Great Bridge, more concrete and less obscure, develops even more powerfully. The Great Bridge is the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. It also illuminates an ora in American history and helps build a myth giving that history meaning. If in pictures did the bridge justice, the book would be complete.

John A. Roebling, the engineer who designed the bridge, was a man whom John Brown would have understood. He even looked like John Brown: tall, bearded, patriarchal, uncompromising. Roebling was a German, a student of Hegel who came to America because he wanted to live in a free country. He grew bored with farming and turned back to engineering--building locks dams, aqueducts and bridges and establishing the wire factory that would supply cable for the Golden Gate as well as the Brooklyn Bridge.

Roebling was an abolitionist, he saw to it that his son Washington enlisted in the Civil War, and he lived Irish laborers who struck during the conflict. ("No Democrat," he noted, "can be trusted, they are all disloyal more or less.") He believed in hard work, himself, human reason, and a Life Force. He must have been a very difficult man to live with. One Roebling son, Edmund, ran away and had himself jailed as a common vagrant to escape his father. His brother Washington would later write of the runaway that in jail he "was enjoying life for the first time."

Personal relationships, in fact, were not Roebling's forte. But he was very good at building suspension bridges. He was by nature a pioneer, the sort of man who had abolished monarchy and slavery only to be puzzled by the discovery that freedom is not always synonymous with honesty, discipline, and hard work.

Roebling was killed the month surveys for the bridge began. A docking ferry hit his foot, his toes were amputated (he refused anestheria), and he developed lockjaw after ignoring all medical advice.

AFTER THE CIVIL WAR Americans found themselves bewildered at their society's corruption. Large chunks of The Great Bridge are devoted to some of the things that disgusted the American people. Boss Tweed had rises from poverty to run the City of New York, and he and his cohorts were the only New York shareholders in the bridge (Brooklyn was a separate city--the third largest in the country--until 1897). At the wedding of Tweed's daughter, his millionaire friends gave her $100,000 in gifts. New York's "permanent floating population of homeless children, beggars, petty thieves, and prostitutes." McCullough continues, "was said to be perhaps 100,000." Clearly something had gone wrong.

McCullough gives detailed and sometimes tedious accounts of the infighting at the Bridge Company, which came under investigation when Tweed was exposed. The Company was not exactly a model of probity. Most of its funds came from the cities treasuries, but under its charter it was entirely controlled by private shareholders--which was not terribly surprising. The original impetus for a bridge came from a profit-minded contractor named William C. Kingsley, a good friend of Boss McLaughijn of Brooklyn.

Actually, the scandals at the Bridge Company--many of which McCullough minimizes anyway--seem pretty tame by Watergate standards, and some of the book's most interesting material has nothing to do with the bridge. Few readers will object to hearing about New York's first subway system, a block-long pneumatic tube built in dead secrecy to avoid having to bribe Tweed (who stopped it cold when he found out). It was to be a far cry from today's IRT, according to McCullough.

The car itself would have to be plushly as elegant as a drawing room, and he made up plans for an elaborate entranceway and platform, with frescoed walls, a fountain, a tankful of goldfish, and a grand piano.

The real importance of the scandals and the disillusion in The Great Bridge is as a back drop to the progress of the bridge itself. The bridge took 14 years and at least 20 lives to build, left Washington Roebling who succeeded his father as chief engineer, a lifelong invalid, and required heroic feats from engineers and workers alike.

CONSTRUCTION BEGAN WITH the sinking of mammoth caissons, filled with compressed air so workers could breathe and water couldn't get in, inside, workers dredged up the river bottom till they came to solid rock. Then the caissons were filled with cement and the bridge's twin granite towers piled upon them.

Conditions in the caissons were infernal. A third of the men quit every week, to be replaced by immigrants hungry for jobs. After workers in the New York caisson began to die of the bends, the men struck, unsuccessfully, for three dollars for a four-hour day. Fringe benefits consisted of a set of coathooks and medical care, such as it was.

Once the towers were built, a cable could be tugged across the river and then hoisted above them. Progressively stronger cables and at last a catwalk followed. From there it was comparatively easy--stringing the rest of the cables from tower to tower, dropping steel suspenders from the cables, building a roadway on the steel suspenders--but it took seven more years. That a bridge could be built on such a scale was astonishing. That it should rise triumphantly above the graft, conspicuous consumption, and suffering that had once been the American dream--and such a beautiful bridge--that is the sort of thing which proves the American dream is sometimes a reality.

Mayor Low of Brooklyn proclaimed the bridge's opening day, May 24, 1883. The People's Day. Schools and businesses were closed, and everyone was happy except for some militant Irishmen, who discovered that May 24 was also Queen Victoria's birthday.

Thousands of people turned out to see President Chester A. Arthur walk from New York to Brooklyn. McCullough gives the day a chapter of its own, and it deserves it, not only as an epic story's culmination, but as the story of a more optimistic age. Presidents were far-off heroes, almost royalty (even when, like Arthur, they were political hacks), and progress, however tarnished, meant the Bridge and not the Automated Battlefield. The scene is not only fascinating history, it is also great and bittersweet fun, reminding us of a time when we were less betrayed.

Seth Low made the official greeting for the City of Brooklyn, the Marines presented arms, a signal flag was dropped nearby and instantly there was a crash of a gun from the Tennessee. Then the whole fleet commenced firing. Steam whistles on every tug, steamboat, ferry, every factory along the river, began to scream. More cannon boomed. Bells rang, people were cheering wildly on every side. The band played "Hail to the Chief" maybe six or seven more times and, at the sight of Arthur 'the great multitude in the station arose and gave vent to the wildest enthusiasm.'

As McCullough suggests, we didn't even feel this way about the moon landing. The twentieth century has robbed us of our "wildest enthusiasm" as well as our innocence. We still have the bridge--it became a National Historic Landmark in 1964--and it carries 121,000 trucks and automobiles a day. The bridge is still beautiful. But it is no longer the beauty of a glorious future; it has become the beauty of a glorious past.

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