David McCullough on the Brooklyn Bridge's Enduring Message

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Historian David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge, on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Don’t you think this is a wonderful thing to walk across this bridge!”  

Historian David McCullough has had a lot of honors in his career – two Pulitzers, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and just this week a gold medal for biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters – but he still gets that thrill crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

On a bustling, bright morning this week, the 78 year-old and I started walking over from Manhattan. He is re-releasing a 40th anniversary edition of his 600-page history, The Great Bridge: the Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Every few minutes, he pauses to command “Look at this!” with a sweeping gesture of his hand.  

“I can never get over it,” he said. “How did they do it? I still ask myself, how did they do it?”

Work began on the bridge in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War, “in a day when every piece of steel, every stone had to be brought to the site by horse and wagon,” McCullough notes. When the bridge opened years later, in 1883. The towers were then the highest structures in New York City. It was the world’s longest suspension bridge, and the first time steel cables were used.  

Also new were the underwater caissons – wooden boxes filled with air – that allowed workers to anchor the stone towers deep into the uneven riverbed.

“All new technology, innovating, improvising as they went along.” The sense of awe hasn’t faded. “Who are those guys, in other words, they’re really good!”

McCullough’s book, tells the history of these really good guys. There were the legions of workers from all over the world who built it.

Designer John Roebling, “the suspension bridge genius,” had proven a bridge could hang on steel cables by building a smaller version in Cincinnati. “He wanted this to be two great gateways to two great cities,” McCullough exclaimed at the foot of the first tower.

Roebling died unexpectedly before construction started, leaving his son, Washington Roebling, to take over. But he had a debilitating injury, so his wife Emily supervised day-to-day operations. 

The federal government didn’t decide to build the bridge. New York City and Brooklyn did. Manhattan was bursting, and needed to grow across the river. Lining up in support were businesspeople, the press, and politicians — including Boss Tweed, the political boss who was at all the height of his power.

“I’m sure there were doubters, I’m sure there were cheapskates – but no, it was a chance to do it, and the benefits, the profit was so enormous. And it would’ve been sheer ignorance not to have done it.”

When McCullough’s book came out in 1972, just as Nixon’s New Federalism was scaling back the ambitious federal infrastructure programs of the Johnson era.

Forty years ago, McCullough said he viewed the book as history, without any particular  resonance to the politics of the day. Now, it’s different.

“The gilded age is about as rotten and greedy and corrupt as conscience-less as one can imagine – does that sound familiar?"

McCullough admits that today, he’d like to go to Washington and “knock their heads together” and tell them to stop being “selfish and stupid.”

Putting off regular infrastructure maintenance particularly sticks in his craw. The massive Transportation Bill which pays for bridges, road and transit, expired three years ago. The Senate and House haven't been able to agree, and instead, have passed short-term extensions nine times. 

“It’s a form of indebtedness and we have to stop it because it’s dangerous as can be, he said, adding with an incredulous laugh. “And it’s how we get around. It’s how we function. It’s not theoretical!”

But McCullough stressed, neither novel nor really what endures. Studying history, he said, creates an cynic in the short-term and an optimist in the long-term.

"Even in the most dark or rotten of eras, great things can be done by exceptional people of integrity. That's really the story of this bridge." McCullough said as we reached the the other side in Brooklyn. "What we build, will very often stand down the ages as testimony to who we were, far more clearly and far more powerfully, than the politicians that come and go.”

It’s soaring, patriotic rhetoric, but you know, that’s what a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge will do.