Posted by: daynamcdowell | July 26, 2010

The Great Bridge by David McCullough

                The Iconic Bridge of America

arches on the Brooklyn Bridge

     The Brooklyn Bridge, as recounted by David McCullough in The Great Bridge, possesses more historical significance than other similar structures and stands out as a major technological advancement simply because of its multifaceted symbolism.  Designed by John Roebling and constructed with the oversight of his son, Washington and daughter-in-law, Emily; this suspension bridge first and most obviously signifies the concept of utilitarianism.  Analyzing further, the Brooklyn Bridge also represents the history of two communities and likewise symbolizes unity between them.  Artful engineering through the use of technological advances adds more symbolic meaning to the bridge, clearly making the bridge historically significant through the use of new technology.  A final analysis reveals that the Brooklyn Bridge can be viewed as a symbol of escape.   With these various symbols, the Brooklyn Bridge shows itself to be one of the most memorable icons of the United States.

     All bridges are built for usage and the Brooklyn Bridge is no exception.  For some, this bridge is viewed as a symbol of utilitarianism, for from the beginning, it was designed to support public, private, and commercial travel as well as pedestrian traffic.  The bridge was built as a “safe reliable alternative to the East River ferries” (26) on it “bridge trains would travel at speeds up to forty miles an hour” (32).  In addition, “carriages, riders on horseback, drays, farm wagons, commercial traffic of every kind would cross on either side of the bridge trains, “ (32) and “an elevated boardwalk for pedestrians” would be located above” (32).  John Roebling did design the bridge to be used as such and many Brooklyn people who supported the building of the bridge “saw it as just that—a bridge to New York” (25).  One 19th century newspaperman, Montgomery Schuyler agreed with this view and wrote of the Brooklyn Bridge that “the work which is likely to be our most durable monument . . . is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge” (549) for those who used it.  Clearly, Schuyler viewed this bridge simply for its visible purpose and not a work of art or a memorial of something greater.                                        

two levels of the bridge

handiwork of the Roeblings

     Yet, John Roebling viewed the bridge as more than just a useful travel tool.  For the designer and first chief engineer of the bridge saw within it a representation of the history of two communities and their unity.  He believed that “its most conspicuous features, the great towers, would serve as landmarks to the adjoining cities, and they would be entitled to be ranked as national monuments” (27).  For this bridge, according to the senior Roebling was to be “a great avenue between the cities” (31).  Horace Greeley clearly agreed with Roebling when he declared that “New York and Brooklyn must be united” (24); that a bridge was needed.  Unarguably at the most basic levels of observation, the Brooklyn Bridge clearly symbolized utilitarianism.

     Likewise, the history of New York City and Brooklyn is evident in the Brooklyn Bridge as a troubled account in attempting to unite them.  Some politicians, seeing this historic engineering event as an opportunity for political advancement, took advantage of the bridge building events.  Brooklyn politicians had no questions about paying for a bridge, yet New York politician “Honest John” Kelly refused to pay the New York share of the expenses as had been agreed upon by former Tammany Hall boss, William “Boss” Tweed.  This action “was seen by many as a political maneuver to replace some of the bridge trustees with Tammany men” (441).  Still, this was not the only political intrigue.  The wire fraud committed by J. Lloyd Haigh which netted him profits of $300,000, directly affected the integrity of the bridge engineering when he supplied the builders with brittle wire instead of high quality steel wire (440-447).  The historical events of building the bridge were definitively represented in the bridge.

view of the Manhattan Bridge from the Brooklyn Bridge

     Despite the political unrest of the bridge, the socio-economic benefits for New York City and Brooklyn were symbolized and achieved through the Brooklyn Bridge.  For New Yorkers, the bridge served as “a sort of grand long-needed pressure valve to alleviate New York’s two most serious problems, crime and overcrowding” (25) while in Brooklyn, the bridge “Stimulated growth [and] raised property values.  It put Brooklyn on the map” (551).  Thus, the Brooklyn Bridge served as a unifying symbol for two communities which shared history, political turmoil, and economic recovery and further solidified both as they entered the modern age and left behind the old through the construction of a modern bridge. 

     Furthermore, artful engineering through the use of technological advances added more symbolic meaning to the bridge, clearly making it historically significant and as important as other inventions of the 19th Century.  The Brooklyn Bridge ranks as an engineering feat because it is “one of history’s great connecting works, symbolic of the new age like the Atlantic cable, the Suez Canal, and the transcontinental railroad” (27).   An engineering design of the Brooklyn Bridge was the timber caisson design used by the Roeblings.  It was “a technique still in its infancy” (220) in which these foundations of the bridge towers consisted of air locks, supply shafts, and water shafts and were so immense that “they could have accommodated four tennis courts each, with room to spare” (220). The sheer size of these Brooklyn Bridge caissons was an engineering first.  Still another new technology at that time was steel wire.  This new material was first used in the construction of this suspension bridge instead of iron wire.  These steel cables were considered by John and Washington Roebling to be “the metal of the future” (30) and were “regarded by many engineers as among the most revolutionary” (30) of the bridge design features. Yet another first for the Brooklyn Bridge was the use of electric lights to illuminate it at night. This was “the first use of electric light over a river” (516) adding to the visual allure of the bridge.  As predicted by John Roebling, the aesthetic appeal of the Brooklyn Bridge continues to the present. He stated that “as a great work of art, and as a successful specimen of advanced bridge engineering, this structure will forever testify to the energy, enterprise and wealth of that community which shall secure its erection” (27).   The bridge is viewed as an artful mix of “the architecture of the past, massive and protective” which “meets the architecture of the future, light, aerial, open to sunlight, an architecture of voids rather than solids” (550).  The bridge, suspended by a web of steel construction, seems to float above the East River; the result of modernized engineering and technology proving that “industrialism need not be synonymous with ugliness” (550).  As a result, the Brooklyn Bridge gains more symbol meaning and historical significance as an engineering work of art designed with innovative industrial methods.   

above the city

     A last analysis reveals that the Brooklyn Bridge can be viewed as a symbol of escape and not simply a mere picture of unity.  The bridge, as a symbol of freedom and liberation, allows people of both New York City and Brooklyn an opportunity to escape the concrete solidity and massiveness behind.  As a means of escape, the bridge is “not so much linking places as leaving them and shooting untrammeled across the sky” (550).  The promenade on Brooklyn Bridge is an escape from city life to a place suspended in the sky.    It is a place of recreation; walks, romantic trysts, exercise, cherished memories, and for many people it is a place to go “especially on fine days, or at moments of personal stress or joy, the way people go to a mountain or walk beside the sea (548).  Instead of joining communities, the Brooklyn Bridge disconnects people from them, allowing them a few moments of symbolic escape.   

     Consequently, the Brooklyn Bridge, a historically significant structure containing important technological innovations, conveys many ideas and images to Americans.  The bridge holds a simple utilitarian symbolism, as well as a unifying image in which the gap between New York and Brooklyn physically and intangibly was shortened and their history was shared through economic gain and political unrest as the bridge was built..   Another meaning represented by the bridge includes engineering design and supplies which are viewed as works of art.  A last symbolism of the Brooklyn Bridge is escapism in which the bridge allows people a chance to be free from the cares of the world.  Overall, the Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic image representing our American history and heritage. in which every perspective has a voice.


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