Friday, December 11, 2009

1880s: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

To explore the era of exploding industrialization, grand visions, and changing infrastructure that begin shaping the country for its tremendous economic growth in the 20th Century, I started with the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. After living in New York and purchasing the bridge from a guy on the street, I figured it was a good artifact to learn about how it came to be.

David McCullough is one of my favorite history authors, so this book has been on my hit list for some time. The story was particularly appropriate for this era as the father and son team of Roeblings as the grand visionaries and the engineering, construction, political, and financing teams around them represent the transition from antebellum world of modest capital projects to the grand projects made possible by the exponentially improving technology and shared intelligence of the late 19th Century. And maybe more important, as told through the side stories of this book, the increasingly complex layers of politics, financing, and human inputs that evolved with the technology.

Add this story in context of where New York had been up to that point and how its growth exploded soon afterward, both physical, population, and economic, and it is too obvious to see this as a metaphor as a bridging of the old with the new. But this is clearly the first chapter of a new volume for New York, soon to be included with the consolidation of the boroughs, the works of Olmsted and Vaux such as Central Park, the building of the subway, and culminating with the story of Robert Moses. (Robert Caro's The Power Broker, would be part of this reading project if I hadn't already read it. Highly recommended.)

The book itself is 4/5 stars. I love McCullough's usual great balance of story telling and original source work, but as can be the case, the book maybe lingers a little too long on some technical details for the sake of thoroughness. Any of the "subplots", such as the lives of the father, son, and wife; Tammany Hall; or just the engineering breakthroughs are worthy of their own books for deeper inspection, if that is possible.

The other book I would have read for this era, if not already a favorite on my shelf, is Ambrose's Nothing Like it in the World about the building of the transcontinental railroad.

I am probably going to linger on the end of the 19th Century for a little while longer. Several biographies of ecnomic empire builders are tempting me.

(Read fall 2009)