Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Chapter 1 - David McCullough and The Great Bridge

I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a short author biography of one of my favorite authors, David McCullough. He may be my favorite author right now, but the jury is still out on that. Either way, he is a fantastic historian and biographer. Most people have heard of "1776" or "John Adams" which were McCullough's two most recent books. You may not have heard about many of his others, which are all very interesting and none of which have anything to do with the American Revolution like the most recent two. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the author...

David McCullough is a fellow Pennsylvanian, having grown up in Pittsburgh. He graduated from Yale with an English degree and later went to work in Washington, D.C. as an editor. While in D.C., he came upon some old pictures of the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood that occurred in the late nineteenth century in a small city called Johnstown that is near Pittsburgh. He became interesting in learning more about this tragedy that he had only learned little about as a child. He began researching and writing a book about this event at night and on the weekends. When the book, "The Johnstown Flood", became an unexpected best-seller in 1968, he quit his job and starting writing full time. The rest, as they say, is history. He has now written 8 books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize, with two others winning the National Book Award. I love the fact that David McCullough still writes all of his books on an old typewriter (yes, even the 1000+ page "Truman"). Every morning, he leaves his back door and walks down a stone path to his "office" - a white wood garden-shed-type of shack - where he sits at his typewriter and works on his next book. McCullough has a masterful way of telling a story and bringing characters to life. He'll bring you right into the story. His books, in chronological order, are:

The Johnstown Flood
The Great Bridge
The Path Between the Seas
Brave Companions
Mornings on Horseback
John Adams

(I will definitely review several of these books in future chapters). My favorite of McCullough's books is definitely "The Great Bridge", which was his second book and oddly enough didn't win any awards. (To be fair, I have not yet read "The Path Between the Seas" nor conquered the mammoth "Truman"). This book tells the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is part history (of New York in the late 1800s), part biography (of the builders John and Washington Roebling), and part description of an engineering marvel (yes, I am an engineer at heart). It was a fantastic book and I loved it on all three accounts. During this time period, New York was lively, growing city. Brooklyn was growing a lot and there was a desire from both cities to have a bridge to cross the East River. John Roebling was a cable maker in New Jersey who had built several suspension bridges. He designed the Brooklyn Bridge, but his son Washington had to take over early on in the construction when John died in an accident. Washington himself suffered a lot physically during construction, partly due to Caisson's disease (commonly called "the bends") which he and many of the workers suffered from during the construction and placement of the underwater footings near each bank of the river. The description of how the footings were sunk, and of how the suspension wires were strewn across the river are fascinating. My favorite part of the book is the description of the day that the first person crossed the river via the suspension cable of the bridge. The bridge was still a long ways from being finished, but the first set of cables had been strung across the two stone towers from one shore to the other. Thousands and thousands of people gathered on both sides of the river to watch a lone man propel himself along on a wood swing dangling from the newly hung wire several hundred feet above the river below. When he finally reached the opposite bank, the gathered crowd cheered in excitement and awe. The bridge was the talk of the town during it's construction. It was an amazing accomplishment and has been an inspiration for thousands since its completion. This is but a small sampling, as there is much, much more in this wonderful book.

So, I would encourage you to check out David McCullough and his great histories and biographies if you haven't already. As for "The Great Bridge", I would highly recommend that you...
Buy the Book!!!

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