Interview with Greg Jackson Part II: The Brooklyn Bridge, the Roebling Family and Everything In Between.

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After talking about the podcast History that Doesn’t Suck (click here if you haven’t read the interview yet), we’re going to move on with the interview with Prof. Jackson about his masterpiece on the Brooklyn Bridge and the family that left their mark on its construction, from the planning to the realization of the historic landmark. Born in Mühlhausen in the German state of Thuringia, John Roebling had already established a reputation for his perfectionism and his inventions. He had already invented the wire suspension bridge and prior to building the bridge in Brooklyn, he had already left his mark with the Cincinnati-Covington Suspension Bridge as the longest of its kind in the world and the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls as the first suspension bridge with double-decking. Little did he realize that designing the Brooklyn Bridge was easy, building it presented more obstacles than necessary and after he died in 1870, the responsibility fell to his son, Washington and his wife Emily, who would complete the job even though the bridge opened in 1883.

This is just a summary. Yet the juiciest details would come in the form of a podcast Jackson created in June of 2021. It was then followed by a two-part interview with Dave Arnold and Kristen Bennett of Infrastructure Junkies in October. Both of these can be found in part 2 of the interview I did with Prof. Jackson. The first will start with the actual podcast which is enclosed below. It will then be followed by my questions and lastly, the two-part series by Infrastructure Junkies.

We hope you enjoy the show and will get an appreciation of how people come together to build a bridge that not only crosses a river but a landmark that helped America be what it is today. 🙂

And so, without further ado, here we go:

After listening to his podcast, here are the questions I had for him and his responses:

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1.      What got you interested in the topic on the bridge and with that, the Roebling family?

Well, the Gilded Age is often thought of as kind of a “downer” in US history. I wanted to tell some stories that highlighted the good in the era too. Among those, in my mind, are the magnificent construction projects undertaken in the time. I’d call the Brooklyn Bridge one of the most outstanding among those.

It also has such a compelling story in terms of its construction. It is Roebling family’s multi-generational work! The blood and tears in that thing (literally) makes it a compelling tale.

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2.      Have you visited any of the Roebling sites, including bridges, historic residences, and even the birthplaces including John’s in Mühlhausen, Germany?

Alas, I’ve only been to the Brooklyn Bridge. But you can bet I walked it, both ways, slowly, admiring every Roebling cable spanning the bridge and running into the anchors. 

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3.      Did you have an opportunity to read the novel by David McCullough on the Brooklyn Bridge or any of the works about the bridge?

I have read David McCullough’s most excellent history of the Bridge. In researching the episode, I also read Roebling biographies, histories of Gilded Age New York, Boss Tweed, looks at maps, plans, etc. Every episode is rigorously researched. It isn’t uncommon for me to have dozens of primary and secondary sources. If you visit my website you can see the sources I used in that episode (HTDSpodcast.com).

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4.       You mentioned a lot about the engineer John Roebling and his character in your podcast. What are two things that you know about him that many of us don’t know about him?

Two things most people probably don’t know about John Roebling: 1) he loved his family. He worked so hard and was such a serious person, I think this is lost sometimes. But under that tough skin was a loving heart, even if he failed to show it as often as he should’ve. 2) John wasn’t just an engineer, he was an inventor. Though I might say a successful engineer is and must be an inventor. I’m slow to speak to what engineers should do when I’m not one, but as a historian who’s studied a lot of engineers and their incredible works, I’ve noted that the greats don’t just build; they build things others said couldn’t be done: like the Brooklyn Bridge. Generations of Americans said it couldn’t be done. John never asked “if” a thing could be done. He just started figuring out the “how” on his own.

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5.    When John died from tetanus as a result of his foot injury, his son Washington took over. If you were to compare him with his father, what are some differences you can find between them in terms of their character, how they handled building the bridge, etc. ?

Both were brilliant men and excellent engineers. John was more stern in his demeanor. Washington displayed more emotional intelligence than his father.

Yet, John was the genius than Washington wasn’t. And I don’t mean that as an insult, I think “Washy” would agree with me. He was an excellent engineer, but if we reserve “genius” for the top 1%, the out-of-the-box thinkers, John is the one of the two who hits that mark.

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6.  Then there’s Washington’s wife, Emily. She basically took over when he fell ill and became bed-ridden. What role did she play in helping finish the bridge project?

Oh, Emily is a hero! She taught herself engineering so she could be the relay between her bed-ridden husband and the ground. She was the co-Chief Engineer in my book. 

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7.  There are some in the history community that say that Emily should have been credited for building the bridge, but in the end, Washington’s name was mentioned. Why was she fully left out and should there be something to honor her for she was Washington’s eyes and guidance?

Frankly, I think it’s a damn shame that the plaques on the Brooklyn Bridge listing the big shots who built it and made it happen do not list her. I think it should be updated.

The reason why she got left off … I have no sources that I’ve seen in which the decision makers explain their rationale. As a historian, I want those documents first and foremost. In their absence, however, I would say it is fair to speculate the reason comes down to US attitudes on gender roles in the 19th century. And I am all for her receiving the proper recognition she deserves in our present.

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8. Since the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, there have been improvements in safety standards regarding bridge building. Can you elaborate further on this?

Thankfully, John Roebling over-engineered it. The bridge was designed to hold far more weight than it was expected to. That’s why it didn’t need much change for the first few decades. But as the population increased and cars became a thing, concrete and steel-reinforced roadway had to be added in the 20th century. The bridge has been renovated (painted, cleaned, etc.) a number of times. Like anything you want to last, it needs care and attention. 

Though perhaps one of the most important things New York has done was simply building other bridges, which cut down on traffic and weight on the bridge each day!

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9. Last year, you did a two-hour podcast on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Roebling family through Infrastructure Junkies. Your original podcast was about an hour. What are some differences between the two podcasts? 

The key difference is that HTDS’s episode was the story of the Brooklyn Bridge told as a single-narrator. I got int the drama of the Roebling family a bit more and the intrigue of New York politics. With Infrastructure Junkies, not only was the story’s telling through a conversation, it was focused very much on the nuts and bolts (literally). Still a good time, just a different flavor.

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10. What was your reaction to winning the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category Best Bridge Media and Genre?

Honored, of course! Thank you again for the acknowledgement. It’s always good to know one’s work is appreciated, and I’ll add that I was particularly proud of that episode. I really enjoyed it. I obsessed over getting the engineering details right. So getting a nod for my telling of the Brooklyn Bridge was great.

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11. Are you planning on doing some further podcasts on American bridges and if so, which ones? 

Likely going to do Golden Gate and Bay Bridges at least. Others … we’ll see!

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12. If you have some advice for people doing podcasts on bridges, what would you give them? 

I would say know your audience. Are you telling the history of bridges or the infrastructure? Not that they are mutually exclusive but figure out what your primary goal is and make sure your product matches your intentions.

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And now the two-part interview about the Brooklyn Bridge done by the crew at Infrastructure Junkies. Each part is approximately 40 minutes.

And before we close it on the series on the Brooklyn Bridge, we have one person to interview because of the book review on David McCullough’s work on the bridge. That will come in the next article. Stay tuned! 🙂

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Interview with Dr. Greg Jackson Part I: Why History Doesn’t Suck- The Creation of the Podcast

Teaching history is about the same as walking a tightrope. There are some subjects that are considered boring to many and the teacher who is presenting it may talk about it as if the content is dry, the passion is gone and it feels like a chore just to talk about it. For such topics, if one cannot find a creative way to at least entertain the audience and make it interesting, the teacher will be tossed off the tightrope and into a pool of boos and hisses.

Then there are subjects that teachers present that are very interesting and is taught in such a way that it brings the audience to their feet. Most of the time, by looking at one aspect that we don’t talk about on a regular basis, and by telling a story about it in a creative way, it will build an audience that will ask for more stories like that. It’s like telling a bedtime story with something that we’ve never heard of before but it is interesting to listen to.

This is where Professor Greg Jackson comes in. A professor of history at Utah Valley University, Mr. Jackson created such a set of bedtime stories about the history of the United States and focusing on the aspects we don’t talk about much, in the podcast “History That Doesn’t Suck” (HTDS). This bi-weekly podcast looks at certain areas of history and focusing on one topic of interest, turns it into an one-hour show which shed some light and some thought on how things happened the way they did. We have one example worth showing you in the Transcontinental Railroad (the first of a three-part series), which you can click on below:

From my own personal point of view, listening to HTDS takes you away from the stresses of teaching life, counting the daily commutes and traffic jams, into the unknown, where you just have one story teller who takes you on a tour of the past. It’s a perfect escape but you have the opportunity to take a bit of knowledge with you and this speaking from a historian’s point of view.

I had a chance to interview Prof. Jackson about his podcast on the Brooklyn Bridge and the family that built the first structure over the East River in New York City in the Roebling Family. I had a lot of questions for him about his podcast and the bridge, especially because his work landed him with the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards Winner in the Category Bridge Media and Genre. Therefore, I’ve decided to divide this interview up into two parts. Today we will focus on HTDS itself, while tomorrow we will get to the meat of the subject, which is the bridge that helped pave the way for the development of America’s infrastructure, which we know today.

And so, without further ado, here is the interview. Enjoy! 🙂

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Questions about History that Doesn‘t Suck (HTDS) in General:

1.      How long have you hosted the podcast HTDS?

4.5 years. It will be 5 years this October.

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2.      What was the concept behind HTDS? And in simpler terms, why the title?

To explain the concept behind HTDS I think I have to first point out that I’m a university professor. My professional life is dedicated to the study and teaching of history. To that end, I wanted to create an engaging, entertaining, yet academicallyrigorous way for Americans of all walks of life to be able to learn their history; the stuff that we should pick up in K-12 or general ed courses in college (and very well may have but could now use a refresher). So that’s what I set out to do. HTDS is designed to be––and I think and hope it is––rigorous as a dull textbook yet entertaining enough that you come to it for fun. That’s the sweet spot I’m going for.

Ah, the name! I went with “History That Doesn’t Suck” because even though I love history and do not believe it sucks at all, I know that, for many, formal education can suck the joy out of learning. I’m trying to conveying to that specific listener, to the person who thinks history is boring, that I get what their experience has been, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. History isn’t just names and dates. It’s real people and their stories. And with this podcast, you’ll get the latter.

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3.      Who’s your general audience?

I have a broad audience. The old school fans of all things history listen, sure, but per my goal, I’ve got a number of listeners who tell me they’ve always hated history until now. 

I have AP history students, college students, and homeschooling students listening. I also professionals listening, white and blue collar. People who just want to brush up on things.

I kids listening; have retirees listening.

I’m all over the place!

4.      Some history teachers and professors present their topics and they are boring. Yours provide some deeper insight with a little spice that garners attention and very positive feedback from the audience. How do you make the topics so interesting to the audience and what is your secret recipe for success?

Well, thank you for the kind compliment! The key here is easy to explain but hard to do: make history a story! No one cares about a name and a date until you bring it to life. So rather than bore you with the details of colonial taxation policy and mention that Patrick Henry was involved the fight, I take you into Patrick Henry’s fight. Show you his spirit. His Tenacity. And of course … the trouble he gets himself in. When I do that first, then I can tell you about colonial tax policy and you’ll care. Because you’re invested in Pat’s story. History teachers who do this day in and day out will find their students far more invested.

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5.      What topic presented in HTDS has become the most successful and talked about and why?

Oh, that’s hard to answer. I’d say the Revolution is a big hitter, but partly because that’s just where people start the podcast (at the beginning). Honestly, my audience doesn’t really cherry pick. I have consistent listens through the whole “story” of America that I’m telling.

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6.      What topics are you planning to present in the future?  They can include some on your wish list.

Well, since I conceive of this podcast more as an audio textbook delivered in story mode, I will continue from where I am now (Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency) right through the 20th century. I’ll hit all the major events. I’m really looking forward to getting to World War I though. I wrote my dissertation partly on it, so it will be rewarding to revisit the subject.

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7.      How many episodes have you produced to date? How many topics have you presented?

Episodes to date: Number 112 will come out in a few days. Topics … wew, that depends on how you break it down. A lot! The Revolution, the early Republic, slavery, women’s history, military history, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Gilded Age. Basically, if an event was important to US history and happened between 1754 and 1908, I’ve covered it.

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8.      Of which, how many have dealt with American infrastructure and of course, historic bridges?

The obvious answers are the Brooklyn Bridge and Transcontinental Railroad episodes but frankly,  I engage with infrastructure all the time! Infrastructure might not be sexy or glamorous enough for people to think about it (when they aren’t involved in it), but nations have to deal with at all times. Going all the way back to episode one, poor infrastructure (having to cut roads) is part of why George Washington lost to the french as a 22-year-old lieutenant colonel! Poor roads delayed the Constitutional Convention. The Industrial Revolution required and brought about more infrastructure. It’s littered throughout most if not all episodes.

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In tomorrow’s article we will take an in depth look at his masterpiece on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and with that, the life of the Roebling Family and how they turned a dream of a crossing in New York into more of a reality- a landmark that has become one of America’s prized treasures.

Bridge Documentary: 700 Feet Down

Galloping Gertie Collapsing on November 7, 1940. Source: bridgehunter.com

On November 7th, 1940, a suspension bridge spanning the Narrows in Tacoma, Washington, collapsed into the water. The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge had opened to traffic four months earlier and right away, it was nicknamed Galloping Gertie because of the roadway easily swaying by the high winds. It would not be until 1950 when the second Tacoma Narrows crossing was built connecting the island with the city. While the first crossing was later dismantled, much of the bridge remains were left in the water, only to be left alone……

….until now.

A crew of divers took a trip to the Tacoma Narrows to see what was left of Galloping Gertie, now part of the natural habitat, and producers at Vester Media and Our World Films have released a documentary, looking at the suspension bridge then and right now.

700 Feet Down was released on July 27th, 2021 and can be available via online TV channels such as Amazon Prime or AppleTV. Its primary focus goes beyond the mistakes made by building a bridge laden with structural flaws; it looks at the bridge remains that have become part of a larger natural habitat and addresses environmental themes that surround the area. The 45-minute documentary looks at the bridge in the past, the tragedy, and why much of the bridge remained in the water. It features some of the forms of flora and fauna that have made the remains of Gertie home for many years. While Gertie is talked about a lot in physics and engineering classes, this documentary features another side of Gertie that should be discussed in environmental studies class, as some of the effects of global warming and overfishing/ hunting have already left its effects in the area. The documentary brings together all the elements that will have viewers talking about it, and hopefully take action.

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There are links to the film for you to look at. They include the following:

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General website: http://carlyvester.com/700-feet-down

Interview with the Divers: https://www.pbs.org/video/700-feet-down-knhghr/

BHC article on Galloping Gertie, can be found by clicking here.

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