A Look at The Great Bridge, According to Essy Dean

Photo by Lex Photography on Pexels.com

.

In our last installment in the series paying tribute to the winners of the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category Bridge Media and Genre, we look at the Great Bridge, the novel itself, by David McCullough. In June 2021, Essy Shapiro Dean wrote an extensive book review on this 500-page work of art, focusing on the bridge and serving as the springboard to the podcast that would be produced by Greg Jackson in October the same year. It was one of the series she wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge, as this structure has been part of her life.

I had a chance to interview her about the book review to learn more about the book and her connection with the bridge. Some of the answers will surprise you as the reader. Before you proceed with reading the interview, check out the two book reviews she did on the Brooklyn Bridge: The one by McCullough (click here) and the one by Tracey Wood called The Engineer’s Wife (click here). If you are still not so sure about the review, let alone the interview questions, I would read the books themselves. You will be amazed at the hidden treasures each book presents to the reader.

Enjoy the reviews and the interview that is presented:

.

1. What is your personal connection with the Brooklyn Bridge? Have you visited the bridge and if so when?

My grandmother first took me on the bridge when I was about five. I’ve walked across it several times and I never get tired of it. I’m looking forward to doing it again in 2022. Now, the East River has always been one of my favorite walking spots, and I always spend time looking at the bridge and how it was built. Emily Warren Roebling has also become one of my favorite historical women in recent years.

.

2. There are dozens of materials about the Brooklyn Bridge, but you decided on the book by David McCullough. Why did you choose this book?

I had wanted to read The Great Bridge for a while. It first piqued my interest when I had to read another David McCullough book, 1776, for school.  At the time I was fifteen and the minutia detail McCullough included bored me, so I didn’t read it. Then last year, for the anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on 24 May I decided to make it a whole Brooklyn Bridge weekend on my blog, and this book was a part of that. I also wanted to read a nonfiction about the building of the bridge, which I haven’t done since I was a child. 

.

3. Have you met Mr. McCullough in person?

No, I’ve never met David McCullough.

.

4. If you were to make a summary about the book, how would you describe it?

It’s the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge with lots of minute detail that I now revel in.

.

5. What points in the book should the reader pay attention to?

The actual building, the problem-solving that had to happen, how much of a force Emily Warren Roebling was after her husband, and the chief engineer of the project, Washington Roebling, was unable to come to the building site.

.

6. What points in the book did you find interesting?

The points that I found interesting are the same as what I’d want future readers of the book to pay attention to.

.

7. What points can you mention that were quite difficult to read? Why is that?

I don’t think any of it was particularly complicated to read. The hardest bits were probably the nitty-gritty of spinning the wire for the cables, and trying to visualize various engineering processes, some of which I definitely got lost in.

.

8. On the scale of 1 to 10 (one being the best), how would you rate the book and why?

I usually rate my books on a 5-point scale (five is best), so a bit of conversion is needed here. I also have a hard time rating nonfiction. Probably somewhere between a three and four, maybe three and a half. I really liked it, but the book as a whole wasn’t something I loved. I love the things Emily Roebling stood for and that she took on so many of the tasks Roebling could no longer do. 

.

9. Who would you recommend the book to?

Those who like nonfiction, New York City history, American history, building or want a good story.

.

10. If a person starts reading the book, what advice would you give to him/her?

Try not to get too bogged down by the minutia details, it’s McCullough’s writing style. The actual story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge is one of family, women taking a place in a man’s world, happiness, anger, struggle and success and is the type of story that can create great nonfiction.

.

11. Any future book reviews, especially on bridges, that we should look forward to?

There are book reviews going up on my main blog two to three times a month. I’m not sure about future reviews, that have to do with bridges, but during the anniversary weekend of the Brooklyn Bridge opening in 2021 I reviewed a historical fiction book about Emily Warren Roebling called The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood. 

.

.

Thank you for answering the questions and also congratulations! 🙂

.

To summarize, we have six people that deserve recognition for winning the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category Best Bridge Media and Genre. We have David McCullough for writing the 500-page biography The Great Bridge, Tracey Wood for writing about Emily Roebling in The Engineer’s Wife, Essy Dean for reviewing both and writing extensively on the Brooklyn Bridge in her column, Greg Jackson of History That Doesn’t Suck for the extensive research on the Roebling family and creating a very interesting podcast and lastly Dave Arnold and Kristen Bennett of Infrastructure Junkies for interviewing Jackson in a two-part series. Both can be found in an article and podcast here. Sometimes it takes a team to go into detail on how a structural wonder, like the Brooklyn Bridge and make it a work of art. The bridge is interesting not just as a civil engineer or historian, but also for everyone who wants to know how America was developing as a country during the Guilded Ages and how it has developed in terms of the country’s infrastructure, bridge building and American culture in general. The Brooklyn Bridge symbolizes America in a way that when you think it, when you design it and when you have the stamina to build it, you can make it a work of art for others to use and to take pride. When I cross the bridge next time when visiting New York, I will think of not only the Roeblings for actually building the bridge but the winners of the 2021 Awards for bringing the history to light, right down to the wire cable. 🙂

.

An Interview with Clark Vance

208309-l

bhc interview new

In 2011 at the Historic Bridge Convention in Missouri, I had a chance to meet Clark Vance in person and found him to be open-minded in many aspects, but having knowledge that is enriched for historic bridges, and other artefacts. Mr. Vance just recently retired from his position as high school teacher, but has been a key contributor of historic bridges for bridgehunter.com for as long as the website has existed, providing readers with photos and interesting facts on historic bridges, mainly in the Midwestern part of the US, centering around the states of Kansas and Missouri. Because of his contributions to historic bridges- as a photographer, historian and sometimes consultant- Mr. Vance won the Ammann Awards for Lifetime Achievement in 2018.

I had a chance to interview him recently about his interests in the topic and found some more interesting facts about him, how his interest in historic bridges first started and some words of advice for those who are working in the field of historic bridges, in terms of photography and preservation. This is what I learned from him, as you read the interview:

 

182462-l

  1. Tell us more about yourself in terms of professional and private life.

I recently retired from 11 years of teaching engineering, math, and software engineering to high school students. I previously worked in IT and automotive technology. I still enjoy working with and driving my (too many) cars and motorcycles. My wife is a psychologist in private practice and her daughter is a professor at an art and design school. I highly recommend being retired.

 

  1. What got you interested in historic bridges?

My father was a civil engineer with the Kansas Highway Department in the late ‘40s before going to work as a structural engineer in private industry. He didn’t mind my gazillion “What’s that?” questions as a kid and actually had the knowledge to answer a lot of them, particularly about man made artifacts in the natural environment. My curiosity about infrastructure was rewarded with good explanations of whatever odd item caught my attention. Some of my best times as a kid were when he and I would visit road construction sites and he would answer all my questions then add information about things I hadn’t noticed.

 

  1. You do mostly bridge photography, right? Or do you write or talk about them?

My main public activity surrounding bridges is as a contributor to BridgeHunter.com. I’ve enjoyed old maps as a way to see into the past and discover things that are unused and forgotten. My enjoyment of driving back roads and hiking fit with this, and BridgeHunter gave me an excuse to photograph the things I found. I don’t consider myself a bridge expert or historian and I try to avoid spending too much time talking with others about bridges lest they consider me odd(er).

 

  1. Do you teach historic bridges in school? If so, how?

I didn’t get a chance to teach the second year class where we taught truss analysis, so my role as an educator was mostly as an informal consultant for the students working on entries to bridge building competitions. I taught an intro civil class where I got to cover infrastructure and of course I exposed my students to a lot of structural history using bridges. I hope they came to appreciate the significance of structures that their later instructors will possibly dismiss as obsolete.

457203-l

 

  1. What kind of historic bridges do you look for?

Although I enjoy simply documenting older existing structures, my greatest enjoyment comes from locating and documenting bridges that have been forgotten. Most of the time there is little left physically but I like to record the location and identify any visible remnants. Kansas City still has places where one can see the paths worn by the wagons heading out on the Santa Fe Trail. For whatever reason, I feel it’s important for people to remember the paths used in the past.

 

  1. A historic bridge in your opinion is…….

Defining what constitutes an historic bridge is similar to identifying an historic car. Anything old enough is worth preserving, and the more important it was when new, the more significant when old. Even the plainest, cheapest Model T should not be scrapped if it’s possible to preserve it. A Cadillac V-16 is obviously more rare and more worthy of preservation. From the perspective of the people trying to use objects in the economy, is would be foolish and wasteful to try to run a fleet of Model T taxis and it’s equally foolish to expect a tall, narrow pony truss to carry a combine or loaded grain trailer. It’s fun to drive old cars across the Chain of Rocks bridge but trying to keep it as part of the interstate system makes no sense.

212466-l
Chain of Rocks Bridge. Photo taken by Jason Smith in 2011

 

  1. What is your favorite historic bridge?

Picking favorites is difficult. Friends and I would walk out on the Chain of Rocks bridge not long after it closed. I haven’t been back since it got cleaned up but I imagine it’s still pretty spectacular. As a kid my family would visit relatives in southeast Kansas and I have a long standing love for the Marsh arches. I also enjoyed driving the old Flagler railroad bridges linking the Florida Keys back in the ‘70s.

 

  1. What historic bridge(s) do you miss the most?

Probably the bridges I miss most are: The Chouteau Bridge in KC. Totally obsolete and awful for trucks and cars alike, it was nonetheless an important bridge when built and quite impressive an an old, still functioning work. The ASB automobile lanes were narrow and had a reputation for fatal accidents where the lanes split to go around the trusses. For better or worse, one could have a close look at the structure and mechanism while driving by. More generally, I miss the many through trusses that were everywhere when I began traveling and which have almost all been replaced by much more efficient boring bridges guaranteed to keep concrete plants busy repairing and replacing them.

458912-l

  1.  What words of advice do you have for the following:

 

Photographing Historic Bridges: Get the big picture and the little details. Show the setting and what one would see driving by or passing under. Also, catch the details that can help identify the builder, date, and other parts of the history.

Teaching about Historic Bridges: I wish I had more knowledge about this. I found that I could engage students by providing some of the history behind modern concepts. Bridges played an important role in the development of engineering as a field, so I tried to cover bridge technology in discussions about changes brought about by developments in material science, structural analysis methods, etc.

Preserving Historic Bridges: Two things strike me as most important, public support and technical skills. Right now old bridges are in a place similar to steam locomotives in the ‘50s. They are being phased out and replaced by products deemed superior by policy makers. I don’t think there is much hope of their remaining in common use. The focus needs to be on finding ways to save them from being scrapped and preserving the knowledge needed to put them back in limited use when more of the public has the desire to experience the old technology. Each one lost will make the remaining ones more valuable and more likely to be saved.

 

Thank you for your time, Clark and wishing you all the best in your endeavors. J

 

The next question is who will win the now rebranded Bridgehunter Awards in the category Lifetime Achievement? If you haven’t voted yet, click here and you will be directed to the ballot. Deadline is January 10th and the winner will be announced two days later.

 

Note: Photos posted  but not cited here are all courtesy of Clark Vance.

BHC 10th anniversary logo1

 

Historic Bridge Awareness Month: Interview with Craig Holstein

November is coming to a close, and with that the National Historic Bridge Month, a month where we take a look at the accomplishments involving preserving historic bridges in the US and elsewhere. This year, we have seen many more bridges preserved or in planning for preservation than in the past years. Part of this has to do with cost-cutting measures to repair the structure and prolong their lifespans. But another part has to do with the increased interest among residents and pontists to preserve the relicts that have contributed to the development of the infrastructure of the US, Europe and elsewhere.

To understand the importance of historic bridge awareness, Chris Hansen had a chance to interview Craig Holstein, historian of the Washington State Department of Transportation, for his talk show, Northwest Live, produced by Seattle-based radio station, KPQ. Although the state had been under scrutiny because of the collapse of the Skagit River I-5 Bridge while at the same time been criticized for losing many historic bridges in the last decade, the state has more bridges built before 1945 than previously thought. Washington has several claims in the construction of bridges, including Galloping Gertie and pontoon bridges, and therefore, to better understand more about Washington’s historic bridges, I’ve enclosed a link with some listening comprehension questions for you to answer and discuss in the Chronicles’ forum, either via facebook or directly here. Listen to the interview with Holstein and best of luck with the questions. The answers will be provided in two weeks. 🙂

 

holstein

McMillan Bridge, the lone concrete truss bridge in Washington state. HABS/HAER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How many concrete truss bridges exist in the US?

 

Washington state was famous for concrete pontoon bridges. Who were the masterminds behind the development?

 

Galloping Gertie is the nickname of what bridge and why did it receive this nickname?

True or False: The pontoon bridge was open in the same year as Galloping Gertie.

How many roadway bridges exist in Washington state?

  1. 6000
  2. 7000
  3. 8000
  4. 9000

Washington state has only _____ covered bridge(s) in comparison with over _____ Oregon has.

 

True or False: Washington state has no book on historic bridges.

 

True or False: An Interstate Bridge over the Columbia Bridge will not be rebuilt.

 

Which historic bridge is the oldest still in service? Name the bridge, when it was built and where it was located.