And few have belonged to a bridge more absolutely than Washington Roebling, who took over the building of Brooklyn’s finest upon its engineer’s death. The fact that said engineer was his father made for a complicated web of relationships; indeed, Washington and John Roeblings’ lives and achievements were so intermingled that Washington’s biography of his father was in part the story of his own life, much of it unhappy.
He endured a brutal upbringing. His father was Janus-faced: a public philanthropist who appeared, to the world at large, ‘the very definition of the rational man’, and for whom bridge-building, in the aftermath of the Civil War, was both symbolic and practical; but a tyrant in private, subjecting his wife and children to beatings and savagery. Nor did his rationality belie an interest in spiritualism, which he pursued in order to contact his late wife (whom he treated more kindly once she was dead), and to settle arguments with absent friends.
Given this, Washington might be forgiven had he turned out less than functional; as it was, his genius is apparent from Wagner’s sympathetic account. The task he faced was monumental: aside from the challenges posed by the engineering itself, he had to deal with ‘caisson disease’ – the decompression sickness afflicting those working in the underwater chambers that construction required – and civic corruption, New York being run by the infamous ‘Boss Tweed’ while plans for the bridge were being drawn up.
It’s clear that Wagner’s book has been a labour of love for its author as much as the bridge was for its engineer: this is a painstakingly researched, and highly engrossing read.