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Book Review

Book examines science, history of crossing Hudson

Sunday, May 19, 2013
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Book Review


"Crossing the Hudson" profiles 21 bridges and tunnels connected east and west sides of the river.
"Crossing the Hudson" profiles 21 bridges and tunnels connected east and west sides of the river.

“Crossing the Hudson” is a well-researched, beautifully written history of the 21 bridges and tunnels that cross the Hudson between the Capital Region and New York City.

Donald Wolf is a civil engineer and author of previous books on big dam projects and the history of Turner Construction. A Westchester County resident, he knows the Capital Region well as he used to head an engineering office in Albany.

“ ‘Crossing the Hudson’ mixes two elements of my history and outlook,” Wolf said in an email. “It’s about bridges, which are among the most elegant forms of civil engineering, and it’s about the history of the Hudson Valley, where I’ve spent most of my adult life.”

Much research in this book was done locally. Brad Utter of the Waterford Museum and Cultural Center and Frank Griggs, a civil engineering historian from Saratoga County, offered information on the Waterford-Lansingburgh Bridge. Richard Barrett, an Albany historian, and Elsa Prigozy of the Rensselaer County Historical Society provided information on, respectively, the several railroad bridges around Albany and the Green Island Bridge. George Christian, deputy chief structures engineer for the state Department of Transportation, helped Wolf pin down historical and engineering information.

The book includes more than 30 illustrations and maps. The book designer coordinated art and text, with the result greater than the sum of its parts.

‘Crossing the Hudson

SUBTITLE: Historic Bridges and Tunnels of the River’

AUTHOR: Donald E. Wolf

PUBLISHED BY: Rivergate Books, 288 pages

HOW MUCH: $26.95

Building history

In the introduction, Wolf notes that bridges are like monuments: “They develop histories of their own that say a good deal about why they were built, how they were built, where they were built and who built them.”

Throughout the book, his writing reminded me of how Tony Bennett takes standards from the American songbook and makes them fresh and vivid, or the way writers Joseph Mitchell or John McPhee find a human touch to bring the reader into a complicated technical subject.

Whether the George Washington or Rip Van Winkle, each bridge and tunnel has an innovative design or a daunting problem that was solved elegantly and safely by engineers. Each bridge could be the exclusive subject of a single book. For example, the Waterford-Lansingburgh Bridge was constructed of wood and burned in the early 20th century. However, bridge builders learned from its pioneering design and construction practices and were able to build longer and stronger spans.

Wolf’s selections from the book-sized amount of information about each bridge offers just the right mix of history, human interest and technical detail. In describing the construction of the Waterford Bridge, Wolf credits progress on the bridge “to the industry and ingenuity of workers who had never known the luxury of power tools but were well acquainted with and skilled in the use of the block and fall, the hand pump ... and the adze.”

Greater appreciation

Not only does Wolf do a superb job with engineering details, he knows how much social and historical background is needed to appreciate why and when a bridge was built at a particular location.

In Albany, 19th century businessmen were eager to have a railroad bridge. However, Wolf reveals factors other than design delayed the bridge: Residents of Troy, with their own bridge, did not want to lose their monopoly on cross-river rail service and shipping interests feared safety and competitive challenges of a bridge.

Wolf’s account of the negotiations — and a court case where a young William Seward represented the bridge company — is as fascinating as the account of building the bridge itself.

“Crossing the Hudson” begins after the Revolutionary War. It ends in the present day, with information on plans to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge and the conversion of the Poughkeepsie railroad bridge to the acclaimed Walkway over the Hudson State Park.

Whether you like history, engineering or just great writing, reading “Crossing the Hudson” would be a great way to start the summer.

 
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