It's been 50 years since New York City's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened. It was then the longest suspension bridge in the country. Its main span still holds that title.
In 1964, author Gay Talese published a book about the construction called The Bridge.Here's an excerpt:
"When I first moved to New York in the middle 1950s, I often asked myself: Whose fingerprints are on the bolts and beams of these soaring edifices in this overreaching city? Who are the high-wire walkers, wearing boots and hard hats, earning their living by risking their lives in places where falls are often fatal and where the bridges and skyscrapers are looked upon as sepulchers by the families and the coworkers of the deceased?"
Recently, for StoryCorps, Talese interviewed Bob Walsh, one of the men who built the Verrazano. Walsh, 70, whose family boasts five generations of ironworkers, was 18 when he started working on the bridge.
"My oldest brother, he was in the business. There was a demand for a lot of apprentices, so my brother asked me if I'd like to work on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I said, 'Sure, why not?' You know? It was gonna be the biggest bridge in the world at the time," he says.
His father died working on a building in Manhattan, and Walsh himself had a close encounter.
"I would jump from one beam to the other, and they were probably about 5 feet apart, and I didn't make the next beam. And I was fortunate enough that the nets were there, but we lost a fellow out of Local 40, a fellow by the name of McKee. He went through a hole in the catwalk," Walsh says.
Walsh's two sons are also ironworkers. His grandchildren, too. Would the ironworking family ever do something safer that paid more? "Well, it's probably not in our blood," Walsh says.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
Clarification Dec. 23, 2014
This story originally said that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge remains "the longest suspension bridge in the country." We have updated the text to make clear that is a reference to the length of the bridge's main span, which stretches 4,260 feet. The bridge's total length is 13,700 feet. Michigan's Mackinac Bridge has a total length of 26,372 feet. But its main span, at 3,800 feet, is shorter than that of the Verrazano-Narrows. It should also be noted that New York authorities chose at the time of the bridge's construction to spell Verrazano with one "z." That differs from a common form of Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano's name.