The Demand for Equality in Historic Bridge Preservation: How Metal Truss Bridges should receive just as much recognition as Covered Bridges

Albright Bridge spanning the Boone River south of Webster City. Photo taken in August 2011

Foreword: When we think of historic bridges and US culture and history, two points come to mind, and these are based on a questionnaire conducted last year. The first point is most people will relate the US with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. From a German point of view, it is obvious as they were the works of two German-born civil engineers- Joseph Strauss (who was born to German immigrants in Cincinnati) and John (or Germans would call him Johann) Augustus Roebling, who originated from Mühlhausen in western Thuringia. These two bridges are icons as they were built during economic hardships and using the labor of people wanting to work to make a living, let alone make ends meet. One will find both bridges used as one of the symbols of American pride.  The second point is when it comes to bridge types that are popular in the eyes of the Americans (and those visiting the US), the covered bridges- those built of wood- have the podium hands down.  They go as far back as the 1700s, with the majority of those still standing today being built between 1830 and 1880. Regardless of color and size, design and appearance, these covered bridges are a symbol of love- where lovers meet- and shelter from the rain.  This love affair with covered bridges goes further back than the “Bridges of Madison County,” a film produced in 1994 with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep that takes place in Iowa and has made Madison County a household name and its association with covered bridges. Apart from the ones Madison County and places in southeastern Iowa, one can also find massive amounts of these unique vintage structures in Ohio, Pennsylvania and the New England states. Several articles have been written about these structures, including the latest one on the covered bridges in Pennsylvania and in particular, the Kissing Bridge in Lawrence County. A link found here: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11286/1181459-55-0.stm.

 

Marysville Covered Bridge near Knoxville in Marion County. Photo taken in August 2011

Yet, despite receiving massive support from state and local governments in renovating and upkeeping the bridges, one has to ask if other bridge types are receiving the same amount of treatment as the ones I mentioned.  In an editorial in response to the Kissing Bridge article written by Nathan Holth, the answer to that question is clearly no, and the reasons are obvious, as it will be interpreted from my point of view. If one would rank the historic bridges needing funding either for maintenance or for conversion into a place of recreation, the bridge types needing the most attention are first and foremost the covered bridges, followed by deck arches made of concrete, stone, or brick, and lastly suspension bridges. Down at the bottom, are the bridges made of metal- in particular, cantilever truss, truss and stringer (beam). While stringer bridges have the least value of the bottom three, the other two have been the most neglected as they have been dubbed as bridges that eventually rust and corrode away, too expensive to maintain (even with a simple paint job and replacing the tiny parts that keep them together), and simply too dangerous. They are also a target for scrap metal as some people have successfully dismantled them illegally just so they can get as much money out of the deal as possible; especially since metal prices have skyrocketed over the years.  Examples of bridges that have fallen victim to missing metal parts have occurred in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, but other states have been hit but not reported, at least not in the newspapers. And lastly, in light of the I-35W Bridge collapse on 2 August, 2007 which killed 13 people and injured as many as 115, especially the cantilever truss types are being targeted for fast-track replacement fearing a weakening of one section could bring the whole bridge down- a myth that has not only yet to come true but one which a little doctoring up of weak sections at a price of $1000 will prolong the bridge’s life by 30-40 more years, a practice that has been done in places outside the US, even Germany.  This is better than having to replace the structure with that whose life is only 50 years and it comes at a cost of millions of dollars; most of which comes out of the taxpayer’s pockets.

Tremaine Bridge spanning the Boone River south of the Albright Bridge in Hamilton County. Photo taken in August 2011

The years of misunderstanding and neglect overshadow the beauty of many of the bridge types that are target of metal. The truss types may be common, like the Pratt, Parker, Warren, etc., but they were products of previous truss types that were rare and unique. One can see a fine Camelback truss bridge like the Tremaine Bridge in Hamilton County Iowa, one of the rarest in the state and even the country, but will see even rarer ones like the bowstring arch bridges, the longest of which can be found near Mankato with the Kern Bridge, at 190 feet -only surpassed by the Blackfriar’s Bridge in Ontario (Canada).  The portal bracing of the overhead truss bridges represent a signature by the bridge builder; a symbol of how truss bridges were developed.  While one will find the common A-frame portal bracing, like the Albright Bridge- located down river from the Tremaine, there are many unique ornamental designs that can be found on some bridges built in the 1880s but highly ignored, like the Hardin City Bridge in neighboring Hardin County. And finally the historic connection of many bridges- regardless of type- are the most ignored for even though they are the product of hard work and innovation- a signature of the great age of Industrialization between 1870 and 1920- let alone the identification of local culture- they are rarely mentioned in the history books and they mostly go unmentioned except in oral history.

Fortunately many agencies and organizations in the private and public sectors have seen the historic value these structures do have and are taking measures to preserve them for the next generation to appreciate. They have involved the government, applied for grants, and done fund-raisers. Yet still, more needs to be done to ensure that these structures receive as much treatment as the covered bridges, let alone the icons that many people associate America with. This includes having more funds available, strengthening the existing preservation laws (and making them transparent) and involving the politicians who are willing to support the initiatives. The question is how to do that?

Therefore I would like to share Mr. Holth’s letter and the one which gave him an incentive to write this and would like to ask you a pair of questions: 1. Do you think that the current grants and other means of support are encouraging or discouraging historic bridge preservation and 2. If there was a way to improve the policies on preserving places of historic interest (and in particular, historic bridges), what would it be?  I’m looking forward to your input on this topic.

 

Author’s Note:

Special thanks to Nathan Holth for allowing me to put this topic and his letter to the attention of the audience. Mr. Holth runs a website called Historic Bridges.org, which looks at the problems and ways bridges can be restored, using many examples of bridges he has visited and documented since it has been in operation in 2003. He resides in Michigan and is a social studies teacher.

Link to the article: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11286/1181459-55-0.stm

Here is his response below:

________________________________________________

Hello:

I saw your article on Pennsylvania’s historic covered bridges in the Post Gazette and I wanted to suggest that a good followup article might be one that explores the Commonwealth’s historic iron and steel truss bridges.

I have been photo-documenting historic bridges since 2003 and from Day 1 I have been both shocked and frustrated at how the highway agencies, tourism agencies, the media, and even the public at large have this immense interest in covered bridges yet at the same time, metal truss bridges, rich in both beauty and heritage, are ignored and often demolished and replaced with new bridges.

Your article mentioned that Pennsylvania has one of the largest collection of covered bridges in the country. Nearly all of these bridges have been beautifully cared for and preserved. Did you know that Pennsylvania also could claim that same statement for historic metal truss bridges? Further, did you know that despite that fact, Pennsylvania likely has one of the worst track records in the country for actually preserving these metal truss bridges?

It is in my opinion both imbalanced and unfair to spend tax dollars preserving nearly every covered bridge in the Commonwealth, while at the same time hardly spending any money to preserve historic metal truss bridges in Pennsylvania. Moreover, call me crazy, but when I think of what defines Pennsylvania’s heritage and history, I think of the iron and steel industry. What better expression of that heritage than the metal truss bridge? While many of the steel mills that Pennsylvania once have no longer operate and have been demolished, the products of those mills remain in the form of these bridges.

Your article actually touches directly on a very striking example of this imbalance of metal truss bridges versus covered bridges. You mention a map that Somerset County produces that guides tourists to historic covered bridges in the county. Why doesn’t the county include its historic metal truss bridges? Somerset County is home to a very impressive collection of historic metal truss bridges. Somerset County is home to the Bollman Bridge, a truss bridge that is partially made of cast iron and was built in 1871. Unlike many covered bridges which have had their materials replaced and design changed over their lives, the materials seen on this bridge are the same materials that were there in 1871. Cast iron truss bridges are also one of the rarest bridge types in the country, far more rare than covered bridges. And how can they ignore the beautifully lightweight beams and the ornate builder plaque of the Maust Bridge? Metal truss bridges do not look anything like covered bridges, but they are extremely beautiful. Their economical use of materials makes these bridges look so lightweight they almost appear to defy physics as they carry traffic. Many of them have decorative details including builder plaques and ornamental steel bracing. And unlike most covered bridges, visitors can stand on a metal truss bridge and enjoy an open, unrestricted view of the rivers these bridges cross. Below is a partial list showing some of the best metal truss bridges in Somerset County.

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/bollman/

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/moser/

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/lenhart/

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/northstreetmeyersdale/

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/whisperingpines/

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/depotst/

http://www.historicbridges.org/pennsylvania/bender/

Finally, it is worth noting that the exact same thing goes on in Washington and Greene Counties. Both counties heavily promote their covered bridges but little is done with their amazing collections of historic metal truss bridges.

 

 

It breaks my heart to think of all the tourists who use these covered bridge tour guides and probably drive right by these bridges, unaware of their existence and significance.

 

 

It is my opinion that an article or a series of articles exploring historic metal truss bridges in Pennsylvania would be unique content for the newspaper and of interest to readers. It certainly would be some subject matter that would be fresh and new. You can explore all the historic bridges in Pennsylvania that I have visited on my website here: www.historicbridges.org/map_penn.htm. Another excellent resource on historic bridges in Pennsylvania is located at www.bridgemapper.com.

 

 

Thanks,

-Nathan Holth

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One Response to The Demand for Equality in Historic Bridge Preservation: How Metal Truss Bridges should receive just as much recognition as Covered Bridges

  1. Thanks for such an insightfull post. I’ll be back for far much more of one’s future post. Thanks

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