Binging for Bridges: How Bing, Google Earth, and Yahoo Maps are helping bridgehunters find historic bridges

Riverton Railroad (now pedestrian) Bridge near Pittsburgh. Photo taken in August 2010

In the past six months in the Historic Bridges of the US website (based out of Cape Girardeau, Missouri) one has seen an increase in the number of bridges posted on the website, some of which present details of the bridges’ appearance from up above.    While some bridges are easy to find as they are on well-traveled gravel roads, others are found in hard-to-reach areas, encouraging bridge photographers to walk through waist high weeds and marsh areas to find them. In either case, the map programs, offered by Microsoft’s Bing, Google Earth, and Yahoo Maps are providing bridgehunters and photographers with an opportunity to find and track down the bridges that they want to visit and photograph them without having to travel around to find them at random, which could be time-consuming and take up a lot of money for gas.
The map programs can work in two ways. If a bridge posted on the website has a GPS coordinate on it, you can easily zoom in just by clicking on the satellite feature on each of the program. In some cases, one will have to use a bird’s eye view to get a closer look at the bridge and its surroundings. For bridges that you are looking for but do not have  GPS coordinates, you can simply use the street markings to help find the right bridge and then mark the coordinates, should the bridge be the right location.  There are several advantages to using this program.
It helps a person pinpoint the bridge that he/she wants to go to just by going by the GPS coordinates and the directions that go along with that. This was a very useful tool during my bridgehunting tour through Copenhagen and parts of the USA last summer as I found as many bridges through this mechanism than by using the traditional maps, which unless you mark the bridge type or know a shortcut by driving through someone else’s property with permission, that it is rendered useless. Some of the bridges that I found through this mechanism included those that were out of the way and required some walking time, as it was the case with the Swensrud Bridge, located at the Minnesota/Iowa border north of Northwood, an 1880 iron truss bridge that spans the Shell Rock River and is part of the state natural habitat site.

Swensrud Bridge at the Swensrud State Wildlife Habitat near Northwood, Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011

In some cases, you can also identify the bridge type and the features of a structure that was found through the maps but is out of reach in terms of driving time.  This is a difficult task when looking overhead through satellite view but it is more effective with bird’s eye view, which provides an angular view from above. Many through truss bridges have been classified just by zooming in as much as possible and using the expert knowledge of bridge type. The Coal Bank Hill Bridge, located north of Eldora (in Hardin County, Iowa) spanning the Iowa River is one of those examples. Built in 1910 by the Iowa Bridge Company replacing an 1881 through truss bridge, the bridge is inaccessible from both ends because it is on private property. Yet according to the map programs, you can identify the bridge type and the portal bracing from above: a Parker through truss bridge with an A-frame portal bracing.
It also helps you update the information on the current status of the bridges and therefore informing other interested parties on the areas that they can go to for photo opportunities while at the same time, avoid some areas that were once populated with historic bridges but are now reduced to only one or none at all. This can be a blessing or a curse, pending on how passionate a bridge lover someone is.  I found that for a person who is a novice in historic bridges, an area that is clumped with at least 8 historic bridges within a radius of up to 100km, like the ones in Fayette and Winneshiek Counties in northeastern Iowa or in areas to the east, like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are the most likely places to visit and photograph than in areas where only a few historic bridges exist, if any at all.

Fox Road Bridge over the Volga River at the state forest in Fayette County, Iowa- one of over two dozen that can eb found today. Photo taken in August 2011

And for some areas whose numerous historic bridges had once existed on the landscape but have long since disappeared, like the ones in Clay County, Minnesota (one of the majority of counties in the state with no historic bridges remaining), one can simply drive through the region enroute to the areas where historic bridges are populous. It depends on the bridge types one is looking for and what the cutoff date is for the construction of these precious works of art.
There are some drawbacks to bridge binging, a couple of which have been experimented already and are highly discouraged. First and foremost, one cannot cut and post onto anyone’s website without explicit approval by the providers, namely Microsoft for Bing, Google for Google Map and Yahoo for Yahoo Maps.  Even if approval is granted, one has to pay thousands of dollars in user’s fees to access the programs.
Secondly it can be difficult to identify bridge types without having a contradiction from other contributors. A factor contributing to this argument is the inability of some of the programs to zoom in as close as possible to identify the location and aesthetics. I’ve found that truss bridges (in particular, through truss bridges), suspension, cantilever and other high bridges are easier to identify than bridges with low railings and whose span is short in height, like trestle, slab, beam, girder and certain deck arch bridges.  In other cases, there are some bridges one wants to find that may still exist but the views are so blurry that it is difficult to determine whether the historic bridge one is looking for is there or not. Sometimes it is worth asking the local or state engineer just to make sure as it will save the person all the problems attributed to travelling to the historic bridge site to see that it was removed before the opportunity was there to see and photograph it. This actually happened during one of the tours through western Pennsylvania in 2010, where the Kreitz Road Bridge in Crawford County  was supposed to be in place at the time of the visit, but wasn’t because it was being replaced. Fortunately, I found a souvenir from that bridge in a form of a gusset plate that is now sitting on display in my office at the university in Germany.

Kreitz Road Bridge undergoing a complete makeover at the time of the visit.

And lastly, it does encourage some photographers to encroach onto one’s property to photograph the bridge illegally. This has caused numerous problems among property owners, including those wanting a bridge removed but have not gotten their wish yet. This was the case with the West Avenue Bridge in Youngstown, Ohio and the Riverton Railroad and Highway Bridges in Pennsylvania during my bridgehunting tour in 2010, and a small bridge in Fayette County, Iowa a year later (the latter of which is in a later column on Fayette County’s historic bridges). This argument can be corrected just by asking for permission to use their property for photographing purpose. While there is a chance that it could be denied, four times out of five, the request could be granted and the photographer could be getting more then his/her bargain’s worth regarding bridge facts, additional contacts, and additional bridges worth looking for. This was my case with a couple bridges in Warren County, Iowa during my tour last summer but learning a valuable lesson from my experience with the people I was confronted with previously.
To sum up on this topic, there are many benefits to using the satellite maps to locate and identify historic bridges if they know what they are looking for. You can use it to locate the bridges you want to visit on your itinerary. You can also identify which ones are still in service and which ones have been replaced to inform others who may be visiting the area. And the views themselves can be something to look forward to when finding historic bridges, whether they are located off a well-traveled road going past farm places or if they are abandoned waiting for someone to photograph it and appreciate it and the builders for contributing to the history of the Industrialization movement in the US and elsewhere.  In either case, it helps you to get to the sites more quickly without wasting time and gas, plus you can visit and photograph as many of the sites as possible. This is a blessing for many states and regions whose population of historic bridges are dwindling fast despite very tight budgets for even the tiniest repairs on them. But it is unknown how long that grace period is going to last….
FAST FACT: During my binging adventures I’ve done myself, I’ve found some very shocking results of the historic bridges that had once existed 15 years ago but have long since disappeared. Minnesota (my place of birth)  seems to be on the path of Pennsylvania’s in terms of wiping out its number of bridges.  While the state has tried to save at least three dozen structures, many of them are facing extinction that is faster than a blink of an eye. Over half of the counties have one or no historic bridges left, including Rock, Swift, Clay, McLeod, Cottonwood, Nobles, Jackson, Martin, Freeborn, Waseca, and Watonwan Counties, just to name a few. 20 years earlier, at least four pre-1940 historic bridges were in service.
There are several states, like South Dakota, whose counties have numerous historic bridges that are closed to traffic because of structural deficiencies. One can tell from the less use of the approaches and the barriers seen through the satellite images.  Hardest hit areas are in the southeast in Yankton, Bon Homme, and Lincoln Counties (just to name a few), where the population is the most dense.
Apart from the states east of the Mississippi River, Iowa may be leading the country with its high number of historic bridges that are still in use- if not at least in the top 5. Most of the bridges found through binging are in the eastern half of the state especially those near the Mississippi River, where the tributaries empty into.
NEWS FLYER: As we are on the same page, a latest survey reveals that South Dakota is ranked fifth in the country with regards to bridges that are in dire need of repairs. The top honors go to Pennsylvania, followed by Oklahoma, Iowa and Rhode Island. Some of the areas hardest hit are the east central and southeast corners of the state, where many bridges were closed to all traffic because of structural concerns.

Link: http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/article_7c24cbd4-56a9-11e0-b2d8-001cc4c03286.html

This includes a 1907 Pratt pony truss bridge spanning the Big Sioux River in Brookings County, which was built by the Iowa Bridge Company but was closed to traffic in December 2010. It is up for sale for a limited time. Should no one take the offer, the planks will be salvaged for use on other bridges, while the truss structure itself will be scrapped.
Link: http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/article_d05fc600-111b-11e0-87db-001cc4c002e0.html
Beadle County in east central South Dakota is one of the hardest hit areas with regard to structurally deficient bridges and disasters, as two wooden beam bridges were destroyed. One collapsed near Lake Byron over Foster Creek after a school bus drove over it in September 2010 and another was destroyed by an arsonist near Cavour this past November.
Links: http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/officials-say-arson-to-blame-for-burned-beadle-county-bridge/article_ed021886-048f-11e1-bf30-001cc4c03286.html

http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/article_3ceb91ce-ca3a-11df-82b9-001cc4c002e0.html

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