Take Pride in America’s Bridges

The Golden Gate Bridge with the USS Iowa crossing underneath it. Two historic events on that day: The bridge turned 75 and the battleship bowed out with a final voyage to San Pedro to be decommissioned. Photo Copyright Craig Philpott used with permission for educational and non profit use only 2012

Each country has a bridge or a set of bridges which one can associate with on an international scale. France is famous for its bridges along the Rhone and Seine as well as the Millau Viaduct. Italy has the Rialto and the bridges of Florence and Venice. Canada has the Quebec Bridge and the Lions Gate. While we have two bridges in the US we can take pride in- the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate, the one that has received more recognition than the other from a foreigner’s point of view is the Golden Gate Bridge

At 75 years of age, the golden girl was the work of engineering genius Joesph Strauss and the hundreds of workers who spent eight years creating a tall orange monster that rose from the water, spanned the Golden Gate connecting San Francisco and the rest of the northern half of the Pacific Coast and created an image that is breath-taking and typical of San Francisco. It is one of the most internationally recognized structures that one can associate with, especially when it comes to the question of being typically American.

Beneath this image lies a dark side to America’s infrastructure and in particular its bridges. While most Americans take pride in the golden girl and maintain its upkeep, the majority of the bridges in America have become a victim of modernization, where old highly prized works of architecture constructed between 1860 and 1930 are becoming prey to bland architectural works that engineers and highway agencies tout as a step moving forward but in all reality are real eyesores, high maintenance, and in the end, last a fraction as long as their predecessors.  Too many examples of bridges lost can be found, whether it was the Manchester and Point Bridges of Pittsburgh, The Grace and Pearlman Bridges in Charleston, South Carolina, the Fort Steuben Bridge near Wheeling, West Virginia, Eagle Point Bridge in Dubuque, Iowa, The New Franklin Viaduct in Missouri, just to name a few.  These were works of  art that started in the steel mills as bridge parts or quarries as stone pieces that were transported hundreds or even thousands of miles to their final destination where they were erected on site. It is unknown how many workers on average were responsible for putting these structures together and integrating them into the fabric of America’s transportation system, but the number is huge.

It is unknown why these bridges had to be replaced except to say that there are too many factors, whether it is due to a lack of maintenance of the structures or a lack of interest in preserving these structures or even a lack of funding needed to preserve them. In either case, what we are seeing are more dollars and sense and less of the history and culture that these bridges stand for. It is like there is a lack of appreciation towards these historic structures and all of the toil and energy that it took to build them. It makes a person wonder if the wrecking ball will come for the more recognized structures, like the Golden Gate Bridge in favor of a cable-stayed bridge that has a lack of taste toward the city of San Francisco and America….

Fortunately though, it is not the case. The Golden Gate Bridge is alive and well, thanks to all the money and effort needed in maintaining the structure. As for the other historic bridges that are still standing, there are a growing number of Americans that still appreciate them and are taking the efforts to save them for others to see, whether it is incorporating them into a bike trail network, as we’re seeing more and more of that, or creating a park for these bridges, like the one near Battle Creek, Michigan and Iowa City. In places like Indiana and Texas, bridges are being refurbished, piece by piece, to serve traffic for many years to come. And those that are still in use but are approaching the end of their service life, there are more considerations to saving them for reuse instead of demolishing them. The mentality of the Americans has changed over the past 20 years, going from a throw-away society to that of reusing things. Part of that is for environmental reasons but the other part is for the purpose of preserving what is left of our culture and integrating them into our lives.

As David Plowden once mentioned in a book on bridges of North America: People tend to build bridges for the purpose of achieving something and not for achievement itself.  This expression was based on earlier history where architecture in America was based on building things quickly and efficiently. This may be true to an extent, yet the bridges of the past are much nicer than those of today. It has something to do with its appearance, but even more, it has something to do with its association with the people who live near them, the community it is integrated in, and the American History that should not be forgotten. While we will see more newer and fancier structures on America’s road in the future, there will be more historic bridges preserved for future generations as many Americans do care a great deal about their prized work of art and the ancestors that put it together for people to use.

The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like wish everyone a Happy 4th of July. Take some time to go to a nearest historic bridge near your home and think about the structure and how it was built, how it is associated with your lives and your community, how it became part of local and regional history and more importantly, how it can be preserve, should the time come for it to be retired from service. Chances are that 99 times out of 100, your bridge will be as valuable as the Golden Gate Bridge and there will be many reasons to save the structure for future use.

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