Book of the Month for July 2012: Bridges: The Spans of North America by David Plowden

Newell Bridge in Ohio over the Ohio River: one of hundreds of bridges featured in Plowden’s book. This photo was taken by the author in August 2010

There are many ways to look at a bridge and determine its value, both aesthetically as well as historically. From an engineer’s point of view, the bridge is built to function as a vehicular crossing until it is rendered obsolete and considered for replacement. From a historian’s point of view, each bridge has its own history and identity to the community, going beyond the bridge builder, the dimensions and unique value that make it eligible to be protected by preservation laws. From a photographer’s point of view, each bridge has a beauty that makes it fit into the landscape, whether it is a truss, arch, cable-stayed or suspension bridge.
In the case of David Plowden, each bridge not only presents a beauty that warrants a black and white photo worth remembering, but it contributes to the history of the American architecture, infrastructure and transportation.  Born in 1932, Plowden started his photography career at the age of 25, providing the readers with a look at the development of American society, from the steel mills to the farming community, from the slums of the big cities, to Main Street USA, where small talk and hard work are the norms. He has published over 20 books including his latest one on the state of Iowa (which was released earlier this year), where a traveling photography exhibition of the state and its hilly landscape is currently taking place until 2014.
In the book Bridges: The Spans of North America, published in 2002, Plowden combined his photographic genius with some history to provide readers with an insight into the development of bridges in North America, beginning with those made of wood in a form of covered bridges, followed by brick and stone bridges,  the metal bridges (both in terms of short- and long river crossings) and finishing with the bridges made of concrete.  The over 400-page work provides the reader with an in depth look at the types of bridges that were developed, the bridge builders who used them for their crossings and where the bridges were located. While some of the bridge types mentioned in the book are well-known to the bridge community and historians, such as the Bollmann Truss Bridge at Savage, Maryland the concrete arch bridges of Pennsylvania and Oregon, and the common suspension bridges, like John Roebling’s suspension bridges, there are some others that had been mentioned briefly in other documents but were brought to life in this book, like the Whipple-Murphy truss bridges, many of which were constructed along the Missouri River between Sioux City and Kansas City under George S. Morrison in the 1880s, the Poughkeepsie Suspension and Railroad Bridges in upstate New York or even local bridges like the Bellefountain Bridge in Mahaska County, Iowa.  Plowden provides a tour into the life of each bridge engineer and his contribution to the American landscape with examples of bridges that bear his name and were meant to serve traffic for many years.
As for the bridges themselves, the photos taken by Plowden were genuine and provide the reader with an inside look at the structure’s appearance from a photographer’s point of view. Some bridges were photographed in areas that were run down and were not part of the urbanization movement in the 1960s, such as the outer suburbs of Pittsburgh, for example. Some bridges in his book were taken in heavily industrialized areas, like New Jersey. And then there are others in the book that had a unique natural background, like the bridges of Oregon and western Canada. In terms of how they were photographed, there were many bridges that were photographed at a portal view- meaning the entrance of the bridge, presenting the reader the bridge’s facial feature before entering the structure. This includes the past bridges, like the Point Bridge in Pittsburgh as well as those in the present, like the railroad bridge at Beaver, Pennsylvania.  While some of the bridges are known to the bridge community today, there are many that were rarely recognized but brought to the light by pushing the snapshot button and presenting a black and white picturesque view that definitely belongs to an art gallery somewhere. While many of these bridges, such as the Central Bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati and the St. Mary’s Bridge in West Virginia, a sister of the Silver Bridge, which collapsed in 1967 killing 46 people, have long since been demolished, Plowden photographed most of them in the 1960s and 70s, giving the reader an idea what they looked like before they were replaced.  Each bridge photographed in the book has some information on its history and the status at the time of its publication.
It is very difficult to write a book on the history of bridges and how they were developed without having to narrow the focus down to the key aspects. In the case of the books on the bridges of Erfurt, Germany, one was focused on the technical aspects; the other on the historical aspects. One cannot have insight into the bridges without having to read both pieces of literature, even though they are both in German. In the case of Plowden’s book, he divided the subject up into the materials used for bridge construction, followed by the bridge types that were used and the engineers who built the bridges. To a certain degree, when focusing on bridges on a scale as large as North America’s it is a good idea, for it provides an overview into the development of the bridges from the beginning to the present time. This has been used in a couple other literary pieces, the latest of which will be the book of the month for August on Minnesota’s bridges by Denis Gardner (which falls nicely into the five-year anniversary of the I-35W bridge disaster in Minneapolis).

Beaver River Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River in Pennsylvania. This was one of many Ohio River crossings Plowden portrayed in his book. The author photographed this gigantic monster in August 2010

Yet when looking at the content of the book, most of its focus was on the development of bridges in the United States, together with the photos he took, with a small fraction being focused on Canada’s bridges (like the Lethbridge Viaduct in the province of Alberta and the Quebec Bridge). Most of the information and photos of the bridges came from those in the northern half of the US along the major rivers and in the northeastern part of the US, such as the Ohio River Valley, the Hudson River, and the Mississippi. These areas were the breeding ground for bridge development that spanned over 150 years and expanded into the Plains Region and beyond. If a person was to be picky about the content of the book, and focus on the history and development of bridges per se, then perhaps Plowden could have had two different books on the subject- one for the US and one for Canada. After all, despite the fact that this history run parallel in both countries, each one had its own set of bridge builders and bridge types with much of Canada’s bridge designs being imported from Europe as it had close ties with Great Britain and France.
But there are two main reasons why Plowden chose to incorporate the two countries into one for the book. First of all, the history and development of the bridges were interchangeable. Canadian bridge builders immigrated to America to start their business and prosper. Bridge companies in the US had exceptional influence in Canada. The designs used for bridge construction were mostly similar in both countries, with a few minor exceptions. That means we have cantilever truss bridges in both countries, and we competed with each other to construct the longest and tallest bridges. And through their exchanges in information and designers, both prospered during the Industrial Age of the late 1800s.
The other reason is the fact that Plowden is a photographer by heart. He not only provides people with a look into the lives of others in black and white, but he also provides them with unique scenery through the photos of antique works of art that still rules the streets (even though the numbers have dwindled rapidly over the years). He does not just showcase the photos for people to see. That would be too easy to do, especially in today’s technological age where anyone can post their pics on facebook, flickr and other websites. But each bridge that is photographed is accompanied by a story of its existence and the bridge builder responsible for erecting the structure and sharing his success to others so that they can either follow the lead or challenge it. The book provides the reader with general knowledge of the development of the bridges and the role of the engineers that contributed their history. And even if the majority of the readers are not engineers, bridge fanatics or historians, and even if one is unable to read the entire book from cover to cover, looking at the bridge photos themselves is enough to tell the story of how it was built and how it became part of North American history.
So to end this review process, get your cameras ready and set out to go bridgehunting. Find a bridge that means a great deal to you, regardless of its appearance and surroundings, its history and identity to the region and regardless of its age and whether you can cross it or spend time walking to it. As soon as you find it, start shooting. Show the bridge to others and make it known to the public of its value through your camera lens and point of view. After all, there are more people interested in historic bridges than you know. Plowden knew about it and therefore, the book is sitting in my bridge library, waiting for me to open the page and have a look at the work that he did. Pride can help you prosper and people will take note of that.
Author’s note: I just sent a batch of interview questions to Mr. Plowden for him to answer and send back. As soon as I have them, they will be posted in a separate article. 

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