Tracking Down a Bridge’s History Part I: Overview

Chimney Rock Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Photo taken in September 2009

Researching a historic bridge is like doing genealogical research. You track down your family history, finding out where you originated from, where members of your extended family are located and finding ways to connect with them. One can find out how many (first, second, third, ….) cousins you really have (including the ones that are once or twice removed), while at the same time, travel to some places where your extended parts of your family once resided. My aunt in Minnesota has done a lot of research into my  father’s side of family for about two decades, finding out that several branches of the family once resided in Europe and parts of Africa, including areas in the north and western parts of Germany, like Bingen and Marburg (north of Frankfurt in the state of Hesse) and Oldenburg (both in Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony.) My uncle on my mother’s side of the family managed to trace down the origins of  the family, which was in northern Schleswig-Holstein in the village of Stein (near Kiel), but had branches of the family residing in the northwestern part of Germany and in particular, in North Rhein-Westphalia.
Researching a historic bridge is similar to doing genealogical research in many ways. While one can track down the history of the bridge builders, as Alan King Sloan has done with the history of Zenas King and the King Bridge Company in Ohio, and Fred Quivik has done with the Hewett Family, Commodore Jones and Alexander Bayne, who created the Minneapolis bridge building empire in the early 1900s, it is also possible to track down historic bridges, based on the question of where they originated from.  The reason I posed this question is simple: many historic bridges- in particular, truss bridges- were moved around from place to place. This concept was introduced in the late 1890s but was carried out extensively beginning in the 1920s and 30s as part of cost-cutting measures carried out by local communities and counties. Constructing brand new bridges were too expensive because of the scarcity of materials, like steel, resulting in the increase in prices. Other materials, like wood, were prone to weather extremities, resulting in dry rot and fungi that eat away at the wood. Furthermore they cannot resist floods and ice jams as well as those made of other materials. Relocating truss bridges is easy for they can be dismantled, transported to their destination and reassembled on site, before starting its next life serving a new round of traffic going across it.

One of the more well documented bridges in the US: The Three Sister Bridges in Pittsburgh over the Allegheny River. Named in honor of Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson. All built in 1926. Photo taken in August 2010

Speaking from personal experience, tracking down the history of a bridge can be blessing if the structure had its service life in one place. However, when it is relocated from place to place, it can be a curse, for once the structure is moved out of the county, chances are most likely that the records are lost forever, either intentionally or through other factors. That is why it is important that when tracing down a bridge’s history, you have to have a fond knowledge of history and geography, a good memory and ability to do the math and put the pieces of the puzzle together, and most of all, the passion to do this research and solve the case. While the first few factors can be learned, if you do not have the passion for this type of structural genealogical research, then it will not be fun at all. I have compiled a few simple steps that will help you trace the bridge’s history starting from when and where it was first built, followed by the question of if and how many times it was relocated, all the way up to whether it still serves traffic or was replaced through modernization with the structure being scrapped or recycled for the next modern bridge to be built.
Step 1: Check out the records that are on file through state and county agencies: Most agencies will have bridge files (also known as inspection reports) available based on the bridge numbering system that was adopted and used for inspection and research purposes. 99% of the time, each file will have a photo of the structure as well as the date of construction. Nine times out of ten, there will be records and photos of the previous structures- the ones that had previously served traffic before they were replaced. There are two issues that should be taken into account: 1. Not all bridges have records dating back to when it was originally built, let alone when it was relocated. In other words, missing information.  That means if there is a bridge built in the 1950s, even though the design was no longer used on the roadways at that time, chances are that the bridge was imported from another region. A classic example of a bridge that falls into that category is the Chimney Rock Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Records showed it being relocated to its present site in 1952, yet the bridge was originally built in 1906 by the Continental Bridge Company in Chicago. More information can be found here through an essay written in 2007. In some cases, even in state historic bridge inventories, there are estimated dates of construction even though in all reality, the bridge existed before that date.  In some cases if there is no further evidence to support the construction date, you have to refer to other sources of information to determine whether the date is correct and if not, when exactly it was built and where.  The second issue is the fact that not all records of structures that were replaced with present structures are kept on file. Some agencies prefer to discard the files once the replacement bridge is open to traffic. The fortunate part is the fact that in the past 35 years, state and county agencies have done a better job of keeping these files available to the public, allowing people to access them for their own purposes. Yet up to the early 1970s, the practice of eliminating old records was well-known for there was little interest in preserving historic bridges at that time. The exception to the rule:  areas that were not only heavily populated with historic bridges but also had detailed records of their history, like the cities of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York City, for example.  Regardless of how detailed the information is, bridge files provided by the state and local governments is the starting point for your research.
Steps 2 and 3: The next two steps are the most time consuming tasks but also crucial ones. You need to look through the newspapers, court records and other documents to determine the following: 1. Whether the data provided on the bridge files is correct, 2. If the bridge is imported from another region, where exactly did it come from, 3. How was the bridge constructed and 4. If the location of the bridge matches that of what is in the bridge files you received from the agencies. For this, you need to look through as much materials as they are available, especially newspapers, as many libraries and museums have them in archives. You need to plan in days, if not weeks to trace through the archives of one or two newspapers serving one community or region. Sometimes, you have to read through the archived papers twice or three times to make sure the information is accurate. In the case that the bridge is imported from outside, travel may be required if the place of origin is determined. The same procedure applies to other documents, such as city and county records, bridge company records, as well as records from transportation entities, such as railroad companies, etc. One should have a series of maps available to trace the location of the bridge; especially if a bridge was imported from outside, it is important to pinpoint not only its location in the present, but also in the past, regardless of how many times it was relocated. There are many examples of historic bridges that were relocated more than once but research was needed to track down its history, namely through newspapers and maps. The most recent was the Mulberry Creek Bridge, which the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles wrote an article about recently. You can view the article here.

Durrow Road Bridge in Linn County, Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011

Step 4: Also useful are postcards and oral sources. Postcards with pictures and images of historic bridges can help a person fit the description with the bridge being researched, even though they can become blurry and difficult to see with age. Oral resources in the form of people associated with building the bridge as well as residents living near the bridge can help the researcher by providing some facts about the building of the bridge and its association with the area. It can be an interesting experience when they tell some stories that can be useful for the project. This was the case during a visit at the Durrow Road Bridge in Linn County, Iowa in August 2011, when I found that the 1920s truss bridge was brought in to replace a wooden stringer bridge in 1949 and was named after a century old farmstead located just 300 feet away. The bridge still serves traffic and has been well maintained.
Step 5: Once you have all the information gathered and exhausted all your resources for gas, travel and copies, you can start putting the information together in chronological order from the time the bridge was constructed for the very first time all the way to the present, putting in the right order the time and place where the bridge was relocated, and adding stories to help fill out the bridge’s history. One will find the story of a bridge’s life more interesting as the pieces of the puzzle come together.

South River Bridge in Warren County. Photo taken in August 2011. This is one of many bridges that was built in the 1950s but is rich in information through records and newspaper articles.

Should you run into problems with putting the pieces together, sometimes it is useful to spread the word through media sources. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is the latest of a handful of websites that has helped researchers by informing the public of bridges, whose information is lacking, not just in a form of mystery bridges- bridges with no information on its place of origin but was relocated to its present site, but also bridges that have existed for many years but are missing the stories and history that makes them potential candidates to be recognized on the state and national levels. James Baughn has a list of photos of mystery bridges on his website, with no information of their places of origin, submitted by various people. The same is with Todd Wilson of Bridgemapper, even though the website focuses mainly on pinpointing the location of the bridges with some basic information on some of them. In either case, informing the people through the use of media, including social media, can encourage new contacts with people with information on the bridge you are researching about, which can help you complete your research in the long run.

Heron Road Bridge over the Volga River in Fayette County, Iowa. This is one of many bridges that was replaced (this one in the 1970s) but has not been researched properly. This one has potential to be historically significant. Photo taken in August 2011. This one is used as a background photo for this website.

Why is tracing a bridge’s history really important nowadays? Many of the historic bridges are being taken off the highway system by the dozens- either through demolition and replacement, abandonment, or conversion into a recreational bridge- for they have reached the end of their service lives as a vehicular bridge. While states have carried out their research since the 1980s and have renewed the bridge inventories recently, there have been some discrepancies in terms of information that is either inaccurate, missing or both. Part of it has to do with the lack of funding and time to conduct the research. Another has to do with the lack of willingness of some agencies and people to share the information on the bridge’s history, fearing that they could be considered historically significant. As a result, many find ways to avert Section 106 4f of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, requiring all historic bridges (both listed and eligible) to undergo a mitigation study to document the history of the structure, determine the environmental impact of the bridge replacement project and find alternatives to bridge replacement. Such aversion had worked up to the last decade, but calls have gotten louder by preservationists and other interested groups to review and revise the documentations done on their bridge to determine their historic significance, respect the policies regarding historic bridge preservation versus replacement, and consider preservation for future use.  This is one of the important pieces of the puzzle and one that can potentially save more bridges than destroying them and with that their history.
Running parallel to the need to preserve historic bridges by redoing the inventory, the interest in historic bridges through literature has increased over the past 15 years. Thanks to the likes of Mary Costello, who wrote a two-volume set on the bridges over the Mississippi River, James Cooper, who wrote a book on the bridges of Indiana and the people at the Institution of Civil Engineering at Milton-Keynes near Oxford (England), who wrote a 10-volume set on the bridges in the United Kingdom and all of Ireland, many people are jumping on the bandwagon and writing about the historic bridges in their regions, which includes info-tracking them to find out more about their history. The trend will increase over the next five years, as pontists, photographers, locals and writers will continue to churn out more materials on historic bridges, whose information will be more accurate than the information provided in previous bridge studies. Therefore it is important to treat the bridges like you are doing a genealogical study of your own family: each bridge you profile in your project must have its history traced from the present to as far back to the past as history allows it. This includes the possibility that when a bridge you are researching was relocated from another region, traveling to the place where the bridge was first constructed may be a necessity. Such a measure should not be treated as a burden, but one where you can learn a lot along the way.
While there are many examples of bridges that have traveled a long ways from their original starting point to the present, I’ve identified two examples worth noting which can serve as a reference point for you to start your bridge research. These examples can be found in the next article. Happy Bridgehunting!

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3 Responses to Tracking Down a Bridge’s History Part I: Overview

  1. Will Truax says:

    As a fellow Pontist, historian and researcher, I do appreciate the hows whys and whatfors in anothers approach, and a sense of how and why they do what they do.

    I’ll be clicking in on followups

  2. Don Sayenga says:

    The similarity to genealogical research is the perfect comparison! Your step-by-step approach is an excellent guideline. I would like to mention one additional criterion: very often the earliest bridges in the USA (particularly in the original colonies) were owned and operated by private companies. Occasionally the records of the private company (for example: minutes of meetings) have survived in the archives of a major library.

  3. We are a bunch connected with volunteers plus starting a fresh structure in our neighborhood. Your web site provided us handy facts to help paintings upon. You’ve performed any solid process and also all of our full local community will be glad for you.

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