A bridge type making a comeback: the Melan arch bridge

Photo taken in August 2009

Now the answer to the pop quiz:

In 1894, an Austrian-Bohemian engineer, Frederick von Emperger, decided to experiment with a bridge design over a small stream northeast of Rock Rapids, Iowa. This design was first introduced by his professor, Josef Melan, while studying at the German Technical College in Prague, and featured an elliptical arch bridge that was supported by metal roads running underneath and covered with concrete. At the time of its construction, iron was used for the Melan bridges that were built in present-day Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Austria. Yet this bridge was the first one to use steel rods, separated by three feet. When Paul Kingsley finished the construction of the bridge in 1894, nobody realized that this was the very first bridge to implement the Melan arch design. Melan and von Emperger continued to build bridges using the Melan design, which included the construction of the Ludwigsbruecke in Munich in 1930 by Melan, and Abteilbruecke in Berlin by von Emperger.  Von Emperger also built bridges in the eastern half of the US before emigrating back to Europe for good in 1898.

The construction of the first Melan arch bridge set the precedent for many more to be built between 1900 and 1940, with the most common ones being found in Iowa and places in the southern and eastern parts of the US.  This includes the Evansdale and McFarlane Bridges in Black Hawk County, Iowa (both destroyed by the 2008 floods and have been replaced), The Como Park Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Eden Park Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio, and five Warren County, Mississippi bridges located at Vicksburg National Military Park.  Yet the bridges fell out of favor for longer beam bridges made of wood or concrete, providing width for cars and length for waterways to flow underneath. Many of these were eventually replaced by concrete or steel culverts, which provided no railings for automobile drivers, but more problems with erosion when flooding and damming by debris persists.

Photo of one of the modern examples of a Melan arch bridge at Sandbar Slough in Iowa. Taken in September 2009

Yet recently, the Melan bridges are making a comeback, as many of them have been populating the roadways for the last couple decades. including three that were built in Springfield, Missouri in 2010 to accommodate bike traffic and a couple built in the Iowa Great Lakes Region- one on Lake Shore Drive in Wahpeton, built in 2008, and another built over Sandbar Slough north of Orleans in 2001, the third crossing and the second one to bypass the first one built in 1915 and still in use. It is unknown where else these bridges can be found, but it is a safe bet that the Melan Bridge is being used as a compromise between cost-effectiveness and environmental protection. Cost- effective because of its short spans but environmental protection meaning that water can still flow freely underneath the bridge and there is no worrying regarding erosion because of high water.

As for the first Melan arch bridge, it was relocated to its present spot at Emma Sater Park in 1964 when a new bridge was to be built in its place and preservationists discovered the historic significance of the structure. 10 years later, the bridge was one of the first historic places to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge can be seen today when entering the town from Iowa Highway 9, and a picnic area is available for those wanting to spend time at the bridge. It is a must-see for those who want to know how the engineers’ creativity resulted in another bridge design that was absent for a period of time but is now becoming another norm for use on the highways today, thanks to Josef Melan who invented the arch bridge and Frederick von Emperger who set the tone for today’s engineers to follow.

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