This article starts off with a shocking but sober statistic that was presented by Eric DeLony, who worked for the Historic American Builder’s Society and Historic American Engineer’s Record, which is the following: since 1980 over two thirds of historic bridges in the United States have fallen victim to progress, as these bridges, ages 50 and older and unable to meet today’s standards, have been demolished to make way for structures that are sturdier, wider, and longer- able to withstand wider, bigger, and heavier traffic, and as a consequence, contribute to the increase in housing development and commerce and to a certain degree, urbanization. The hardest hit areas are structures built over 100 years ago that used to serve horse and buggy but cannot handle today’s traffic. These include concrete arch bridges, suspension bridges, and truss bridges, like you see in the photo above. While measures have been carried out to save some of the most pristine structures, others that have very high historical value in terms of its history, design, bridge builder, and association with the communities were not so fortunate and therefore, had to be taken down in place of modernized structures that are bland, and have little aesthetic value whatsoever. This includes the recent demolition of the Little Church Road Bridge, which is only 30 minutes south of Chimney Rock Bridge in Winneshiek County. Because of the lack of funding to relocate the 1873 bowstring arch bridge to Decorah to incorporate it into the Trout Run Bike Trail, the third longest bridge of its kind was dismantled and sold for scrap metal, earlier this year.
Beginning in 2006, the founders of Historic Bridges.org (formerly, Historic Bridges of Michigan and Elsewhere), Nathan Holth, Luke Gordon, and Rick McOmber declared November as Historic Bridge Awareness Month. According to the authors of the website, this month was chosen as it serves as the end of the construction season and with that bridge replacement, and the beginning of action by grassroots and private organizations to hinder any plans of replacing historic bridges in the next construction season. The goal of Historic Bridge Awareness Month is to raise awareness of the importance of historic bridges and encourage preservation of these precious but yet rare structures. This includes assisting small groups in preserving their own bridges through consultation, funding, and other means that would work to their advantage. It also includes providing training in restoring historic bridges, so that there are more people working in this field. One must not forget to address this importance of historic bridges to governmental agencies from the top down, including state departments of transportation and the federal government. And lastly, it also includes using media and social-related tactics to bring the importance of historic bridges to the attention of the public.
While the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is the youngest website to enter the scene with the goal of addressing the historic bridges that are in danger of demolition while providing tour guides to bridges both in the US and Europe, other websites have been addressing the importance of preserving historic bridges for the last 8 years. They include the following main portals:
Historic Bridges of the US: Created by James Baughn and headquartered in Cape Giradeau, Missouri, this website provides the readers with detailed database on the historic bridges that either had existed before being replaced or are still in use, thanks to the usage of photos and information provided by the contributors. The author of the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is among those who have submitted photos and information on bridges on a regular basis since 2004.
Historic Bridges.org (formerly, Historic Bridges of Michigan and Elsewhere): Founded in 2006 and stationed in Michigan, the site focuses on historic bridge awareness using various bridges in areas mostly located in the eastern half of the US plus parts of Canada as examples. Each bridge has its own commentaries that are accompanied with photos taken in detail by the authors. It also has launched various programs to encourage change in policies towards historic bridges.
Bridgemapper: Founded by Todd Wilson and Lauren Winkler and located in Pittsburgh, this website provides the reader with some information and location of bridges mostly in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio with the goal of encouraging the tourists to visit them before they are gone.
Historic Bridge Foundation: Headed by Kitty Henderson and based in Austin, Texas, HBF provides consultation on ways to preserve historic bridges and ensure that Section 106 of the Historic Bridge Preservation Act is protected.
VJM Metal Craftsman: Based in Michigan, Vern Mesler has been an expert in welding steel and iron for over 34 years and has used this expertise in refurbishing and reassembling historic bridges, which includes establishing a historic bridge park in Calhoun County, consisting of pre-1900 iron and steel truss bridges brought in from outside the county.
In addition to the success of electronic media, social gatherings and conferences have become successful in attracting the public interest in historic bridges, as experts provide advice on ways to preserve historic bridges. In many cases, tours to these bridges have persuaded many people to appreciate the historic value of these structures. The Historic Bridge Convention in Pittsburgh this past August, hosted by Todd Wilson of Bridgemapper, was a classic example of how important these events are to not only those who are bridge enthusiasts but also those who are interested in historic bridges in general but have no real expertise. More on the event can be found in the next column.
And lastly, practical examples of how historic bridges were preserved have clearly shown that it is possible to preserve them with the use of funding, manpower-especially those with expertise in the field relating to historic bridge preservation- and interest from the public. Apart from the aforementioned Historic Bridge Park, there are many examples of historic bridges that have been relocated for reuse, regardless of whether it was for recreational use or for reuse for vehicular traffic. This includes the relocation of the Freeport Bridge to its current place at Trout Run Park south and east of Decorah. The second longest bowstring arch bridge in the US was built in 1878 and was granted a new lease on life as the 160 foot long wrought iron structure has been serving as a picnic area since 1989. Plans for reusing the Ten-Mile Creek Bridge, a kingpost pony truss bridge built in 1895, on the Trout Run Trail is on as scheduled and should be completed by next year at the very latest.
When it was impossible to relocate a bridge, one could also preserve it in place, as was the case with the Kirby Flynn Bridge in Palo Alto County, Iowa. Built in 1883 and moved to its present location on Brushy Bayou Road in 1919 as part of the plan to rechannel the west branch of the Des Moines River, this bridge was in dire straits when the author of the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles visited it for the first time in 1998. The predictions of it being removed was overturned when the county rehabilitated the bridge and reopened it to traffic in April of this year. The Pratt through truss bridge still serves traffic to this day and is an example of a success story that one would ever dream of.
Still despite all the successes that have been presented, the future of historic bridges in the USA is still in doubt, even after the Mid-Term Elections which brought down Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Jim Oberstar (Rep. Minnesota), who championed the Surface Transportation funding program that encouraged bridge replacement over rehabilitation and preservation. Many politicians and other government officials had until now considered the Section 106 Process as a waste of time and money and had pushed for the abolishment of this. This includes officials in Pennsylvania which not only leads the nation in structurally deficient bridges but also in the number of historic bridges and those that have been demolished since 2001. Whether this attitude will change when the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and enter the Senate with a more equal balance of power to the Democrats in 2011 remains to be seen. Even though many Republican governors have reiterated the fact that money should be averted from the development of high speed rail lines to repairing roads and bridges, it does not necessarily mean that the destruction of historic bridges will slow to a craw or be brought to a halt. The opposite could very well be the case.
In either case, Historic Bridge Awareness Month should be touted as a success story in the making, as despite the failures in preserving some of the most pristine historic bridges in the country, there is still hope to preserve the rest of the bridges that are considered historic, meaning those ages 60 years and older, from the author’s standpoint. Â What is needed is support in the form of expertise, media coverage and social gatherings, and most importantly, the interest in the public in preserving a piece of American history which is considered one of the most neglected. Through these channels, everyone can accomplish more in historic bridge preservation, and more historic bridges will be reused for the next generation. In turn, the next generation will have an opportunity to learn about this small aspect of American history by visiting these places in person and walking back into time for a few minutes to see how they were built, which is more valuable than seeing them in electronic and print media.
NEXT IN THE CHRONICLES: THE HISTORIC BRIDGE CONFERENCE 2010 IN PITTSBURGH, PA.
Note: For those wanting to see the commentary in connection with the Mid-Term Elections in the USA, please refer to the sister column, The Flensburg Files, as the author interprets the results from an expatriate’s point of view.