Interview with James L. Cooper

Photo Courtesy of Tony Dillon

There are many people who have a special interest on a topic and spend a great deal of their free time working on it and presenting it to the general audience. Some of them even spend a great portion of their lives on it. With regards to historic bridges, if one looks back 40 years ago, there were only a handful of people- namely academics, historians, photographers and other enthusiasts- who were passionate about historic bridges- regardless of bridge type, builder, or even history- and worked in this field to generate interest among the common public. The work of people like James Cooper, professor emeritus at DePauw University, has paid off, for the public is more informed about historic bridges and ways to preserve them than they were when he started on this topic 40 years ago.

Phi Beta Kappa Graduate of Wooster College (located between Canton and Mansfield in eastern Ohio) and a Masters and PhD graduate of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Cooper has become known as the father of Indiana’s historic bridges, publishing four books on historic bridges in Indiana and historic bridge preservation over the past 25 years and reviewing over 100 literary works written by many scholars in the field of history, science and technology, and historic preservation, and presenting his topic both live in front of a large audience as well as on TV and radio. He has received many honors and is part of many organizations dealing with history and preservation, including in the field of historic bridges, The Historic Bridge Alliance and the Historic Bridge Foundation, both located in Austin, Texas. Cooper was the keynote speaker at this year’s Historic Bridge Conference, which took place on 21-23 September.

I had a chance to send him some interview questions about his role in historic bridges and he was happy to send me some of his responses in short form to be posted here in this article. He is in the process of posting some of his work as well as literature that is still for sale on a website dealing with Indiana’s historic bridges, which you can click here to access.

Here are some thoughts about his role as the main influential figure in saving historic bridges in the Hoosier state and informing the public on their importance in history….


  1. What interested you in historic bridges in general?

I started in the late 1970s with an introduction to material culture studies as a supplement to documentary research.  HAER contacts led me into bridge survey work in Indiana which I combined with more traditional research in my survey publications.  Then Indiana Landmarks Foundation contacted me to turn bridge surveying/historical research into preservation efforts.


2. What is so special about the historic bridges in Indiana?

Indiana was an outpost of eastern transportation forms, routes, and fabrication.  By the 1870s, Hoosiers began to make their own contributions to transportation design and fabrication.  Indiana is part of the process of national development.


3. You have been working with historic bridges for over 40 years. Can you summarize what accomplishments you have made  apart from books and presentations?

Since I regard myself as a professional historian, books and presentations are more than “not just.’  I have also played a role in the preservation of bridge company documents and records.  Have been a member “of a village” leading (a) to the preservation of a number of structures and (b) to arguments for historically-sensitive repairs rather than replacement one-member-at-a-time.


4. From your point of view, how big of interest do the people in Indiana have in historic bridges in comparison with other states?

I don’t know about the % of interest by state.  We have an active Covered Bridge contingent.  We have more and better-positioned resources (preservationists, craftsmen, engineers) than most states to support local folk interest in retaining a historic bridges of all materials.


5. From your point of view, how has the US handled its infrastructure since the Minneapolis Bridge Disaster on 1 August 2007?

The engineers who studied the I-35 event found (a) that the bridge collapsed because of a drafting design error with a given gusset plate, (b) that the Minn Dept of Transport was aware of the plate bucking at least a year before via inspection w/o really addressing same, (c) that the authorities precipitated what was an impending difficulty by allowing the placement of massive construction weight on this part of the bridge.   Much of this agency incompetence got subsumed in the press by pushing forward the annual FHWA/AASHTO/DOT PR over the number of structurally deficient and obsolete bridges on American highways as the implicit “cause” of the disaster.

(Note: FHWA means Federal Highway Administration, the AASHTO stands for American Association of State Highway Transportation Office and PR means public relations)


6. And in Indiana?

In Indiana, the FHWA and INDOT used the occasion to target historic metal-truss bridges.  Note that I-35 was not that old or historic…but no matter for the PR and agency opportunity.


7. And the US since Obama took office in 2009?

The old federal system for funding transportation through gas taxes has rather run its course.  The politicians are not willing to increase those taxes nor to provide significant supplementary funding.  Republicans in the House of Reps have even voting to end the dedication of the gas tax to transportation.  Slowly the hwy engineering agencies are beginning to think about more repair rather than more knee-jerk replacement, but we are a way yet from economic and engineering efficiency as the primary values here.


8. And who will win the 2012 Presidential Elections?

I don’t know who will win in Nov.  If the Democratss get enough in charge of the congress as well as the presidency, they may cobble together some fix for the old funding system.  If the Republicans take charge, we may be in for new transportation funding rules.

Thank you for your time.


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