Lifetime Legacy Post Humous: Howard Newlon Jr.

Broadway Bridge over Linville Creek in Rockingham County, Virginia- one of four Thacher truss bridges remaining in the United States. Photo courtesy of HABS/HAER (part of National Park Service).

This year’s Ammann Awards received many entries, more than last year. However one of the awards that is of importance is the Lifetime Legacy Awards, given to person(s) who devoted a large amount of time and energy to saving historic bridges. In the case of one person who left this world peacefully this year, there is the Lifetime Legacy Award Post Humous given in his loving memory and honor.

Howard Newlon Jr. passed away on 25 October, 2012 at the age of 80. He spent a total of 33 years at the Virginia Transportation Research Council, involving himself with inventories and projects promoting historic bridges and ways to preserve them. He also an expert in anything dealing with concrete. This included the publication books on various bridge types in the 1970s and 80s, beginning with the first one on metal truss bridges built prior to 1932. Up until now, I have all of these books in my bridge library thanks to Ann Miller whom I had inquired on questions involving historic bridges some years ago. They will be profiled in the Chronicles next year.  When he retired in 1989, he was director of research. In addition, he spent 50 years teaching at the Institute of Engineering and Architecture at the University of Virginia and its schools, retiring in 2003. He was also active in many societies dealing with engineering, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, which handed him the History and Heritage Award in 2009. The Lifetime Legacy Award provided by the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is the latest of honors going to his resume. Ann Miller and Dan Deibler, who have worked at the Virginia Transportation Research Council have agreed to provide tributes to Mr. Newlon as guest columnists here at the Chronicles, honoring him for his work. Some editing was needed for length purposes, but it is hoped that Mr. Newlon is remembered for what he did for Virginia and for the historic bridge community.

From Ann Miller with regards to his historic achievements:

Howard Newlon’s career in transportation research covered over a half century, and for much of this period he was deeply involved in issues relating to historic transportation structures and materials.  For most of his career he was associated with the Virginia Transportation Research Council (recently renamed the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation & Research [VCTIR], this is the research component of the Virginia Department of Transportation [VDOT].  Mr. Newlon received his bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Virginia in 1953; he joined the Research Council staff in 1956 while pursuing his master’s degree in Civil Engineering.  Promoted to head of the Research Council’s concrete lab, he remained at the Research Council after receiving his master’s degree in 1959.  As the head of the Research Council’s concrete lab, he undertook groundbreaking research on concrete, and also undertook extensive research into early concrete structures and the history of concrete.

Promoted to Assistant Director of the Research Council in 1968, in addition to his internationally recognized research on concrete, Howard Newlon organized the Research Council’s history research section.  In 1972, under his direction, the Research Council undertook the first statewide survey of early metal truss bridges in the U.S.; this survey covered Virginia’s metal truss bridges from the 19th century up to 1932, when responsibility for most of Virginia’s county road systems was taken over by the state.  A survey of stone masonry and concrete arch bridges followed in the early 1980s.  Building on these early surveys, the Research Council has continued the process, undertaking additional surveys on non-arched concrete bridges, movable span bridges, covered bridges, and footbridges, as well as updating the original surveys of metal truss and arch bridges, and developing an historic bridge management plan and management recommendations for other transportation-related cultural resources. The Research Council surveys and related projects have served as models for similar surveys and management plans in other states.

Also under Mr. Newlon’s direction, the Research Council instituted its Historic Roads of Virginia series, producing transcriptions of early county transportation records (“road orders”) and histories of significant Virginia roads.  Begun in 1973, this series is still ongoing: the 28th volume is currently in production.  In company with other historians, Mr. Newlon also inaugurated, and wrote many of, the “Backsights” series of transportation history articles, which appeared in various VDOT publications from the 1970s until the early 2000s.  The “Backsights” series covers elements of Virginian and national transportation history, including associated personalities, from the 17th through the mid-20th centuries.  The articles are written in a style that holds the interest of historians and engineers, but are also accessible to laymen.

Howard Newlon was promoted to Director of the Research Council in 1981, and continued in that capacity until his retirement in 1989.  After his retirement he acted as a periodic consultant to the Research Council and to other organizations on various aspects of transportation history.

During this tenure at the Research Council, Mr. Newlon also initiated VDOT’s History Research Advisory Committee (now incorporated into the Environmental Research Advisory Committee) to assist with questions of the identification and significance of historic structures.  He was instrumental in the identification and preservation of both the only surviving Fink deck truss in the United States, and of the oldest Bowstring arch truss in Virginia.  He also participated in the restoration of the historic Meems Bottom covered bridge, which was partly burned by vandals in 1976, and was restored and reopened to traffic in 1979.

On a national level, Mr. Newlon received an 1986 Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for his contributions to protecting and preserving the nation’s historic bridges.  Also in 1986 he was designated as “Virginia’s Outstanding Civil Engineer” by the Virginia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He served as chairman of the TRB Subcommittee on Historic Preservation as Related to Transportation from its formation in 1976 until 1988.  He was chairman of TRB Committee A1FO5 on Social, Economic, and Environmental Factors (now Committee ADC50 on Historic and Archaeological Preservation in Transportation) from 1988 until 1991.  In addition, he was an advisory member of the task group which organized TRB Committee ABG 50 on Transportation History.  In 2009, Mr. Newlon received the American Society of Civil Engineers History and Heritage Award.

Until shortly before his death, Mr. Newlon continued his involvement in the Research Council’s history program.  He served as an advisor to the Research Council’s project to collect the “Backsights” articles on transportation history and make these available in electronic format.  In addition, he presented his lecture on “The History of Transportation in Virginia” for digital recordation, and participated in the Research Council’s “History of Concrete Research” project.

Mr. Newlon was a lecturer in the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, teaching structures, materials and preservation courses.  He also lectured at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (now Virginia Tech), the College of William and Mary, Old Dominion University, Princeton University, and Ohio State University.

From Dan Deibler with regard to working with him:

In the summer of 1973, Howard Newlon hired me, a graduate student in architectural history at the University of Virginia, to turn his idea about the historical value of metal truss bridges into a reality.  Prior to this, no systematic study had been done of bridges in general let alone a study of a particular type.   My career as an architectural historian thus began.
Howard was very clear about the goal of the project but how the goal was to be achieved was assigned to me.  He introduced me to “stress and moment” theory of trusses in an afternoon and then showed me the engineering library.  I had no background in engineering and no natural interest in truss bridges; but over the next three years (I remained on the project until 1976), under Howard’s discerning eye and engaging intellect, I became totally engaged in the subject and developed a methodology to identify and evaluate the historic value of metal truss bridges.  Having Howard to consult made it easy:  he provided ample time for research; he connected me with professionals at the Smithsonian, at other universities and nationally prominent professional engineers.  His professional expertise and national reputation opened up avenues of research that otherwise would have been unavailable to me.
Howard Newlon’s idea to create a methodology for identifying and ranking metal truss bridges for historical, not structural, value was pioneering.   It was only later when I began working in different state historic preservation offices (West Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania) that I understood the significance of the project that Howard had given me.  The opportunity to develop a systematic data collection process and the opportunity to develop an evaluation methodology proved invaluable throughout my career.  I still look at it as a gift.
I learned much by working for a person whose intellectual curiosity was never restricted by his discipline.  He talked with ease about historical topics, political issues, departmental policies as well as the research issues in concrete technology.  His mind was always focused on the world at large but when called on by an engineering colleague, he could switch his thoughts instantly to the specifics of scientific data.
For me Howard Newlon set a high standard for what to expect in a professional manager.  His modesty, his knowledge, his intellect, his sense of humor, and his graciousness can never receive too much praise.  His manner and manners made it easy for his vision to become yours.  He was truly a wonderful person and a person who made a difference.


The author would also like to thank Justin Spivey for his help in compiling the information on Mr. Newlon.


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