In School in Germany: The Pocket Guide to Industrial History

Rendsburg High Bridge in Rendsburg, Germany Photo taken by the author in April 2011


Joint article and forum with sister column the Flensburg Files in conjunction with the series on In School in Germany. Except this example focuses on Infrastructure, using Historic Bridges as an Example.

A while back, shortly before my debut teaching about industrialization in the US and Germany between 1870 and 1914, I had put out a question as to how to approach the topic of infrastructure in that era, in particular when it comes to bridge building, and how it ties in with the usage and proliferation of the material of steel- a replacement to iron. For more information on this inquiry, please click here for details.

Here is the follow-up on this particular topic, which has me thinking about a creative way of getting students acquainted with infrastructure and industrialization:

During the block-session, which consists of two 45-minute sessions into a 90-minute one, students had an opportunity to write down their notes in a small pocket brochure, compiled on my part. This is what the pocket brochure looked like:

The notes to be taken by the students (consisting of high school juniors) were in connection with a series of mini-presentations that they were supposed to give, based on the following topics that were given to them to prepare two weeks beforehand:

Iron and Steel

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

The Chicago School of Architecture




The Automobile

The Roads

Inventions (Electricity, the Telephone, etc.)

Each presentation was 3-5 minutes long, with questions to follow.  The exception to the topic was the one on bridges, presented by yours truly.  The topics were presented in a way that materials go first, for they played hand-to-hand in the development of other forms of infrastructure and transportation.

The results were astounding. Lots of information on American and European inventors making their marks, yet one would need a couple more sessions to digest all the information presented.  Some questions in connection with this topic you can find in the Files’ article here.

The problem with presenting infrastructure and industrialization is that the development of both Germany/Europe and the US was exponential, that it would be difficult to cover everything. It even applies for bridges, as dozens of American and European bridge builders were responsible for hundreds of bridge designs and bridge examples that existed during that time (and still do today). Plus some of the bridge builders of that time period had their own colorful history that is worth mentioning; especially when it comes to those immigrating to the US from what is today Germany, Poland, Austria, France and Hungary (where they were once known as The French Kingdom, Prussia and later the German Empire, Austro-Hungarian (or Habsburg Empire) and the Russian Empire (as Poland became part of the empire in 1795 as part of a partition agreement with Prussia)).

The end result was a compromise presented by the history teacher upon evaluating the session: a pocket guide to certain aspects of infrastructure with a focus on a country and some key examples worth noting. If divided up into the aforementioned topics, it would make the most sense, as for each aspect, one can present some key facts that are relevant to the topic of infrastructure and industrialization, along with some fun exercises . Plus if the booklet is 10-15 pages per topic, it will be sufficient enough for pupils to get a whiff of the aspects of history that have been left at the wayside, while the remaining artefacts become a distant memory,  but at the same time, be encouraged to preserve what is left of history or take measures that matter to them. After all, when we talk about environment and protection, our heritage technically belongs to this fragile umbrella.

For the pontists and historians alike, some ideas of how to construct such a booklet pertaining to bridges is a tricky one, for especially in the United States, the topics and the number of bridge builder and bridge examples have to be narrowed down to only a handful of examples. So if we look at the proposal for such a booklet for Germany, we have the following:

Part I: German emigrants- focusing on John Roebling, Albert Fink, Gustav Lindenthal, Wendell Bollmann, Joseph Strauss und Lawrence H. Johnson

Part II: German bridge engineers (who stayed in Germany)- Friedrich Voss, Hermann Matthäus, Gustav Eifel, Hermann Gerber, Franz Meyer

Part III: Areas of bridge building- Cities (Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Halle (Saale), Leipzig, etc.- choosing three; Canals (Baltic-North Sea, Dortmund-Ems, Elbe-Lübeck) and a pair of River Examples

Part IV: Notable Works- using two bridge examples, like the Rendsburg High Bridge, for example, and presenting some interesting facts about them.

If you were asked to construct a booklet similar to the one mentioned here, for the US, how would you structure it? What contents would you put in there and what examples would you include?  You can place your comments here, on the facebook pages under the Flensburg Files and/or Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, or in the LinkedIn page under The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles.  Do not be surprised if you have a question coming from either the author or one of the readers pertaining to a booklet on a similar topic but pertaining to Canada or another country.

Those wishing for a copy of the booklet I made for my history class or a power point presentation on bridges in Germany and the US can contact Jason Smith at the Chronicles at Please be aware that both are in German and that if you want the English version, you will have to wait a couple weeks.

And now to the Files’ Guessing Quiz pertaining to Industrial History, which you can click on here.


Mystery Bridge 39: The fallen Burwell (Nebraska) Bridge


A few weeks back, we received a photo with some information pertaining to this bridge. Located over the North Loup River on what remained of 7th Avenue at present-day Riverside Park, the Bridge at Burwell (coined as Old Burwell Bridge in the website) has some mysteries of its own to be solved- in particular, what the bridge looked like and when it was built. What is clear, according to records from the Nebraska Historical Society, floodwaters washed out this bridge- deemed as the lone crossing going in and out of Burwell- on 25 June, 1939. The Nebraska Department of Roads and Irrigation responded by constructing a new crossing a year later, featuring a steel plate girder crossing located 3/4 mile east of the original crossing, where Highways 11 and 91 cross today.

The fallen north portion of the original bridge is all that remains of the Old Burwell Bridge today. Judging by its Art Deco design, the crossing must have been built between 1912 and 1920, when concrete girders, using similar designs, were used either as a substitute to steel or even as a complement to the material that had been used almost exclusively for bridge building up until then. Already, the standardization of bridges had started, where state road departments introduced strict standards in bridge building, including new bridge designs made of concrete, like the girder as seen in the photo above.

Bolson Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa. The 1924 bridge represents an example of standardized truss bridges used during this time. Photo taken in 2007

The question is whether this crossing had been a full-blown concrete girder bridge with more than one span, or whether the fallen span had once been an approach span for another bigger bridge type, like a riveted truss bridge, for example. For the second argument one needs to add the fact that truss bridges were built using riveted connections instead of pinned ones, but despite its sturdiness, they are sometimes prone to flooding, where the span is washed away. Many truss bridges had girder approach spans as they were sturdier than wooden ones, and they enabled passengers to cross the bridge safely.

Keeping these arguments in mind, we have a couple questions to answer with regard to the Old Burwell Bridge:

1. Was the crossing a full fledged concrete beam or girder bridge or was it an approach span to another bigger bridge type, like a truss bridge?

2. When was this bridge built and who was the bridge builder?

3. What were the dimensions of the bridge before flooding washed it away?

Answers to this question can be posted here or on the Chronicles’ facebook page. You can also contact Jason Smith at the Chronicles at Inquiring minds would like to know about the bridge’s history, and the Chronicles is there to help solve the mystery.


Chambers Ford Bridge for Sale. Any Takers?

1890 Clinton Bridge Company span. Photos taken by Quinn Phelan

Belle Plaine, Iowa-  Tama County: one of many Iowa counties that has more than two dozen pre-1945 bridges left in the state. This includes the steel truss Black Bridge spanning the Iowa River and the Lincoln Highway Bridge near Toledo, whose railings bear the highway’s name and which was replicated in the form of a butter sculpture seen at the Iowa State Fair last year. Yet it is one of many counties with many structurally deficient bridges, many of them being closed to traffic in the past three years.
The Chambers Ford Bridge is one of them. Located over the Iowa River at 380th Avenue, 3 miles west of Belle Plaine, this two-span bridge features steel Pratt through trusses, but each of them are different because of the their portal bracings, as well as the date of construction.

The older and longer of the spans was one of the first ones built by the Clinton Bridge and Iron Company in Clinton. It was constructed in 1890 and had a span of 155 feet with wooden trestle approaches. 13 years later, with the wooden approaches deteriorating beyond repair, the county hired another Iowa bridge builder, George E. King to construct a replacement approach span in a form of a Pratt through truss bridge, totaling 140 feet long and costing $3,987. The total length of the bridge is 345 feet long.

1903 George E. King portion of the bridge

Since 2007 the bridge has been closed to traffic and has been the target of vandalism, as parts of the wooden decking was set ablaze by arsonists, causing damage to the bridge, albeit not as severe as the incident at Bunker Mill Bridge near Kalona, last August.  Missing bolts and other bridge parts have also been reported. Yet times are changing, and the county engineer plans to replace this bridge with a pre-cast concrete bridge. However, as the truss bridge is a national historic landmark- having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998- the Tama County Engineer is offering the bridge to any takers willing to relocate it for reuse, regardless of whether it is only one of the two truss spans or both. The reason for this is to garner interest from parties interested in finding a new home for the structure.

At the same time, the bridge’s history will be documented, thanks in part to an agreement made between the county, the cultural resources office of the Iowa Department of Transportation in Ames, and Wapsi Valley Archeology, Inc. in Anamosa, where all stories, photos and postcards are being collected and will be used in a booklet to be published for libraries in Tama County and beyond, as well as IaDOT.

If you are interested in purchasing the bridge, please contact the Tama County Engineer, using the contact details here. If you wish to contribute to the booklet, the contact details for Wapsi Valley Archeology and Kristy Medanic (who is in charge of this project) is found here. The preservation and relocation of the Chambers Ford Bridge will make up for losing a pair of key historic bridges in 2007 at Toledo and Chelsea as well as another last year at Traer, yet it could also serve as a motive to preserving the remaining bridges of their kind in the county, for there are plenty of them- closed to traffic because of age and deficiencies- to go around and enough interest from other groups to take them for reuse. The Chronicles will follow-up on the developments of the bridge project set to begin soon.

How to teach Infrastructural History in School

Waddell Truss Bridge at Volga State Preserve. Photo taken in August 2011


Joint Article with Sister Column:

 In connection with Files’ series on In School in Germany. More on the series can be found here.

History- a subject that goes beyond borders and looks at things that we never knew about, getting us to think about them, putting them in the context of our own lives and the environment we are living in. It goes beyond the borders of geography and how the countries were developed. It goes beyond arena of sports events and looks at the development of each kind and how the men and women contributed to it. It digs deeper into how the country was mapped out in terms of landscape, networks of infrastructure and the social aspects which led to revolution and redesign by reformists and those who wanted to make their place better than before.  In other words, one has to dig deeper to find the truth and challenge what had been written in the past but was now rebuked because of new evidence.

In school, especially on the secondary level, history is a must, and it is important that students know about the history of their country and the rest of the world for two reasons:

1. To help them become acquainted with their own region and country and discover who they are and where they came from and

2. To encourage them to find out more about themselves and where they live, by looking and exploiting the aspects that are seldom mentioned.

As there are certain requirements written by law and because of certain time constraints, only a peck of the history that exists is even taught in the schools, and when it is taught, it is with the traditional social form of teaching: the book and frontal teaching (German: Frontal Unterricht). It is not surprising that the interest in history among youngsters up to 18 is near the bottom of the food chain, in both countries- more so in the US than in Germany because of the strive of educators to have the students achieve high results in the international tests for math, reading and sciences. But as we see in the PISA studies, and which will be discussed in the Files’ article about Frontal Teaching, sometimes student involvement and allowing them to discover something new can encourage a positive education result, even better than the recent studies.

But even with these constraints, the teacher can make some space for some new things that cannot be found in books themselves- at least not yet, that is. And when students are encouraged to do some work on their own, whether it is analysing a text and writing a review about it or presenting about it, then they will benefit from it in a way that they can add the knowledge to what was taught in the past and have fun doing it. This is where the topic of Industrialization and Infrastructure enters the picture.

During my internship at a Gymnasium in Germany, I had an opportunity to dig deeper into the history of the development of Germany in the 1800s by looking at aspects like the creation of democracy, Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the German state in 1871 and how Germany became a super power and remained so until the end of World War I. At the present time the students are talking about Germany, Europe and the age of industrialization between 1871 and 1914, where several aspects, such as imperialism, socialism, worker’s union and environment are being introduced. Even the expansion of the transportation infrastructure and the landscape made of steel will be mentioned. Believe it or not, this is the topic the author of the Chronicles and Files is about to do.

Talking about the infrastructure and comparing it between Germany and the US does produce their similarities in terms of inventions and the development of materials for the construction of buildings, railroads and bridges, yet how does a teacher present these aspects to the students without boring them.  Let’s look at the topic of bridges, for example. There are two different arguments for and against presenting this topic. The contra part would be the simple fact that a bridge is a bridge, crossing a ravine connecting point A and point B. If it fails or is too old, then it is replaced. The pro part to this topic feature the arguments about unique bridge designs, bridge builders that were common, including those who immigrated to the States from Germany, like Ralph Mojeski, Lawrence Johnson, Albert Fink, and Gustav Lindenthal, to name a few. Then there is the switch from iron to steel mainly because of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and lastly the consolidation of 28 bridge builders into the American Bridge Company in 1901 and its competition from other bridge builders in the west, as well as outside the country.

Nathan Holth once presented this topic as a whole during his time as a student teacher (his PPT presentation can be seen here). Some of the unique features, include the builder’s plaque, portal bracing of the truss bridge and ornamental features can enable historians to determine how the development of bridges came about in the US between 1871 and 1914. As I will be the second pontist to present this in a couple weeks time, the topic will be on a wider scale as Germany and US have some similarities with regard to bridge construction. The difference is with regards to the fact that the German concentration seems to be more on canals and railways than with highways, like in the US. Also the full establishment of steel companies, like Thuyssen-Krupp before 1871 enabled Germany to expand the steel-building landscape, constructing bridges and high-rise buildings in large cities, like Berlin and Hamburg, in addition to its fleet of ships.

The question is if one wants to present bridge building in connection with the industrialization- be it in the US, Germany, Europe or when comparing between two countries, what aspects are important and should be presented to the students, keeping in mind that the topic is industrialization, and the time frame is betweenthe 1870s and 1914, the time of World War I?  Which aspects should the students research on in their own spare time? And lastly how should it be taught in high school in comparison to college?

Put your comments here or on the Files’ or Chronicles’ facebook pages as to how you would approach an exotic topic like this, while keeping the topic of Industrialization in mind.  The results of the session, which will be in a couple weeks, will be presented in the Files and sister column the Chronicles.