A Tribute to Eric DeLony

Shaw Bridge at Claverack, New York. Photo courtesy of Jet Lowe of HABS/HAER

A gifted person provides society with a gift to make it better. A person with unusual talents shapes society to benefit all.


For Eric DeLony, a person with a passion for historic bridges not only leads efforts to save them but teaches and encourages bridge lovers and historians to love them and follow his lead. My first contact with him came in 2005 when I wrote my first documents for a Master’s class on American History at the University of Jena in Germany. For the next eight years, despite not being able to meet him in person due to time and travel expenses, I kept in contact with him and he provided some great insights to any topic pertaining to historic bridges, preservation and careers available. Eric was a walking encyclopedia and forefather of historic preservation. Graduating from Ohio State University in 1969, he had previously started working with industrial archaeology during his studies before landing his job as Director of the Historic American Builders Society/ Historic American Engineering Record, a job he held for over three decades while having collected vast arrays of experiences that led to the start in the program to document and preserve historic bridges in 1973, known as the Historic Bridge Program. He launched the Historic Bridge Symposium in 1983 as part of the annual Society of Industrial Archaeology Conference, which has been running successfully ever since. And lastly, he taught seminars on historic bridges and preservation. Thanks to his tireless efforts, many states have implemented their historic bridge preservation programs, which includes providing funding and incentive to local groups wanting to preserve historic bridges, marketing historic bridges and looking at techniques towards prolonging the life of historic bridges for traffic use. Indiana, Texas, Ohio, Iowa, New York and Vermont have been the leading examples in such policies which have saved at least half of the pre-1940 bridges that had existed prior to 1970. Cities, like Pittsburgh, Portland, Minneapolis and Chicago have a large swath of historic bridges preserved for use. In the face of progress, that effort is astounding if compared to the preservation policies of other countries, including some in Europe.

As we wind down our 2016 Ammann Awards and with that, the topic on 100 years of the National Park Service and 50 years of the National Register of Historic Places, we feel that Eric DeLony deserves to be honored for over 40 years of work in preserving historic bridges and guiding others like yours truly, Nathan Holth, Todd Wilson, Kitty Henderson, Kaitlin O’shea, Anne Miller, Jet Lowe and Christopher Marston to becoming successful preservationists, historians, teachers and bridgelovers. There is a reason for honoring him for Lifetime Achievement for his work.

But there is more to him than that. What got him interested in historic bridges and how did that play a key role in preservation policies in the US, which served as an example for other countries to follow?  Christopher Marston, who has worked for HABS-HAER since 1989, has known Eric for many years, both on the job as well as privately. He agreed to do a tribute to Eric as a guest writer for the Chronicles in response to a request for people to step forward in contributing to Eric’s legacy. His work includes a few important sections talking about Eric’s  career as a presevrationist and what he left behind for others to follow. Here is the guest column on Eric DeLony, which also includes a source section for you to find and read when you have some free time and are interested in knowing about this topic. Enjoy! 🙂


Eric DeLony doing preliminary field measurements on the 1870 pony truss Old Mill Road Bridge, Northampton County, PA, in 1985. The bridge was documented as part of the Pennsylvania Cast- and Wrought-Iron Bridges Recording Project in 1991. Photo courtesy of HABS HAER Collection


How you guys met
I started working for the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record in 1989, as an architect on a summer recording team in Homestead, PA, near Pittsburgh. My first project was to document and draw the 12,000 ton press (1893) at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works. I met Chief of HAER Eric DeLony in person the following summer, when I was working on the Duquesne Blast Furnace. The first bridge I documented for HAER was the 1839 Dunlap’s Creek Bridge in Brownsville, PA, the first cast-iron arch in the country, in 1992. After I joined the HAER office in Washington, DC, in October 1994, I worked directly under Eric as a project leader until he retired in 2003. Over my career, I’ve led HAER documentation projects of over one hundred individual historic bridges; parkway and railroad HAER projects included another hundred bridges.

Eric DeLony’s first HAER drawing of a bridge, as part of the Mohawk-Hudson Survey in 1969. This exploded isometric technique was used on several HAER projects to show how structures go together, especially cast- and wrought-iron bridges, Eric’s favorite. Whipple Cast & Wrought-Iron Bowstring Truss Bridge, HAER NY-4, Sheet 4, 1969.

What Eric did at HAER and elsewhere
Eric DeLony was a summer-hire architect on the very first field team of the Historic American Engineering Record, the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey, in 1969. This ambitious project documented several sites in the Albany-Troy area, and Eric measured and created HAER drawings of the Troy Gasholder, the Whipple Bowstring Truss, and the Delaware & Hudson Canal, Delaware Aqueduct. After hiring Eric as its first full-time employee in 1971, HAER began recording a variety of other bridges as part of state surveys in Virginia, Utah, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Florida. HAER also photographed several large railroad bridges and viaducts as part of aerial surveys of the Baltimore and Ohio and Erie railroads from 1970-72. Several of these early surveys were done with teams of students working in schools of architecture, and cosponsored by the Smithsonian Institution through the leadership of Robert Vogel.
Working with longtime colleague Prof. Emory Kemp of West Virginia University, Eric started planning the HAER Historic Bridge Program in 1973, which would become the first comprehensive national program to protect historic bridges. Through Eric’s determination, HAER developed partnerships with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and state historic preservation offices. The first goal of the program was to promote comprehensive historic bridge inventories in each state. When inventories were required by law in 1987, Eric’s initiative became a catalyst in making highway bridges the first class of historic structures to be nationally evaluated.

Freeport Bridge, one of several Wrought Iron Bridge Company structures that was preserved thanks to Eric’s efforts. Spanning the Upper Iowa River, this bowstring arch bridge, the second longest in the US, was relocated to Gunderson Park in Decorah, Iowa, where it now serves as a picnic area. Photo taken by the author in 2007

Eric recalled that when he first proposed the HAER historic bridges program, he initially received an adversarial reaction from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and state departments of transportation (DOTs). However, once DOTs realized that rehabilitation was an economical solution to maintaining bridges over replacement, and inventories revealed state’s wealth of historic bridges, some engineers were persuaded to appreciate their value. Inventories also helped states prioritize which bridges should be saved, and which older bridges could be replaced after documentation. The stipulation in the ISTEA legislation that 3% of funds go to preservation and amenities greatly helped fund the saving and rehabilitation of hundreds of historic bridges in the 1990s and 2000s.

Broadway Avenue Bridge in St. Peter, Minnesota. One of many bridges that has been rehabilitated for further traffic use. It was one of 29 historic bridges that are of interest of MnDOT and MinnHisSoc. Photo taken in 2013

After the preliminary state bridge inventories were completed, HAER partnered with state DOTs to undertake HAER summer documentation projects, collaborating with a combination of national and local experts and student engineers, architects and historians. Negotiating with a variety of partners from FHWA, DOTs, and other historic groups to secure funding, these HAER state bridge recording projects started with Ohio in 1986. David Simmons of the Ohio Historical Society served as a member of the team that completed the Ohio historic bridge inventory, and as an advisor to the 1986 and 1992 HAER Ohio Historic Bridge Recording Projects. He recalled that the HAER team set up offices at the architecture studios at The Ohio State University, and assisted Eric in training the students in how to read a bridge. The team documented over a dozen bridges (both on system and off) with large format photographs and histories, and completed measured drawings on roughly half of the bridges. HAER’s interest in many of these bridges helped save them from being replaced. An example was the Zoarville Station Bridge, which was preserved with support from local private citizens’ groups. From 1987 to 2001, Eric worked with several other states to document their historic bridges and add to the HAER Collection including: New York, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Iowa, Texas, and Illinois.

Zoarville Station Bridge in Ohio, the only Fink through truss bridge of its kind left in the US. This bridge was photographed by Nathan Holth in 2007 as it was undergoing extensive rehabilitation for reuse as a predestrian crossing

In addition to the nation’s highway bridges, the historic roads and bridges in the National Park system were also deteriorating from neglect and overuse. HAER developed a pilot project in the National Capital Region in 1988 to survey the historic and significant transportation-related structures and designed landscapes in various units of the National Park Service. With support from FHWA and NPS, this program expanded in 1989 and continued until 2002 to document national parks across the country. A sample of some of the parks where HAER employed large summer recording teams includes: Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Sequoia, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Acadia, Great Smoky, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller national parks; Skyline Drive, George Washington Memorial, Colonial, Rock Creek, Blue Ridge, Baltimore-Washington parkways; Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Gettysburg and Shiloh National Military Parks. HAER also partnered with Connecticut and New York State to record several historic parkways including: Merritt State Parkway, Taconic State Parkway, Bronx River Parkway, and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Hogback Covered Bridge, one of thousands of covered bridges that have been preserved for use as a pedestrian crossing after a bridge was constructed alongside it. It is one of six bridges that are part of the Bridges of Madison County tour, soon to be expanded to include a couple additional metal truss bridges relocated recently. Photo taken in 2007

Eric DeLony was also vital in getting HAER involved with a third major initiative involving historic bridges and FHWA. Realizing that covered bridges were a beloved but endangered resource, Vermont Senator James Jeffords proposed legislation to identify and rehabilitate them. The National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation (NHCBP) Program was established by FHWA in 1998 through the TEA-21 transportation bill. Through Eric’s determination and foresight, HAER received research and education funding beginning in 2002 to survey and document the nation’s most significant covered bridges, as well as other educational initiatives including engineering reports, a traveling exhibition, national conferences, a national database, and nominating national historic landmarks. With the benefit of continued FHWA support, HAER National Covered Bridges Recording Project Leader Christopher Marston has continued Eric DeLony’s vision and is in the process of finalizing several research projects. This includes the publication, Covered Bridges and the Birth of American Engineering, co-edited with Justine Christianson, and dedicated to Eric DeLony. Rehabilitation Guidelines for Historic Covered Bridges will be published later in 2017.
How he brought the historic bridges to the attention of the public esp. in terms of preservation and designating them on the National Register
Eric DeLony was involved in several organizations related to bridge preservation. Eric was an active member of the Society for Industrial Archeology (SIA) from its early years, and developed the SIA Historic Bridge Symposium beginning in the early 1980s. For these events, Eric would encourage his network of experts to share their research and experience with bridge preservation initiatives. He would typically introduce the symposium with his annual “State of the Bridge” address. These were more or less annual events from 1988 in Wheeling to 2003 in Montreal, the last year Eric attended as Chief of HAER. Eric returned in 2010-11 in Colorado Springs and Seattle with the co-sponsorship of Kitty Henderson and the Historic Bridge Foundation. HBF has continued the tradition biannually, and the 25th SIA Historic Bridge Symposium was held last year in Kansas City, MO.
He was also a committee member and friend of the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Historic Preservation and Archaeology in Transportation (ADC50) which included several professionals from state departments of transportation, SHPOs, and consultants involved in preservation issues on federally funded transportation projects. Research and best practices on preserving and maintaining historic bridges was always a major focus of the committee. As a subcontractor to Parsons Brinckerhoff, Eric co-authored with Robert Jackson, “A Context for Common Historic Bridge Types” for National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCPRP Project 25-25, Task 15) in 2005.
Not only was Eric interested in documenting historic bridges. He was also determined to see that as many structures as possible were saved and preserved. He followed through with DOTs and colleges to see that creative means could assure a bridge’s continued use. Some of these projects that Eric championed and encouraged included: the 1869 wrought-iron Henszey’s Bridge in Summerdale, PA; 1828 Blaine S-Bridge in Blaine, Ohio; the Aldrich Change Bridge in Macedon, NY, an 1858 Whipple Truss over the Erie Canal, among others.
Concurrent with the NPS Roads and Bridges projects, there was also a groundswell of interest in preserving historic roads, and related landscapes and structures. This initiative was championed by Paul Daniel Marriott, then at NTHP, and grew into the Preserving the Historic Road conferences, a biennial event that officially started in Los Angeles in 1998, with HAER as an original cosponsor. According to Marriott, “Eric appreciated that roads and bridges were intertwined. He was one of the first people to acknowledge that historic research and advocacy for historic roads. Eric DeLony was instrumental in establishing the historic roads movement.”
His involvement with HBs outside the US
As a Fulbright Scholar, Eric studied at Ironbridge with Neil Cossons in 1971-72. Eric always hired International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) foreign exchange scholars for his summer field teams beginning in 1984, which continued for approx. 25 years.
Eric was instrumental in getting HAER to collaborate with industrial archeologists and preservationists in Europe and other countries. He represented the United States at several meetings of the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). Another issue that Eric was involved with has finally shown dividends: after several decades, the U.S. delegation has finally agreed to nominate the Brooklyn Bridge as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Eric DeLony (left) and Dario Gasparini at the Guilford Pratt truss in Howard County, Maryland by Christopher Marston in 2013

What legacy he left behind
After Eric retired and moved to Santa Fe, NM in 2003, he continued to stay involved in historic bridge preservation. He ran a private consulting business for several years, and kept up an email list of his bridge contacts, which he called “the Pontists”. That list has evolved into the Pontists LinkedIn discussion group. He also published several articles on several historic bridge topics between 2000-2008.
In 2013, Eric bequeathed several of his rare books and technical reports to establish the “Eric N. DeLony Engineering and Bridge Collection” at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, MO.
Eric DeLony was truly a pioneer in the world of historic bridge documentation, preservation, and advocacy. The 2,000+ bridges in the HAER Collection, and hundreds of examples of preserved historic bridges across the country are all a testimony to Eric’s determination and enthusiasm for saving historic bridges.


“Biographies of the Experts: Eric DeLony.” Center for Environmental Excellence by AASHTO website, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20080905093246/http://environment.transportation.org/center/tech_experts/bios/26677.aspx
Eric DeLony, Landmark American Bridges. New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1993.
Eric DeLony, “HAER and the Recording of Technological Heritage: Reflections on 30 Years’ Work,” IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology Volume 25, Number 1 (1999): 5-28.
“Eric N. DeLony Engineering and Bridge Collection.” Linda Hall Library website. http://libguides.lindahall.org/c.php?g=218603&p=1444349
Duncan Hay, “Eric DeLony: 2000 General Tools Award Recipient.” Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter Volume 29, No. 2 (Summer 2000): 5-7. http://www.siahq.org/awards/generaltools/general%20tools%20award%20citations/2000_General_Tools_Award_-_Eric_Delony.pdf



Christopher Marston’s career at HABS-HAER and the benefits and setbacks towards preserving historic bridges can be seen through an interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. Click here for details. To him we have our thanks for his help. 🙂


2 thoughts on “A Tribute to Eric DeLony

  1. Reblogged this on The Bridgehunter's Chronicles and commented:

    The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, as well as members of the historic bridge community, preservations, historians and the like are sadden to hear of the recent passing of Eric DeLony. He died last week at the age of 74. He spearheaded efforts in documenting and preserving historic bridges in the United States during his time at the Historic American Engineering Record for over three decades. He had served as Chief from 1987 until his retirement in 2003. I had met him once while in New Mexico in 1999 and had been in touch with him many times via e-mail talking a lot about historic bridges and all the problems pertaining to preservation vs modernization and found him to be open and a “walking encyclopedia” on many bridge-related subjects. It was through his influence that hundreds of historic bridges have been saved and reused for recreational purposes. It was also through him that we have the likes of Kitty Henderson, Julie Bowers, Nathan Holth, James Baughn and Todd Wilson, who have continued their efforts in the work of historic bridges, picking up where he had left off. It was also through his inspiration that the Chronicles, launched in 2010, is what it is today.

    I did a tribute to Eric in January 2017 as part of the 50h anniversary of the National Register of Historic Places and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I’m reposting this in his honor, thanking him for his five decades of dedication and service. Our hearts go out to his family, colleagues, friends and those who knew him all these years, with two words to tell him:

    Thanks, Eric.


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