Bridgehunter Awards for Lifetime Legacy Post Humous: John F. Graham

John F Graham
John F. Graham lecturing at the 2010 HB Conference in Pittsburgh. Photo taken in August 2010

When I first met John Graham at the 2nd annual Historic Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh in 2010, my first impression of him was that he was a conservative, dressed up as white collar worker, but a man of detail and experience.  It was John F. Graham who came up with a concept of augmented reality for structural analysis of bridges.

Augmented reality is a computer term that I had recently collected some general information on through a pair of presentations in an English for IT class at the Erfurt University of Applied Sciences in Germany. It basically analyses the inner portion of structures to analyze problems and find solutions. It had been introduced for medicine for identifying tissue damage in humans, making a precise diagnostic and recommendations for improving the body damage where the damage occurred.  Yet could Augmented Reality work for infrastructure, such as bridges?

Red Jacket Trestle after its reconstruction. Photo taken in 2012 by John Marvig

Apparently according to Graham, it does. In theory based on trial and error combined with experience, Mr. Graham at the conference showed that augmented reality can identify structural deficiencies inside bridge structures, through the use of special sensors, and make recommendations for fixing them. This latest technology would save money and prolong the life of the bridge, especially after the structure is rehabilitated. Evidence in praxis was shown with the Red Jacket Railroad Trestle south of Mankato, Minnesota later that year, for the Minnesota DOT was in charge of rebuilding the trestle after floodwaters undermined one of the piers, forcing officials to remove the deck plate girders while watching the stone pier collapse. In the other piers, structural weaknesses were identified to a point where the piers were reconstructed to resemble the original. The restoration ended in 2011.  Other rehabilitation projects involved this type of technology which saved costs and opened the doors for reusing historic bridges.

Hot Metal Bridges in Pittsburgh. Photo taken in 2010

Mr. Graham’s presentation based on this concept was one of many aspects that will make him a person who was conservative but reasonable when it came to the decision of rehabilitating bridges that were an asset to the area and replacing those that deteriorated beyond repair. He was a true Pittsburghese, having been born in the Steel City on 2 April, 1936 and studied civil engineering at Carnegie Tech (today known as Carnegie Mellon University. For most of his career, he was Director for Engineering and Construction for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, a position he held until 1989. During his time, he was responsible for the rehabilitation of hundreds of bridges in and around Pittsburgh, including the Sister Bridges, Sixteenth Street and the arch bridges at Fort Pitt and Fort Dusquene, just to name a few. He also had to replace some, like at Sutersville and Coraopolis, according to Todd Wilson, a civil engineer who knew him well during his days at Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Graham in 1978 pushed for and supported legislation that would allow the Federal Highway Administration to allocate the 90:10 funding ratio, whereby state and local governments would only bear 10% of the cost for rehabilitating or replacing the bridge, the former Graham championed and led to the prolongation of the lives of several of Pittsburgh’s bridges. Legislation continued this 90:10 ratio and prioritized rehabilitation until the Minneapolis Bridge collapse in 2007, which resulted in more radical measures to replace bridges. To the end, Mr. Graham continued advocating for identifying and fixing deficiencies in the structures, claiming that they were cost effective and would save on the use of materials needed for new bridges. Indirectly, it was a plus when identifying the historic significance of the bridges.

In 1989, Mr. Graham became the Director of Capital Projects for the City of Pittsburgh, where he oversaw the construction of the Pittsburgh International Airport and other related construction projects, including the Southern Beltway. He later worked for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and later taught engineering classes at Carnegie Mellon. He even operated his own civil engineering firm, where he was responsible for several projects, including the infrastructure for Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers American Football team. Much of the work in the greater Pittsburgh area has Mr. Graham’s name on it, and his unique conservative approach to bridge engineering will be remembered, even as people cross several of Pittsburgh’s restored historic bridges, of which he’s left a mark in at least half of them.

John F. Graham died peacefully on 14 March, 2019 with his daughter Wendy and her husband Marc by his side. In the last two years of his life he lived with her and her family in Philadelphia, which included her two sons. He was preceded in death by his wife, Kay.  Mr. Graham was a true Pittsburghese and one who left a mark in Pittsburgh, the US and beyond, especially for his work in the field of civil engineering. Therefore, for his work, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is awarding him and his family Lifetime Legacy Post Humus with a big thanks for his contributions. Because of him, we have found many creative ways to make bridges safe and maintain its integrity instead of replacing them outright, a concept that does more than waste money. It impacts the environment negatively because of materials used that are dwindling and non-renewable.

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