Bridges + Computer = Largest Bridge Database: An Interview with James Baughn about Bridgehunter.com

James Baughn in front of the Thebes Railroad Bridge

I had a chance to meet James Baughn for the first time at the 2010 Historic Bridge Weekend in Pittsburgh and one of the first impressions I had was that of a typical computer nerd: quiet, introvert, but one with a lot of knowledge in computers. Yet that’s just the crust of the pie. 😉 You get to know him further and you will find a helpful guy in every aisle of a grocery store, one with extensive knowledge and ways to help you whenever you need it. This is the case with James Baughn and his love for historic bridges. Combine bridges and computers and you have yourself a bridge library, with a librarian ready to help you with any questions and other information you need.

Bridgehunter.com has been up and running for about two decades. It’s a digital library compiled with bridges from the past and present, operated by Mr. Baughn himself, but thanks in part to a large number of contributors who made this website happen, including yours truly, who was one of a few regular contributors during its infancy. Like him with his bridges from Missouri and Kansas, I had a large amount of bridge photos stemming from the 1990s and located in Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota that have since been on his website.

But how did bridgehunter.com come about? That is one of many questions I had for him, the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award winner, as we did an online interview unplugged. And as you will see, this computer guy is that librarian for bridge enthusiasts. 😎💻🌉

.

     1. What got you interested in historic bridges?

In college I started traveling back roads randomly to explore where they
led. One day I happened upon a rickety bridge with running boards that
weren’t all nailed down, causing the bridge to “sing” when I drove
across. The bridge’s trusses were massive, and yet the whole thing
rested on caissons that didn’t seem very sturdy. I was surprised that
the structure was still open to traffic.

As it turns out, it wasn’t too many years later that the county replaced
the bridge (the Wappapello Bridge in Wayne County, Missouri). The new
bridge was downright ugly and boring. To add insult to injury, the
original 1911 builder’s plaques were mounted on the new bridge, almost
like trophies to show off how the county officials had conquered and
vanquished the historic bridge.

I saw the same pattern elsewhere as interesting historic bridges were
converted into UCEBs (Ugly Concrete Eyesore Bridges), a term that I
inadvertantly coined. With little local support for saving these
bridges, it was clear that somebody needed to at least photograph and
document them before it was too late. So that’s what I ended up doing.


     2. Were you involved in any projects involving historic bridges
while growing up? If so, which ones.


No. Growing up as an “Air Force brat”, my parents and I moved around
frequently, and we took advantage of the opportunity to explore. While
living in England and later Germany, I liked to track down castles and
castle ruins. I didn’t really pay attention to historic bridges until later.


     3. What got you interested in computers growing up?

I remember my favorite Christmas morning — I think I was in third grade
at the time — was getting my first computer, a Tandy 1000 TL/2. It’s
laughably primitive by today’s standards. But that opened the door for
getting interested in computers and programming.


     4. According to an article by SE Missourian, you wanted to study
civil engineering but decided for computer sciences at SE Missouri
University. How did you manage to tie the two together while pursuing a
degree in computer sciences?


In hindsight, a degree in historic preservation may have actually been
more helpful…

For the computer science degree, I selected the “Systems” option that
was offered at the time. This track was focused heavily on math and
physics, and so it wasn’t that much different from civil engineering, at
least for the basic courses. I technically earned enough credits to get
a minor in mathematics, but that kind of double-dipping wasn’t allowed
by the department then.

I remember that the senior seminar examined engineering disasters, both
in the software and civil engineering fields. Two of the examples given
were the Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure and the Hyatt Regency Walkway
collapse. The point was that the types of mistakes made by civil
engineers also apply to software engineering.

The most helpful part of the computer science curriculum wasn’t the
programming aspects. It was how to manage data structures and databases,
which turned out to be crucial in building bridgehunter.com.


     5. What factors led to the creation of bridgehunter.com?

Starting out, I only posted about bridges that I had visited and
photographed. I was trying to get to as many bridges as possible before
they became bulldozer bait.

Then I received, quite out of the blue, an inquiry from the Arkansas
state highway department asking if I would like to post their bridge
photo collection online. I received a stack of discs containing the
photos as well as a book providing basic information about each bridge.
It took months to post everything. This was in the days before Google
Maps and Google Street View, so I had to painstakingly use printed maps
(and MapQuest, such as it was) to try to pinpoint the location of each
bridge.

After that, I received an ever-growing number of submissions from the
Midwest and beyond. The submissions were piling up faster than I could
process them, and it was clear that this wasn’t going to work. So I took
a few months and built a whole-new website where contributors could
register and upload information and photos directly — without waiting
on me. I chose a new name not tied to a particular region: bridgehunter.com.


     6. When the website was created it was originally known as The
Historic Bridges of the Midwest. Why the Midwest? And what was the
original aim for the website?


I had stumbled across a database of bridges — the National Bridge
Inventory — and I managed to obtain a copy of the data for Missouri and
a few surrounding states. I was able to use this data as a starting
point, since it showed the basic data for all of the bridges open on
public roads. This was much better than driving around randomly hoping
to find bridges (which is what I did initially). However, at the time I
only had data for some Midwestern states.


     7. Over the years, the website has expanded and with that, the name
change to bridgehunter.com. Can you explain in detail the changes that
took place and why?


It was a happy day when the Federal Highway Administration decided to
post the entire National Bridge Inventory online and make it readily
available to copy and use. This made it possible to immediately expand
the coverage of the website to the entire nation, including those remote
areas where none of my contributors had been yet.

Growth in the number of contributors and contributions steadily
increased — as well as my website hosting bills. It’s a snowball
effect. Once somebody starts posting photos from a particular region,
more people come out of the woodwork to chime in with their own
information and photos.

At present, the website has over 74,000 bridge listings, of which 59%
have at least one photo. Overall the website has around 350,000 photos.

I’m currently looking to expand internationally, although this has
proven difficult because I have to start from scratch — there’s no
equivalent to the National Bridge Inventory in other counties. I haven’t
quite figured out how to structure the expanded website. For the U.S.,
every bridge is only three clicks away from the home page: click on a
state, click on a county, and then click on a bridge. Easy. This breaks
down for other countries which have vastly different structures.


     8. Imagine you have someone who wants to add a bridge to your
website that doesn’t exist in the databank? The person is brand new to
the site. How does it work?


The easiest option is to post a comment to the Forum with any
information or photos for the bridge. It will likely get picked up by
one of the regular contributors and incorporated into the website. This
option can be done anonymously and doesn’t require signing up.

For people who want to become contributors, they can sign up for an
account by looking for the “Register for an editor’s account” option in
the black bar at the top of every page. Registering is simple, but
because of the never-ending parade of spammers that try to sign up, I
have to approve everybody manually (I wish this wasn’t necessary). On
the second page of the registration form, the system asks for a brief
bio about yourself. Although not required, I recommend entering
something about your interest in bridges, as this helps me filter out
the bots and other troublemakers.

After you’ve gained access, you have three options for adding a bridge:

1. Click “Add bridge” in the top bar at the top of the site. On the map
that appears, type in an address, city, or GPS coordinates to drop a pin
on the location of the bridge. You can adjust the pin’s location by
dragging and dropping it. Once the pin is in place, the system shows a
“What’s Here?” report of nearby places, including bridges that have
already been added to the site (very useful for preventing
duplications). Click the “Add Bridge Here” button to confirm the location.

2. If you don’t know the exact location, you can drill down to the state
and county level, and then click “Add Bridge Here”. This is helpful for
long-lost bridges where the location is unclear.

3. For bridges that are open to traffic on a public road, you can try to
find it in the National Bridge Inventory database, which will
automatically pull in details about the bridge (location, dimensions,
inspection records, etc.) so you don’t have to enter those. To do this,
first drill down to the state and county level, and then click “Import
from NBI”. The system will show all of the bridges on the NBI for that
county (bridges highlighted in green have already been added to the
website). If you think you’ve found the bridge in question, click the
“Import” link next to it to see a report about that bridge. Then choose
the most appropriate option under the heading “Is this the right bridge?”

No matter how you start, you will next see a form for entering the
bridge’s information (some items may be pre-filled for you). Most fields
are optional and can be left alone if you don’t know. Once you are
satisfied, click “Save & Publish”. If you notice a problem with the
newly created page for the bridge, click the “Edit” button to make
changes. Other options (look for the yellow buttons) include adding
photos, documents, essays, videos, and Street View scenes.


     9. How does bridgehunter.com stand out in comparison with other
bridge websites, such as historicbridges.org, bridgemapper, Workin
Bridges, structurae.net and even the Chronicles?


The goals of each website are different. Structurae.net tends to focus
on modern bridges and contemporary engineering companies. Nathan Holth’s
historicbridges.org is more in-depth on each bridge, but doesn’t cover
as many bridges.



     10. What role has bridgehunter.com played regarding finding
information on the history of bridges?


The main role is letting people from all over the country post their
photos and information, creating a database that is more than the sum of
its parts, in the style of Wikipedia. The Forum is helpful too, as
people can post comments and there’s a good chance that somebody will
know the answer, no matter how obscure.


     11. How have the state and federal governments benefited from
bridgehunter.com regarding bridge preservation vs. replacement?


I frequently see the data on bridgehunter.com being used to determine
whether a particular bridge is eligible for the National Register of
Historic Places. One scenario is finding that a bridge is one of the
last of its kind remaining in a region, state, or the entire country,
which is a strong argument for a NRHP listing.

Another scenario is seeing that a similar bridge has already been
determined NRHP eligible (even in another state), which can be used as a
precedent. Typically state governments maintain historic bridge
inventories for their own states, but don’t keep up with other states.
That’s where a national database like bridgehunter.com is handy.

Although NRHP eligibility is not enough to prevent a bridge from being
demolished, it can tip the scales toward rehabilitation instead of
replacement.


     12. How has bridgehunter.com cooperated with other agencies and
organizations that involve historic bridge preservation?


As mentioned before, I typically field questions about National Register
eligibility, and I can often make the case that a bridge should be
considered eligible.


     13. What role has bridgehunter.com played regarding historic bridge
preservation?


One unexpected role is that ordinary people trying to save a particular
bridge will land on bridgehunter.com through Google searches and soon
realize that they aren’t alone — there is a large community of other
people interested in the same thing. This provides a strong motivator.


     14. Same question as Nr. 13 but with the Historic Bridge Weekend?

The Historic Bridge Weekend was spearheaded by Todd Wilson of Pittsburgh
as a gathering of bridge enthusiasts to meet and look at bridges. The
first two years were in Pittsburgh, and then he handed over the reigns
to me to plan a gathering in Missouri. Unfortunately, as I was planning
the event, my Internet Service Provider went out of business suddenly,
leaving me without decent Internet access which made event planning
rather… painful.

As part of the weekend, I was able to coordinate with Kris Dyer who was
leading a campaign to save the Riverside Bridge in the town of Ozark.
She arranged to host a fundraising dinner during the weekend. After
starting in St. Louis, attendees at the Historic Bridge Weekend traveled
to Ozark for the dinner. Local officials were impressed that people from
out of state had come to the dinner, and this was key in getting their
support for saving the bridge.


     15. Bridgehunter.com had a TRUSS Awards, similar to Chronicles’
Ammann Awards (now renamed Bridgehunter Awards). How does it work and
how successful has it been?


The idea with the TRUSS Awards (or, “Top Ranked Unique Saveable
Structures”) was to highlight bridges that were in danger of being
demolished, but had the potential to be saved. It was modeled after the
“Most Endangered” or “Places in Peril” lists that are put out by
historic preservation groups.

It was successful in the first two years, but it proved to be very
time-consuming to manage the program, so I’ve discontinued it. Another
problem, as I discovered, is that many bridges can be quickly threatened
and lost in a short time period. A list announced once per year is
simply too slow to deal with these threats, so a current goal of
bridgehunter.com is to call attention to bridges as soon as they are
threatened.


     16. Outside bridgehunter.com, what historic bridge projects have
you been involved with?


I haven’t been involved in too many specific projects — running the
website is enough. I do side work in general historic preservation,
including serving on the boards for Missouri Preservation (Missouri
Alliance for Historic Preservation) and the Cape Girardeau County
(Missouri) Historical Society.


     17. Have you thought about writing a book on the historic bridges
in Missouri (or the Midwest)?


That’s on my to-do list, although right now I’m focusing on writing a
more general travel guide to Southeast Missouri. It will feature scenic
and historic landmarks, including bridges.

Photo taken by John Marvig

   18. What are your top five historic bridges you would recommend
visiting while in Missouri?


1. Eads Bridge, St. Louis – Represents major breakthroughs in civil
engineering, including the first significant use of steel in a bridge,
first use of pneumatic caissons during construction, and the longest
arch span ever built at the time.

2. Old Appleton Bridge, Cape Girardeau County – Wrought iron bridge
destroyed in a flash flood in 1982 and put back together again. It took
20 years to restore this bridge, made possible by the persistent efforts
of local residents who refused to let it go — and a dash of good luck.

3. Green’s Mill Bridge, Camden County – The only remaining self-anchored
suspension bridge in the U.S. except for the “Three Sisters” in
Pittsburgh. Was recently bypassed by a new bridge, but a strong local
campaign is working to preserve the bridge for pedestrian use.

4. Grand Auglaize Bridge, Miller County – Primitive suspension bridge
that still carries light traffic. Built by Joseph Dice, who was famous
for not using blueprints, instead preferring to adjust the suspension
cables based on “feel”. Driving across this bridge is an adventure.

5. Boonville Bridge, Cooper County – Former railroad bridge that had
been abandoned and appeared set to be demolished, but was spared thanks
to a wild chain of events. Partially reopened to pedestrians with the
hope that the entire bridge can be reopened — and the vertical lift
span put back into operation.


     19. If a person wants to develop a (historic) bridge website, what
tips would you give him/her?


My philosophy about website design: it’s always about the content and
the data. The appearance and flashiness doesn’t matter so much.

The Chronicles would like to thank Mr Baughn for his time in answering the questions. If you are interested and/or would like to contribute to his bridge library, click on the link below. It’s free to register as a contributor.

Link: http://bridgehunter.com/

.