BHC Pic of the Week Nr. 154 Tribute to James Baughn

With bridgehunting come one event that happens each year in the summertime. The Historic Bridge Weekend was introduced in 2009 through a coalition which featured Todd Wilson, Nathan Holth, Kitty Henderson and James Baughn, among others. The 3-4 day conference brought in many experts in bridge preservation and maintenance, as well as engineers, historians, and many interested bridge enthusiasts and locals with a passion for history.

The first two years of the conference took place in western Pennsylvania, which had one of the highest number of iroan and steel truss bridges in the country, yet it was the same state where the rate of replacing historic bridges was one of the highest in the US. Many of the bridges lost to modernization had ties to bridge building firms in the greater Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas. In fact most of the bridge building companies building bridges west of the Mississippi River prior to 1900 came from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and New York, with the likes of King, Groton, Nelson and Buchanan, Lassig and Wrought Iron among others stamping their labels on the portals and endposts, with some ornamental decoration that went along with it.

This picture was taken of the Quaker Bridge by James Baughn in 2010. It was my first year attending the conference and the very first time I met Mr. Baughn, with whom we worked together on his website bridgehunter.com, which is now owned by the Historic Bridge Foundaton. It was this bridge and the movement to save it that caused the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to turn the tide towards bridge replacement and decided that instead of tearing down history, one can save it, even if it meant relocating the structure for reuse, for the agency had been notorious for being too passive in its policies towards historic bridge preservation.

The Quaker Bridge was built in 1898 by the Cleveland Bridge Company with James R. Gemmill overseeing the project. The bridge is a Pratt through truss span with pinned connections, Town lattice portal bracings and finials on each corner. PennDOT had originally pushed for plans to tear down and replace the bridge as far back as 2004. Yet it took the efforts of Nathan Clark to purchase the bridge and persuade the agency to retract its plan and construct a bridge on a new alignment. The project was completed in 2006 and the truss bridge has remained in place ever since- still in pristine condition as shown in the picture taken over a decade ago but now part a hiking trail, although one can use the bridge for fishing and picnicking.

The Historic Bridge Weekend focused on efforts to preserve historic bridges and maintain them for future use, visiting historic bridges that are frequently visited, while some of them were the focus of preservation efforts. We included a lot of bridgehunting tours in addition to the talks that were given by many including myself. It drew hundreds of people to the event, many from the far outreaches of the country. After the first two events in Pennsylvania, we had our next one in Missouri in 2011, Indiana in 2012, Iowa in 2013 and Michigan in 2014 before it became an informal event afterwards where bridgeshunters gathered to just visit the bridges in the areas of interest. The event in Missouri (James’ home state) included tours of bridges in St. Louis and Kansas City with a big gathering to save the Riverside Bridge in Ozark, an event that reunited friends and made the preservation attempt at Riverside a smashing success. 🙂 The event in Iowa in 2013 was one I coordinated with an open-air speech on James Hippen’s legacy by his wife Elaine at a restaurant in Stone City, a large scale informal event at Sutliff Bridge and its nearby Bar and Grill and in Pella at the golf course with a chance to explore the bridges in the Bluffs region, Des Moines and Boone and along the Mississippi.

What we learned from these events was that there was a large interest in saving these historic bridges by the public, yet the problem is trying to convince government officials to cater to the demands of the public. In some cases, we were greeted with lip service, while behind-the-door deals were carried out to have it their way and not with the people. Sometimes, the media sometimes distorts the information on the bridge without thinking that the bridge has a unique value in terms of its history and its association with the community. Still, the word gets around faster with social media than what modernists and government officials championing bridge replacement try conveying, which led to the creation of this online column and its social media pages in 2010. In turn, we have over three dozen pages devoted to historic bridges and preservation around the world on facebook, twitter and even Instagram. Some focus on bridge photography, which is the most liked because they contain brief information on the structures’ history. Yet there are individual pages that focus on preserving a bridge which has gained thousands of supporters each bridge. Save the Riverside Bridge in Ozark had over 3000 supporters on its facebook page, for example. In any case, the Historic Bridge Weekend has produced a large interest in bridges around the world, and when word on a historic bridge being a target for replacement comes around, the interest in saving the structure will be there, each with ideas on how to save it and each one with ties to the bridge and the memories that go along with it.

The Historic Bridge Weekend brought back a lot of memories of friends and bridges, ideas and stories and with that, a circle of pontists that has gotten tenfold bigger since its inauguration. It is hoped that the tradition will continue in the US, Europe and beyond, so that more people can take interest in bridges, its design and especially ways to preserve them for generations to come. The event is not just for pontists but for everyone with an interest in bridges, their histories and how they are tied together with community.

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