In our last installment in the series paying tribute to the winners of the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category Bridge Media and Genre, we look at the Great Bridge, the novel itself, by David McCullough. In June 2021, Essy Shapiro Dean wrote an extensive book review on this 500-page work of art, focusing on the bridge and serving as the springboard to the podcast that would be produced by Greg Jackson in October the same year. It was one of the series she wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge, as this structure has been part of her life.
I had a chance to interview her about the book review to learn more about the book and her connection with the bridge. Some of the answers will surprise you as the reader. Before you proceed with reading the interview, check out the two book reviews she did on the Brooklyn Bridge: The one by McCullough (click here) and the one by Tracey Wood called The Engineer’s Wife (click here). If you are still not so sure about the review, let alone the interview questions, I would read the books themselves. You will be amazed at the hidden treasures each book presents to the reader.
Enjoy the reviews and the interview that is presented:
1. What is your personal connection with the Brooklyn Bridge? Have you visited the bridge and if so when?
My grandmother first took me on the bridge when I was about five. I’ve walked across it several times and I never get tired of it. I’m looking forward to doing it again in 2022. Now, the East River has always been one of my favorite walking spots, and I always spend time looking at the bridge and how it was built. Emily Warren Roebling has also become one of my favorite historical women in recent years.
2. There are dozens of materials about the Brooklyn Bridge, but you decided on the book by David McCullough. Why did you choose this book?
I had wanted to read The Great Bridge for a while. It first piqued my interest when I had to read another David McCullough book, 1776, for school. At the time I was fifteen and the minutia detail McCullough included bored me, so I didn’t read it. Then last year, for the anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on 24 May I decided to make it a whole Brooklyn Bridge weekend on my blog, and this book was a part of that. I also wanted to read a nonfiction about the building of the bridge, which I haven’t done since I was a child.
3. Have you met Mr. McCullough in person?
No, I’ve never met David McCullough.
4. If you were to make a summary about the book, how would you describe it?
It’s the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge with lots of minute detail that I now revel in.
5. What points in the book should the reader pay attention to?
The actual building, the problem-solving that had to happen, how much of a force Emily Warren Roebling was after her husband, and the chief engineer of the project, Washington Roebling, was unable to come to the building site.
6. What points in the book did you find interesting?
The points that I found interesting are the same as what I’d want future readers of the book to pay attention to.
7. What points can you mention that were quite difficult to read? Why is that?
I don’t think any of it was particularly complicated to read. The hardest bits were probably the nitty-gritty of spinning the wire for the cables, and trying to visualize various engineering processes, some of which I definitely got lost in.
8. On the scale of 1 to 10 (one being the best), how would you rate the book and why?
I usually rate my books on a 5-point scale (five is best), so a bit of conversion is needed here. I also have a hard time rating nonfiction. Probably somewhere between a three and four, maybe three and a half. I really liked it, but the book as a whole wasn’t something I loved. I love the things Emily Roebling stood for and that she took on so many of the tasks Roebling could no longer do.
9. Who would you recommend the book to?
Those who like nonfiction, New York City history, American history, building or want a good story.
10. If a person starts reading the book, what advice would you give to him/her?
Try not to get too bogged down by the minutia details, it’s McCullough’s writing style. The actual story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge is one of family, women taking a place in a man’s world, happiness, anger, struggle and success and is the type of story that can create great nonfiction.
11. Any future book reviews, especially on bridges, that we should look forward to?
There are book reviews going up on my main blog two to three times a month. I’m not sure about future reviews, that have to do with bridges, but during the anniversary weekend of the Brooklyn Bridge opening in 2021 I reviewed a historical fiction book about Emily Warren Roebling called The Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood.
Thank you for answering the questions and also congratulations! 🙂
To summarize, we have six people that deserve recognition for winning the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category Best Bridge Media and Genre. We have David McCullough for writing the 500-page biography The Great Bridge, Tracey Wood for writing about Emily Roebling in The Engineer’s Wife, Essy Dean for reviewing both and writing extensively on the Brooklyn Bridge in her column, Greg Jackson of History That Doesn’t Suck for the extensive research on the Roebling family and creating a very interesting podcast and lastly Dave Arnold and Kristen Bennett of Infrastructure Junkies for interviewing Jackson in a two-part series. Both can be found in an article and podcast here. Sometimes it takes a team to go into detail on how a structural wonder, like the Brooklyn Bridge and make it a work of art. The bridge is interesting not just as a civil engineer or historian, but also for everyone who wants to know how America was developing as a country during the Guilded Ages and how it has developed in terms of the country’s infrastructure, bridge building and American culture in general. The Brooklyn Bridge symbolizes America in a way that when you think it, when you design it and when you have the stamina to build it, you can make it a work of art for others to use and to take pride. When I cross the bridge next time when visiting New York, I will think of not only the Roeblings for actually building the bridge but the winners of the 2021 Awards for bringing the history to light, right down to the wire cable. 🙂
After talking about the podcast History that Doesn’t Suck (click here if you haven’t read the interview yet), we’re going to move on with the interview with Prof. Jackson about his masterpiece on the Brooklyn Bridge and the family that left their mark on its construction, from the planning to the realization of the historic landmark. Born in Mühlhausen in the German state of Thuringia, John Roebling had already established a reputation for his perfectionism and his inventions. He had already invented the wire suspension bridge and prior to building the bridge in Brooklyn, he had already left his mark with the Cincinnati-Covington Suspension Bridge as the longest of its kind in the world and the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls as the first suspension bridge with double-decking. Little did he realize that designing the Brooklyn Bridge was easy, building it presented more obstacles than necessary and after he died in 1870, the responsibility fell to his son, Washington and his wife Emily, who would complete the job even though the bridge opened in 1883.
This is just a summary. Yet the juiciest details would come in the form of a podcast Jackson created in June of 2021. It was then followed by a two-part interview with Dave Arnold and Kristen Bennett of Infrastructure Junkies in October. Both of these can be found in part 2 of the interview I did with Prof. Jackson. The first will start with the actual podcast which is enclosed below. It will then be followed by my questions and lastly, the two-part series by Infrastructure Junkies.
We hope you enjoy the show and will get an appreciation of how people come together to build a bridge that not only crosses a river but a landmark that helped America be what it is today. 🙂
And so, without further ado, here we go:
After listening to his podcast, here are the questions I had for him and his responses:
1. What got you interested in the topic on the bridge and with that, the Roebling family?
Well, the Gilded Age is often thought of as kind of a “downer” in US history. I wanted to tell some stories that highlighted the good in the era too. Among those, in my mind, are the magnificent construction projects undertaken in the time. I’d call the Brooklyn Bridge one of the most outstanding among those.
It also has such a compelling story in terms of its construction. It is Roebling family’s multi-generational work! The blood and tears in that thing (literally) makes it a compelling tale.
2. Have you visited any of the Roebling sites, including bridges, historic residences, and even the birthplaces including John’s in Mühlhausen, Germany?
Alas, I’ve only been to the Brooklyn Bridge. But you can bet I walked it, both ways, slowly, admiring every Roebling cable spanning the bridge and running into the anchors.
3. Did you have an opportunity to read the novel by David McCullough on the Brooklyn Bridge or any of the works about the bridge?
I have read David McCullough’s most excellent history of the Bridge. In researching the episode, I also read Roebling biographies, histories of Gilded Age New York, Boss Tweed, looks at maps, plans, etc. Every episode is rigorously researched. It isn’t uncommon for me to have dozens of primary and secondary sources. If you visit my website you can see the sources I used in that episode (HTDSpodcast.com).
4. You mentioned a lot about the engineer John Roebling and his character in your podcast. What are two things that you know about him that many of us don’t know about him?
Two things most people probably don’t know about John Roebling: 1) he loved his family. He worked so hard and was such a serious person, I think this is lost sometimes. But under that tough skin was a loving heart, even if he failed to show it as often as he should’ve. 2) John wasn’t just an engineer, he was an inventor. Though I might say a successful engineer is and must be an inventor. I’m slow to speak to what engineers should do when I’m not one, but as a historian who’s studied a lot of engineers and their incredible works, I’ve noted that the greats don’t just build; they build things others said couldn’t be done: like the Brooklyn Bridge. Generations of Americans said it couldn’t be done. John never asked “if” a thing could be done. He just started figuring out the “how” on his own.
5. When John died from tetanus as a result of his foot injury, his son Washington took over. If you were to compare him with his father, what are some differences you can find between them in terms of their character, how they handled building the bridge, etc. ?
Both were brilliant men and excellent engineers. John was more stern in his demeanor. Washington displayed more emotional intelligence than his father.
Yet, John was the genius than Washington wasn’t. And I don’t mean that as an insult, I think “Washy” would agree with me. He was an excellent engineer, but if we reserve “genius” for the top 1%, the out-of-the-box thinkers, John is the one of the two who hits that mark.
6. Then there’s Washington’s wife, Emily. She basically took over when he fell ill and became bed-ridden. What role did she play in helping finish the bridge project?
Oh, Emily is a hero! She taught herself engineering so she could be the relay between her bed-ridden husband and the ground. She was the co-Chief Engineer in my book.
7. There are some in the history community that say that Emily should have been credited for building the bridge, but in the end, Washington’s name was mentioned. Why was she fully left out and should there be something to honor her for she was Washington’s eyes and guidance?
Frankly, I think it’s a damn shame that the plaques on the Brooklyn Bridge listing the big shots who built it and made it happen do not list her. I think it should be updated.
The reason why she got left off … I have no sources that I’ve seen in which the decision makers explain their rationale. As a historian, I want those documents first and foremost. In their absence, however, I would say it is fair to speculate the reason comes down to US attitudes on gender roles in the 19th century. And I am all for her receiving the proper recognition she deserves in our present.
8. Since the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, there have been improvements in safety standards regarding bridge building. Can you elaborate further on this?
Thankfully, John Roebling over-engineered it. The bridge was designed to hold far more weight than it was expected to. That’s why it didn’t need much change for the first few decades. But as the population increased and cars became a thing, concrete and steel-reinforced roadway had to be added in the 20th century. The bridge has been renovated (painted, cleaned, etc.) a number of times. Like anything you want to last, it needs care and attention.
Though perhaps one of the most important things New York has done was simply building other bridges, which cut down on traffic and weight on the bridge each day!
9. Last year, you did a two-hour podcast on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Roebling family through Infrastructure Junkies. Your original podcast was about an hour. What are some differences between the two podcasts?
The key difference is that HTDS’s episode was the story of the Brooklyn Bridge told as a single-narrator. I got int the drama of the Roebling family a bit more and the intrigue of New York politics. With Infrastructure Junkies, not only was the story’s telling through a conversation, it was focused very much on the nuts and bolts (literally). Still a good time, just a different flavor.
10. What was your reaction to winning the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the category Best Bridge Media and Genre?
Honored, of course! Thank you again for the acknowledgement. It’s always good to know one’s work is appreciated, and I’ll add that I was particularly proud of that episode. I really enjoyed it. I obsessed over getting the engineering details right. So getting a nod for my telling of the Brooklyn Bridge was great.
11. Are you planning on doing some further podcasts on American bridges and if so, which ones?
Likely going to do Golden Gate and Bay Bridges at least. Others … we’ll see!
12. If you have some advice for people doing podcasts on bridges, what would you give them?
I would say know your audience. Are you telling the history of bridges or the infrastructure? Not that they are mutually exclusive but figure out what your primary goal is and make sure your product matches your intentions.
And now the two-part interview about the Brooklyn Bridge done by the crew at Infrastructure Junkies. Each part is approximately 40 minutes.
And before we close it on the series on the Brooklyn Bridge, we have one person to interview because of the book review on David McCullough’s work on the bridge. That will come in the next article. Stay tuned! 🙂
Teaching history is about the same as walking a tightrope. There are some subjects that are considered boring to many and the teacher who is presenting it may talk about it as if the content is dry, the passion is gone and it feels like a chore just to talk about it. For such topics, if one cannot find a creative way to at least entertain the audience and make it interesting, the teacher will be tossed off the tightrope and into a pool of boos and hisses.
Then there are subjects that teachers present that are very interesting and is taught in such a way that it brings the audience to their feet. Most of the time, by looking at one aspect that we don’t talk about on a regular basis, and by telling a story about it in a creative way, it will build an audience that will ask for more stories like that. It’s like telling a bedtime story with something that we’ve never heard of before but it is interesting to listen to.
This is where Professor Greg Jackson comes in. A professor of history at Utah Valley University, Mr. Jackson created such a set of bedtime stories about the history of the United States and focusing on the aspects we don’t talk about much, in the podcast “History That Doesn’t Suck” (HTDS). This bi-weekly podcast looks at certain areas of history and focusing on one topic of interest, turns it into an one-hour show which shed some light and some thought on how things happened the way they did. We have one example worth showing you in the Transcontinental Railroad (the first of a three-part series), which you can click on below:
From my own personal point of view, listening to HTDS takes you away from the stresses of teaching life, counting the daily commutes and traffic jams, into the unknown, where you just have one story teller who takes you on a tour of the past. It’s a perfect escape but you have the opportunity to take a bit of knowledge with you and this speaking from a historian’s point of view.
I had a chance to interview Prof. Jackson about his podcast on the Brooklyn Bridge and the family that built the first structure over the East River in New York City in the Roebling Family. I had a lot of questions for him about his podcast and the bridge, especially because his work landed him with the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards Winner in the Category Bridge Media and Genre. Therefore, I’ve decided to divide this interview up into two parts. Today we will focus on HTDS itself, while tomorrow we will get to the meat of the subject, which is the bridge that helped pave the way for the development of America’s infrastructure, which we know today.
And so, without further ado, here is the interview. Enjoy! 🙂
Questions about History that Doesn‘t Suck (HTDS) in General:
1. How long have you hosted the podcast HTDS?
4.5 years. It will be 5 years this October.
2. What was the concept behind HTDS? And in simpler terms, why the title?
To explain the concept behind HTDS I think I have to first point out that I’m a university professor. My professional life is dedicated to the study and teaching of history. To that end, I wanted to create an engaging, entertaining, yet academicallyrigorous way for Americans of all walks of life to be able to learn their history; the stuff that we should pick up in K-12 or general ed courses in college (and very well may have but could now use a refresher). So that’s what I set out to do. HTDS is designed to be––and I think and hope it is––rigorous as a dull textbook yet entertaining enough that you come to it for fun. That’s the sweet spot I’m going for.
Ah, the name! I went with “History That Doesn’t Suck” because even though I love history and do not believe it sucks at all, I know that, for many, formal education can suck the joy out of learning. I’m trying to conveying to that specific listener, to the person who thinks history is boring, that I get what their experience has been, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. History isn’t just names and dates. It’s real people and their stories. And with this podcast, you’ll get the latter.
3. Who’s your general audience?
I have a broad audience. The old school fans of all things history listen, sure, but per my goal, I’ve got a number of listeners who tell me they’ve always hated history until now.
I have AP history students, college students, and homeschooling students listening. I also professionals listening, white and blue collar. People who just want to brush up on things.
I kids listening; have retirees listening.
I’m all over the place!
4. Some history teachers and professors present their topics and they are boring. Yours provide some deeper insight with a little spice that garners attention and very positive feedback from the audience. How do you make the topics so interesting to the audience and what is your secret recipe for success?
Well, thank you for the kind compliment! The key here is easy to explain but hard to do: make history a story! No one cares about a name and a date until you bring it to life. So rather than bore you with the details of colonial taxation policy and mention that Patrick Henry was involved the fight, I take you into Patrick Henry’s fight. Show you his spirit. His Tenacity. And of course … the trouble he gets himself in. When I do that first, then I can tell you about colonial tax policy and you’ll care. Because you’re invested in Pat’s story. History teachers who do this day in and day out will find their students far more invested.
5. What topic presented in HTDS has become the most successful and talked about and why?
Oh, that’s hard to answer. I’d say the Revolution is a big hitter, but partly because that’s just where people start the podcast (at the beginning). Honestly, my audience doesn’t really cherry pick. I have consistent listens through the whole “story” of America that I’m telling.
6. What topics are you planning to present in the future? They can include some on your wish list.
Well, since I conceive of this podcast more as an audio textbook delivered in story mode, I will continue from where I am now (Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency) right through the 20th century. I’ll hit all the major events. I’m really looking forward to getting to World War I though. I wrote my dissertation partly on it, so it will be rewarding to revisit the subject.
7. How many episodes have you produced to date? How many topics have you presented?
Episodes to date: Number 112 will come out in a few days. Topics … wew, that depends on how you break it down. A lot! The Revolution, the early Republic, slavery, women’s history, military history, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Gilded Age. Basically, if an event was important to US history and happened between 1754 and 1908, I’ve covered it.
8. Of which, how many have dealt with American infrastructure and of course, historic bridges?
The obvious answers are the Brooklyn Bridge and Transcontinental Railroad episodes but frankly, I engage with infrastructure all the time! Infrastructure might not be sexy or glamorous enough for people to think about it (when they aren’t involved in it), but nations have to deal with at all times. Going all the way back to episode one, poor infrastructure (having to cut roads) is part of why George Washington lost to the french as a 22-year-old lieutenant colonel! Poor roads delayed the Constitutional Convention. The Industrial Revolution required and brought about more infrastructure. It’s littered throughout most if not all episodes.
In tomorrow’s article we will take an in depth look at his masterpiece on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and with that, the life of the Roebling Family and how they turned a dream of a crossing in New York into more of a reality- a landmark that has become one of America’s prized treasures.
Nur Heimat gibts nichts- There is never just a homeland.
This is a comment that I remember during my first meeting with the committee to save the Bockau Arch Bridge. Located over the Zwickauer Mulde River six kilometers southwest of Aue in western Saxony, this 146-year old stone arch bridge is one of a few historic landmarks left in the town of Bockau, with a population of 2,100 inhabitants. Closed since the end of August 2017, I had the dubious priviledge of having to make a detour of enternity in order to arrive at our first meeting. This meant going up the hill along Bockau Creek (which the over 800-year old town was named after), then making a pair of sharp curves going right onto a narrow street which leads me out of town, but not onto the bridge that has been blocked off completely. I had to drive another 15 kilometers on a paved road full of sharp curves, potholes, cracks, ice, and wolves roaming about in the forest until I reached the Eibenstock Reservoir. There, I crossed the next bridge and backtracked on the main highway going on the opposite side of the river which led to the meeting place next to the closed bridge- The Rechenhaus Restaurant. There, I was greeted by the welcoming party, despite my 45-minute late arrival, with happiness and joy that an American was coming to help. 🙂
How did I end up here in the first place? And why do a documentary on an old stone arch bridge that no one really knows much about?
I’ve been a bridgehunter since I was five years old, having photographed and written about tens of thousands of bridges in 14 countries (including the US) and 14 states in the US (including my home state of Minnesota). In Germany, I’ve covered all but three of the 16 Bundesländer. This includes Saxony, the region I’ve been touring since 2016. I’ve been running the Chronicles since 2010 and have worked with groups on how to not only restore historic bridges but also how to make them attractive for tourists. This includes my involvement with historic bridge conventions as coordinator and speaker and my use of social media to garnish the attention of interested readers and other history enthusiasts. I’m also a teacher of English, which I’ve been doing since 2001, and since August 2017, I’ve been based full-time at the Saxony Police Academy in Schneeberg, located only three kilometers from the Bockau Bridge. It was also the same time period as my time in Saxony that I’ve done tours in the region, be it in cities like Dresden, Rochlitz, Leipzig, Glauchau, Zwickau, Aue/Schlema and Chemnitz, just to name a few, or along rivers like the Mulde and Elbe. And it was these bridgehunting tours that got the attention of the regional newspapers, namely the Free Press in Chemnitz, whose news reporters at the regional offices led me to this group saving this particular bridge.
And as for the bridge itself, it has more history than many locals know about. It was built in 1872 and is made of natural stone from the Ore Mountains. It took approximately a full year with lots of manpower to construct a multi-span stone arch bridge that connected Bockau with Albernnau and Zschorlau on the opposite side. At approximately 200 meters in length, the bridge is the longest in the western Ore Mountains and second longest along the Zwickau Mulde River. A local restaurant with the name Rechenhaus was the site of the dam and lock area and headwaters plant, which were built between 1556 and 1559. The first bridge- a wooden covered span- was built in 1559 spanning the river and canal complex. The flow of the water was ideal for transporting materials downstream, and workers constructed several canals in the mountain region less than 90 years later. Even the headwaters plant was once a mill before it eventually became the barracks for the 11th Panzer Division of the German Army during World War II, where they used the bridge to march into Czechoslovakia and Poland.
In an attempt to slow down the progress of advancing soldiers from the east, the 11th Panzer Division was ordered to detonate the bridge in April 1945. This is the same tank division of German army that had fought (and lost) at Stalingrad, Kursk and the Battle of the Bulge before retreating towards Germany. Yet a brave unknown soldier did the unthinkable and relocated the bombs to a temporary bridge in Fährbrücke (south of Zwickau) before blowing that bridge up. This allowed for the Soviets and Americans to easily cross the bridge with their tanks with ease while setting the people free in the process. The 11th Panzer surrendered in Passau on 2 May, 1945, six days before Germany capitulated. The same bridge was used again 23 years later, as soliders from the Warsaw Pact armies, consisiting of mainly Russians and East Germans crossed this bridge enroute to Prague to quash the Spring Movement. By that time, the headwaters house, which had been the barracks, was converted into the Rechenhaus Restaurant, which still serves customers today.
The bridge was renovated in 1988 when concrete decking was added and the arches were reinforced with steel bracing. The bridge has been listed by the German Preservation Commission because of its cultural significance. Yet despite all the history that is involved with this bridge, the historical monument has become a stranger to people in the region, having somewhat lost its face in the eyes of the locals. The mayors of Bockau and Zschorlau would like to see the bridge gone once its replacement opens. The same with the state of Saxony and the German government, both are championing a 6.4 million Euro project to replace the old bridge. And despite the petition going around for saving the bridge, a handful of politicians are interested in keeping the bridge for pedestrian use after the new structure is built- most of them with little affiliation with the region with the exception of the Green party.
Our first meeting at the Rechenhaus Restaurant, the historic building which once had the barracks but was originally the headwaters mill and dam complex. The restaurant has a very Erzgebirge taste to it, with a collection of incense men and wood-carved chandeliers. Opposite the entrance to the restaurant is a mahoghany-framed painting of the dam and mill as it was in the 16th century. Some in the committee would like to see it again as a way to slow the flow of the Zwickau Mulde. The river had flooded towns downstream on six different occasions since the bridge was built, with the worst of them having occurred in 1954, 2002 and 2013. Given its proximity to the bridge, many would like to see the restaurant as is. Yet its location during the construction period has become a painful inconvenience. Talking to the restaurant owner, he was deeply disturbed by the construction and stated that since the project started, he had lost up to 60% of his customers. Whether he can compensate once the new span opens remains unclear.
We were nine people minus the restaurant owner, each one with a new set of ideas on how to keep and possibly fix the bridge so that it can be used again. Yet as seen with the American historic bridges, money needs to be there in order for it to happen. Political connections needs to be there in order for it to happen. The same with the use of media and lastly support from the public. As with all historic bridges, the public is the first line of offence in pursuing the preservation of historic bridges. Whether it is with petitions, technical know-how or even planning events, they always have the ideas first before our elected officials. After that, we get the attention out there via social media. Through that and the events, the politicians come in with bills to approve measure to restore the bridge. Then the money comes in to pay for the costs.
For our bridge in Bockau, we’re already at step one, which is public interest. A petition with 1700 signatures was sent to Dresden to the state parliament. Another one is in the works which includes an English version for people to sign and establishing a website. That will be my job for right now- an important one! Speaking from experience with the Green Bridge in Des Moines, gathering interest in social networking will make waves and influence the thinking of the higher-ups of politics and business. Once that is established and we have the English version to submit to Dresden, the next plan is to meet with officials in Dresden to discuss the situation and ways to make the historic pedestrian crossing a reality. A big plus is the fact that the bridge and the mill area are historic lanbdmarks which make it impossible to tear down unless ordered by the federal government. How that works will come in a later article. Then with the connections and planning will be the events. This is where the tough part comes in. How to make this bridge attractive to tourists of all age? We’ve looked at drawing contests, concerts and the like. But what else could be do there? And how can we raise money for the project? This is independent on any funding available for rehabilitating the bridge, which is scarce at the moment, but the search continues.
It’s a battle that one can lose but it’s better to die trying than to sit and do nothing. The mentality has increased in the US over the past decade, yet Germany does have a lot of pride in its history and culture, too much of it to just sit and do nothing.
And with that, I must set to work. I have my expertise to use and share, while others are garnering some more support from locals and interested people in the project. Therefore, what are we waiting for? Get to work!
More on my involvement in the preservation project to come. Stay tuned! 🙂
When we think of historic bridges, we think of roadway bridges built of metal or stone, having truss, arch, suspension or beam designs, each of which has a well-documented history pertaining to the date of construction and the builders, as well as its significance to the community and infrastructure. It is rare to find history of railroad bridges that had made a different in a community…..
….that is unless you are John Marvig.
Since his 6th grade year, Marvig has been travelling the Midwestern US, photographing and documenting historic and modern railroad bridges for his website. Since its inauguration in 2011, the website has over 1200 bridges, big and small, covering eleven states and counting. The secret to the Chaska (Minnesota) native’s success as a railroad bridge photographer and writer I wanted to find out through this interview, as Marvig won the 2016 Ammann Awards for Lifetime Achievement, the youngest person to ever have received this distinction. Here are some Q&As conducted with this now sophomore at Iowa State University, majoring in Civil Engineering:
BHC:What got you interested in historic bridges; in particular, railroad bridges?
Marvig: When I was a kid, there was a bridge on I-494 in South Saint Paul known as the Wakota Bridge. That old tied arch structure always interested me, and I always took note when we drove to my grandparents farm in Wisconsin. Along the way, there were a number of other bridges I would take notice of from a young age. When I was younger, I had also wanted a model railroad. One thing led to another, and I would be taking pictures of a local railroad bridge by the fall of my 6th grade year. It grew from there, and became a full blown passion (or obsession, depending on how you look at it). Another bridge, an old railroad swing bridge located in my hometown of Chaska was always fascinating to me, since it only continued to exist in memory. Seeing the history that was lost really encouraged me to peruse my passion.
BHC:What got you interested in historic bridges; in particular, railroad bridges?
Marvig: Creating my website was an idea that was formulated in a 7th grade technology class where we learned basic coding. John Weeks runs a website with numerous bridge photos on it, which also captivated my interest. From an early and very basic website to the full blown site it is now, it has steadily grown. I have well over 1000 bridges documented, I am just waiting to get the pages created! The hardest part is coding the pages. I manually code them, instead of using a form which automatically creates the pages (similar to Bridgehunter). This allows me the flexibility to change pages to meet the needs of the specific structure or the intended audience. However, this can be very time consuming. A page I have been working on for the Eads Bridge in Saint Louis took nearly 4 hours from start to finish to create. I continue to anticipate the site growing steadily. I have a waiting list of pages to add of over 350, and that list grows often.
BHC:Your focus on your website is railroad bridges. What makes them special in comparison to highway bridges?
Marvig: Railroad bridges, in my opinion, are the pinnacle of American engineering. While highway bridges were not built to carry a heavy load, railroad bridges were constructed to carry a load of many times a typical highway bridge. This results in some bridges that are engineered to perfection. In addition, railroad companies rarely reported construction of bridges and oftentimes did weird things such as relocation of spans. This makes it a unique challenge to document and research these structures.
BHC: Many railroad companies try to repel photographers and bridgehunters from photographing RR bridges. Why is that and how did you successfully managed to do that?
Marvig: Railroad companies are afraid of the liabilities of people being on their property. I have gotten around this by using public access, asking other landowners or walking along the riverbanks to the structure. My most important goal is to stay safe and set a positive example for others.
BHC:Set a positive example- what examples?
Marvig: Two ways to look at this. The first is safety and to obey the rules. Walking on railroad property or bridges is very dangerous, and I try to use it as a last resort to get to bridges. On my site, I generally make notes of how I got to the bridge so others will hopefully follow that route. The other positive example I like to set is the strive for preservation and passion I demonstrate. I hope this spreads to others and we can see a positive turnaround in bridge preservation.
BHC:Did you have any confrontations with landowners accusing you of trespassing or other items? Many bridgehunters have dealt with this problem over the years- yours truly included on many occasions.
Marvig: I have. While I generally find that landowners are more than happy to talk to myself and my father, who often accompanies me on these trips, I have seen some people I hope not to deal with again. I would say 90% of people are nice and usually interested, and oftentimes tell their life story. I have however had instances of some real cranks. I’ve had hunters “accidentally” shoot my direction, I’ve had ladies in trailers yell at me because I’m parked on a public gravel road and I’ve had others claim a public road is theirs. However, a vast majority are some of the nicest people I’ve met; and in a few cases people I’ve kept in contact with.
BHC:Bridge historians, like Eric Delony have often mentioned of railroad companies being very hesitant re. nominating railroad bridges deemed historic on the National Register because of their historic significance. From your experience, is this the case and if so, why is that?
Marvig: This is true. One example is the Redstone Bridge in New Ulm, Minnesota. The railroad has refused to nominate the structure repeatedly, even though the state attempted to get them to. This structure is an 1880 swing span, and one of the oldest known in America. Despite this, if the railroad chooses to demolish it, nobody can do anything about it. Fortunately, the State of Minnesota has said they will not let Canadian pacific demolish the structure, and when it is abandoned it should be preserved.
BHC:Is the Redstone Bridge still in service?
Marvig: Yeah, its part of a spur to a quarry. I’m really hoping it is abandoned soon. With CP not doing well financially, I really hope that we can see a step in preservation made within the next decade
For more on the bridge, please check out the Tour Guide on the Bridges of New Ulm by clicking here. People in New Ulm as well as officials at the State Historic Preservation Office in St. Paul are interested in saving this bridge and nominate it on the National Register of Historic Places.
BHC:What can be done to convince railroad companies to nominate their bridges to the Nat. Reg. as well as restore the bridge for future use? What examples have been mentioned?
Marvig: In my opinion, the only real thing that can be done is to make it worth it for them financially. If an incentive was offered to a railroad to bypass historic bridges and preserve them, I’m quite sure they would be willing.
BHC:Which RR bridges have you been involved in which has been successfully inducted into the National Register?
Marvig: While I do not believe any of the bridges I’ve helped preserve are listed as a separate listing on the NR, the railroad bridge across Main Street in Carver, MN (about 10 minutes from home) was to be demolished in 2011, but I worked with the city to preserve it. I believe it might be listed as a contributing resource currently.
BHC:Which RR Bridges you were involved in was converted into a Rails for Trails Crossing?
Marvig: Currently, I have not had any converted to trails. However, the bridge in Carver is eventually scheduled to become a trail. In addition, I’ve been working with the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis to preserve and convert the Short Line Bridge. The Missouri River Bridge in Bismarck is another example of a structure I am working to get preserved for this use.
BHC: Which Railroad Bridge is your all time favorite?
Marvig: It’s hard to determine what my favorite bridge is, as there are a large number of structures I love. The Redstone Bridge in New Ulm, as well as the northwestern bridge in Eau Claire are two of my favorite bridges. These were both built in 1880 and are extremely old examples of rare truss types.
BHC: If there is a person who is interested in bridge photography, what tips would you give him/her?
Marvig: As for tips for others, I would suggest starting with places you have passion for. If there is a bridge in town that you want to know more about, go take some pictures. Unique and historic bridges are going the way of the dodo bird in the United States, and photography is a form of preservation.
BHC:And what about establishing a website like you have? The last question includes the use of social media, wordpress and the question of making a magazine out of it.
Marvig: To create a website, be prepared to have a large chunk of time taken up. The initial coding is tough, and manually adding pages is a long process. Research is also essential. I think I’ve spent several hundred dollars on research since 2010, as google doesn’t provide all answers. My biggest advice though is to create your website to be expandable. Make sure it has as many features as you want. I have 1200 pages on my site currently, and I’m working on reviewing and adding new features to these pages. It’s a lot easier to correct 12 pages than 1200.
Regarding social media, that isn’t my strong point. However it is essential to be able to reach out to a new audience to educate and inform about historic bridges. When I first started doing bridges in 2009, social media was a rather new invention, and I did not invest time heavily in it. Currently, I spread my message of bridges through both Facebook, and Instagram.
BHC: Thank you for your time for this interview.
Marvig: No problem.
To learn more about his work, click onto his website here. There you can find details of every bridge he’s visited, which includes its history and dimensions, as well as the number of trains crossing it daily (for most crossings). He has updated his website regularly and therefore, it is necessary to visit the site often. Enjoy some railroad facts and figures. 🙂
CHIPPEWA FALLS, WISCONSIN- Imagine this situation for a second: You have an old but very unique historic bridge with a history that binds two communities together. After being built 120 years ago, it was relocated to its present site during its 20th year and remains in use until structural problems force the county to close the bridge and plan its replacement. The bridge is located near a bike trail that used to be a railroad line connecting the two communities. While the public is really attached to the bridge, the county insists on building a new bridge at its current site because the cost for even restoring the bridge is far more than just tearing it down and replacing it. Because of its history and unique design, the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which makes funding for restoring the structure easier to achieve than it is when removing it using federal funds. Yet funding for restoring the bridge is hard to find. What do you do?
Proceed to tear the bridge down and replace it?
Get a second opinion about the cost of evaluating the bridge and find ways to fix the bridge for continued use?
Build a bridge alongside the sturcture and convert the old bridge into a pedestrian crossing?
Build a new bridge at its original site but find constructive ways to relocate the bridge or use part of the structure- especially along the bike trail?
In the case of the Cobban Bridge, a two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge spanning the Chippewa River southwest of Cornell in western Wisconsin, the situation is very precarious, for the historic bridge, considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of its history and unique design, has met the end of its useful life as a vehicular crossing. Yet costs for restoring vs. replacing the bridge have forced county officials to look at other options apart from rehabilitating the bridge in place or building a new structure alongside the old one. In other words, the bridge cannot remain in its current place and must go.
Since August 2, the bridge has been shut down to all traffic including pedestrians, and talks are underway for securing funding for the bridge’s removal in place of a new strucure. This also includes looking at options for reusing the bridge, which when looking at the drone video, it’s a real beauty:
Yet inspite of its beauty, the Cobban Bridge will most likely have to make its third move in its lifetime, unless financial support for reconstructing the bridge at its current location combined with constructing a new bridge alongside the structure is realized, not just on the government level but also from the private sector.
When the bridge was first built in 1908 by the Modern Steel Structures Company, based Waukesha, the two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge was over the Chippewa River between the townships of Anson and Eagle Point. The bridge was christened the Yellow River Bridge even though it was located one mile north of the Yellow River itself. Replacing the iron bridge built years before, the structure had the same features as the one at its present location: it was made of steel, had pinned connections, overhead V-laced strut bracings and a three-rhombus Howe lattice portal bracings with 45° heel bracings. Ten years later, as part of the plan to construct a dam along the river near Chippewa Falls (and subsequentially inundate the crossing upstream), the bridge was relocated 15 miles downstream to cross the same river between Cornell and Jim Falls near the village of Cobban. The bridge has been in service since then- all 486.5 feet in length; each span, being identical and having a length of 241 feet.
Despite this, planning has been in the works to replace the Cobban Bridge, even though the two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge is not only the last one of its truss type left in the state, but it is the only multiple-span bridge of its kind in the country! Inspections and estimates have revealed that restoring the bridge to be reused even for pedestrian purposes would be $13-14 million. A report presented by a well-known bridge builder, AECOM (whose regional office is based in Stevens Point in northern Wisconsin) revealed that replacing the bridge on a new alignment would cost $11 million, up from an estimated $7.2 million that was figured in March 2016. If delayed until 2025, the price would be lowered from $12.9 million to $8.6 million at the site where the bridge is located. Tearing the bridge down would cost $1.6 million. Established as a conglomerate in 1990, AECOM has its headquarters in New York but dozens of offices throughout the country as well as Europe. While its specialty is designing and building state-of-the-art buildings and modern bridges, for restoring historic bridges, its only focus has been on stone arch bridges, which included Grobler’s Bridges in South Africa and the Railroad Viaduct over the Neisse in Görlitz, at the German-Polish border. County officials and supporters of the Cobban Bridge are dissatisfied with the results provided by AECOM. Yet all parties have agreed to one thing, if the bridge is unsafe, then something has to be done about it.
Because of its design and historical integrity, the bridge is elgible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which means environmental and cultural impact surveys (especially those in connection with Section 106 of the Preservation Laws) are to be undertaken before any work on replacing the bridge was to commence. According to Marilyn Murphy, who has started a facebook page on Saving the Cobban Bridge and has over 2000 followers, the surveys are already underway. As the project will require federal money, state and local authorities are mandated to allow the surveys be undertaken to determine the impact of replacing the Cobban Bridge, while looking at alternatives for reusing the bridge. Several other agencies have been involved in looking for options for the bridge, including the Texas-based Historic Bridge Foundation, as well as the Chippewa County Historical Society. The key variable that is known, according to Murphy, is that the county would like to relieve themselves of legal responsibilities for the bridge and would gladly like to give the bridge to any third party member wishing to take responsibility for maintaining the structure, including its relocation.
So with the bridge available for the taking, what options are available for the Cobban Bridge?
In the interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, Murphy presented a long list of possibilities for reuse. This includes using portions of the bridge along the Old Abe Bike Trail, which runs along the Chippewa between Lake Wissota and Brunet Island State Parks, relocating one or both spans back to the original Yellow River site, using one span for a state park, or even purchasing parts of the dismantled span (boards or beams) as remembrances. However, as mentioned earlier, there is interest in keeping the two spans in its original spot- a practical and most logical choice, yet two variables are lacking: funding and expertise. Funding because it is likely that regardless of ownership- be it through the state with the Department of Natural Resources (which owns the Old Abe Bike Trail), private-public partnership or simply pure ownership- funding will need to be found mostly through private sources, including donations from companies and citizens. This would be needed to renovate the bridge to make it a viable crossing for pedestrians and cyclists and incorporate it into the bike trail. Expertise would mean looking at companies that have restored bridges like this for recreational use, and there are enough both in-state as well as out-of-state to go around. Even if the bridge is to be relocated again, these two variables are going to be key in order for the bridge to live on.
What needs to be done in order to prevent the demise of the Cobban Bridge?
We know that the bridge has been declared off limits for all traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists- at least until the environmental impact and cultural surveys are completed, which can take 6-12 months or more to complete (including alternatives for reusing the bridge both in place and elsewhere). Without that there is no federal funding that can cover 80% of the costs for the bridge. There has been a lot of public support and sentiment towards the Cobban Bridge and ways to save and reuse the structure, yet the approach of doing-nothing is not an option. This was already seen with the Wagon Wheel Bridge in Iowa, and its neglect, combined with vandalism and the lack of maintenance resulted in the “Triple GAU” consisting of arson, collapse and in the end, the removal of the remaining structure in 2016. There are a lot of ideas for reusing the bridge- be it in place or at a different location (even in segments), and the county is ready to hand over the keys that will unlock the gates that have closed off the structure since August, forcing travelers to detour to crossings at Jim Falls and Cornell. Yet, like with the Green Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa, which has been reopened since the end of last year, a group or alliance will be needed that will take over ownership and assume full responsibilities of the bridge and assure that it is safe for use. And speaking from experiences of others, the going may be tough at the beginning, but after a series of fundraisers and other events to help restore and reuse the bridge, the Cobban Bridge may have another life beyond that of horse and buggy, the Model T and lastly, the Audi.
If you would like to help restore and/or reuse the Cobban Bridge, you can visit its facebook page (here) and contact Marilyn Murphy at this address: email@example.com. She’s the main contact for the bridge and can also provide you with some other contact information of others involved with the project. She and her husband Jim were nice enough to provide some pics of the bridge for this article. The Chronicles will keep you posted on the latest on the Cobban Bridge and the steps that will be needed on the structure’s future, regardless of which direction it is taken.
A couple weeks ago, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) declared the historic Frank J. Wood Bridge, a three-span polygonal Warren through truss bridge with riveted connections and one-rhombus Howe lattice portal bracings to be a liability, deciding for the modernity with replacing the structure with a concrete one, to be built alongside the 1932 structure, with the old structure to be removed shortly afterwards. This was confirmed through multiple news outlets as well as the agency’s website.
In the eyes of locals, the news story is considered fake news and have an alternative news story to share, one that sheds light on MDOT’s neglect of historic structures. As the environmental surveys are going to be carried out, much of which in connection with Section 106- 4f of the Historic Preservation Laws of 1966, locals, like John Graham, a realtor in Topsham and one of the members of the committee to save and restore the bridge, are stepping up to the plate and planning to turn the heat on MDOT, to force the agency to rescind the decision and look at constructive ways to keep the bridge in service, using more than enough notable examples to go around.
In an interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, Mr. Graham provides us with a glimpse of the historic significance of the Frank Wood Bridge, why MDOT has not taken historic bridge preservation seriously- following the path of neighboring New Hampshire- and measures that are planned to fight for the preservation of their prized historic landmark.
First and foremost, how significant is the Frank J Wood Bridge in terms of its history and ties with the communities of Brunswick and Topsham?
The bridge was built in 1932. It crosses what was three natural falls, one being so high it stopped the sturgeon from going any high to spawn and was one of the best fishing areas for the Native Americans and there is recorded history as early as 1620 of settlers using it as a fishing spot. The bridge is flanked on each side by mill building which still stand and were both in operation one into the sixties and the other into the eighties. The mills have both been redeveloped but retain their historical nature and the three structures- the two mills and the bridge create a recognized Industrial district. If the bridge is removed the district will no longer exist. The bridge has been the meeting place of both towns and held Memorial day parade celebrations every year. President Johnson crossed it in his motorcade once. Pictures of the bridge appear on numerous websites, on last year’s phonebook cover, it is the one instantly recognizable icon of both communities (Topsham and Brunswick).
The bridge was named after Frank J. Wood. Who was he and how important was he to the communities/ area?
Frank J. Wood was a local farmer and paper maker- worked in the Topsham Mill. He is credited with suggesting the current location of the bridge and died childless shortly after the bridge was completed.
A write-up on the bridge and its history can be viewed by clicking here.
How long has MaineDOT been trying to replace this bridge? What are their arguments for replacing it?
MDOT has been systematically not maintaining older thru truss bridges for decades. The last time the bridge was painted was 1980. They proposed removing in 2004 (?) and then again in 2015. They have very weak arguments- mainly cost.
Note: There are some examples of historic bridges in Maine that have been taken down, solely for that reason. Click on the following bridges below:
Your arguments against replacing the bridge- why should the bridge be preserved?
Why not? The bridge is exceptionally wide for its time (30 feet) and tall (14.8 feet). It was built to have two lanes of traffic and a coal car trolly line down the center. The bridge if properly maintained could be around for many more generations. The State is rapidly losing what was once a fairly common bridge type and the location and setting of this one is exceptional. It is also not functionally obsolete like so many are. MDOT had a plan in the mid eighties to put three lanes of traffic across it. It can easily handle two ten foot travel lanes and two five foot bike lanes. Just up stream is a restored suspension walking bridge. Maine has few economic things driving it currently and our historical downtowns and historical structures create a unique sense of place. This drives our tourism industry and attracts both business and residence to the area. The new “low cost” alternative does not fit the location.
Maine DOT had presented four proposals for the bridge, two of which had to do with rehabilitation. Can you describe how the bridges would be rehabilitated? Which of the two plans do most of the people favor?
The rehabilitated bridges would both have completely new decks installed and minor repair to one bottom cord and a complete paint job. The other alternative adds a second side walk. It is unclear if a second sidewalk is favored or not. MDOT has really created dialogue of only new or old and rusty. I personally do not see the need for a second side walk and look at the New Hope- Lambertville Bridge between PA and NJ as a great example of a bridge between two historical downtowns that has only one side walk and handles as many as 14,000 pedestrians in a single weekend. That bridge is actually longer and also has a newer bypass bridge, although the bypass here is closer.
After the DOT’s decision to replace the bridge, you presented a counter-statement, claiming that the agency had not done enough to conduct feasible studies on the bridge, specifically looking at the options carefully and selecting the rehabilitation option. Can you explain further what they didn’t do that they should have done, let alone what they did which would be considered illegal in your terms?
They never have seriously considered rehabilitation and have hired a consulting firm that does not have experience in rehabilitation. The quotes that they have made public are wildly high according to the experts we have ran the numbers by. They have used this method to sway public opinion. MDOT came out with a preferred alternative- the new upstream bridge before the 106 process even begin. This is not how the process is meant to take place. They need to hire a qualified firm to give realistic rehab and long term maintenance costs for the bridge. The main thing they initially failed to do was to say they were going to conduct a full Environment assessment EA. They have since (this week) notified us that they now plan to do so. If it is necessary to sue it will be after the EA is complete and the 4f process is done. We are gearing up for the 4f process because this is the law that actually has some teeth and where we can win. MDOT has publicly stated that it is feasible to rehab the bridge. We had several small victories during the 106 process where we were able to get them to agree the rehab with one side walk fit the purpose and need and that the removal of the bridge would be both a adverse affect to the bridge itself and also to the industrial district mentioned above.
In light of the decision by the DOT, what steps are you considering taking at this point?
We were all fully expecting this decision as they had made it a over a year ago and we forced them to follow the law and actually do a real 106 process. We are gearing up for the 4f and a possible legal battle there. We are in the process of securing an engineering firm to do an independent analysis of the bridge rehabilitation costs. This has proven very difficult because no firm in the East will go up against MDOT for they are a big client. Many have spoken to us off record but none will actually put a report together. We have found several from across the country that are willing. The battle now is all in the term “prudent”. We have forced MDOT to only rely on life cycle costs to make this argument. Cost we believe are overstated for this sole purpose.
Who else has been helping you with supporting the bridge in terms of consultancy, legal action, fundraising, meetings, etc.?
There is a core group of about 10 of us with two very generous financial backers. We have an excellent local attorney and engineers and professors from around the country that we have been meeting with.
Should the DOT be forced to rescind their decision and favor restoring the bridge, are there going to be any fundraising options, etc. for the bridge?
When MDOT is forced to maintain the historical structures they are charged with maintaining; the State and Federal government will pay for it. The fundraising option in this case is called taxes. That said there is talk of creating a yearly festival centered around the bridge which we would raise money for.
With regard to restoring the bridge, what would the newly restored bridge look like in comparison to the proposed replacement? Would there a park area, etc.?
The restored bridge would look identical to the bridge we have but painted with a new coat of green paint. The only difference would be the deck would no longer have metal grates down each side and would have slightly narrower travel lanes and actual bike lanes painted on. The new bridge is a flat highway overpass bridge. You can see pictures of both on the Facebook page.
What is the general mood at the moment in response to the DOT’s wanting to replace the bridge?
The groups mood is one of continued optimism. We have been expecting this day. It is just another step closer till we can save the bridge. The community is torn between in favor and not in favor although the not in favor have been fed really misleading information from MDOT.
While some communities and regions have stepped aside to let the DOTs and other local agencies tear down their structures, many of which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are enough pocket of examples of people, like the communities of Brunswick and Topsham are working to impede the progress of MDOT, using experts from across the country to prove that just because one bridge part is bad, does not mean the whole bridge needs to come down. Instead they want to set an example for other DOTs in the US, proving that the age of wasting materials and destroying heritages is not in the best interest, no matter how the arguments are packaged and presented. It is hoped that this successful trend will force others to think about their own infrastructure and use rational thinking instead of the mentality which means, haste makes waste.
The Chroicles will keep you informed on the latest with the Frank Wood Bridge. You can also follow the Friends of the Frank Wood Bridge by clicking onto its facebook page here.
Special Thanks to John Graham for his help in the interview and best of luck in efforts to stop the replacement process, slated to begin next year.
Every column needs a mascot, logo or a slogan, something that stands out in the eyes of the readers and one that shows significance to the themes we cover in society. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles has logo with the beloved Fehmarn Bridge in Germany, and the slogan: Preserving our past for the future, bridge by bridge. Its sister column, The Flensburg Files has a slogan the sailboat and the flags of Germany and the US symbolizing its topic on cultural affairs and current events affecting the two countries. For Preservation in Pink, their mascot is the flamingo. There is an interesting story behind this beloved animal, as will be explained by its creator Kaitlin O’shea. A preservation consultant for a firm in Burlington in Vermont, Kaitlin has been running the online column for 10 years and it has expanded it coverage to include various forms of social media, with the goal of providing coverage on topics on preserving places of historic interests, including historic bridges. They include live examples of preserved artifacts, preservation practices and the like. Kaitlin is no stranger to preservation, as she received her B.A. in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. and a Master of Science in the same field at the University of Vermont. In between, sheI worked for the Fort Bragg (North Carolina) Cultural Resources Program for the U.S. Army (Independent Contractor, not military), conducting a 3 year oral history project on a 10,000 former Rockefeller estate that abutted Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, which included interviews, completed transcriptions, conducted archival research, and wrote the oral history book for the project. After obtaining her Master’s Kaitlin worked for the Vermont Agency of Transportation for 5 years, conducting historic preservation review of all projects. Since May 2015, she has worked as a Preservation Planner for VHB (an engineering + environmental firm) focusing on the regulatory side of preservation, except with state environmental laws.
I had a chance to interview Kaitlin about Preservation in Pink (PiP), how it has developed over time and played a role in preserving places of historic interests in the US. Given her in depth experience and knowledge in her field, I figured a little time to pick her brain and talk about preservation would give me, as well as the readers a little insight on the successes and drawbacks historic preservation is. Here are her comments to the questions I posed:
What inspired you to create Preservation in Pink?
The short version. After graduating college, I missed my close preservation classmates and friends. Although I was working in historic preservation and enjoying my job, I missed the diversity of subjects from my classes and the varying conversations my friends and I would have late at night while working or studying in the preservation drafting lab. I was afraid that we might be stuck in our jobs and jaded, no longer the optimistic college students who believed in preservation and its capacity to save the world. To fill that void of conversation, I started a newsletter. The newsletter was a medium for us to share our ideas with friends and to continue to find the fun in preservation. I had experience in layout and editing and writing, so a newsletter seemed like a perfect fit. If you want the longer version, click here: https://preservationinpink.wordpress.com/about/
And what does the flamingo stand for?
The short story: In college, my classmates and I watched a video about Ashland, VA. The people in Ashland were divided over pro/anti Walmart sentiments. Those who opposed Walmart chose the tacky pink flamingo lawn ornament as their mascot. In the end, the opponents lost. And as passionate college students studying the evils of big box stores, we took this as our battle cry: We hate Walmart, we love flamingos!
From there, it snowballed. We started drawing flamingos on chalkboards, giving each other flamingo items, and even flamingo-ing our professors fronts lawns (out of love, of course). When we graduated college, the flamingo remained a symbol of friendship and our love for preservation. To this day (10 years later, we still call each other flamingos and send each other flamingo cards and tchotchkes). Pink flamingos were the whimsical, fun side of preservation.
The name Preservation in Pink references pink flamingos. I chose that name because I didn’t want it to be mistaken for a serious, academics-only newsletters. I wanted people to find preservation approachable and fun. And it was my newsletter, so I thought, why not?
What was the purpose of PiP? Has that mission changed through the years?
The purpose of PiP has remained steadfast over the years, though how the mission is achieved has changed. The mission is: to encourage communication between new and seasoned preservationists with and about the world around them. And to show everyone that historic preservation is everywhere you look and makes a positive difference in the world.
4. When you created PiP, you had regular newsletters before switching to digital news coverage. When did you do this and why do such a change?
When I started PiP, newsletters made the most sense. Blogs hadn’t become popular yet, so it didn’t cross my mind. However, after creating the first newsletter, I realized that I needed a digital, accessible place to keep the newsletter so readers did not have to find it through a PDF in an email. However, creating a newsletter required getting articles on time from friends (whom I couldn’t pay). As the internet changed, newsletter weren’t fast enough. I wanted to be able to reach audiences on a less formal basis, a shorter format. On the blog, I could post here and there and keep people’s attention, and hopefully their interest in between newsletters.
As my writers, and I, became busier with careers or grad school, and blogs became more popular and newsletter less popular, I decided that it was time to let the newsletter go. It was an organic process. I enjoyed blogging all of the time, and a blog written mostly by me seemed more appropriate than a newsletter entirely by me.
5. PiP has experimented with several social apps, including that of photos. Why those and not facebook?
Over the years, the social media apps have changed in purpose, as we’ve all seen. PiP did have a Facebook page until then end of 2013. However, at that time I wanted to delete my personal FB, and I couldn’t have a PiP FB without my FB. (Maybe that’s changed, but I haven’t been interested in checking.)
I do keep the apps linked, because I know some readers use one and not the other. I do that through IFTTT, which allows an instagram post to become a wordpress post, which is then publicized on Twitter.
Yet, I do use each app for their own purposes. On Twitter, I like to find interesting stories and news, and communicate with social media friends. Instagram is my favorite app because preservation is very visual. It’s fun to see what other preservationists photograph and post, and learn about what they’re up to.
I’ve relied on Instgram to WordPress post capabilities heavily over the past couple of years. As my schedule became busier and there was less time for writing long blog posts, I could still micro-blog/photo-blog using Instagram.
What topics have you covered in PiP?
The topics have changed as my career has changed and as I have changed, and that is quite varied as I worked in oral history in rural North Carolina for three years, and then attended graduate school and worked for the Agency of Transportation in Vermont, and now for an environmental + engineering firm, VHB, in Vermont. I’ve covered preservation news, preservation basics, preservation education, travel to historic places, abandoned buildings, oral history, road trips, preservation ABCs, guest posts, interviews with fellow preservationists…. anything and everything that can be connected to historic preservation, I’m up for writing about it.
Also for historic bridges?
During my years working for the Agency of Transportation, I worked on a lot of bridge projects, and wrote about a lot of bridges: covered bridges, truss bridges, concrete bridges. I have an affinity for decorative concrete railings. I’ve written about photographing bridges, the history of particular bridges, bridges as gateways to historic districts, and I’ve posted a lot of bridge photographs over the years.
While you have focused on historic places in Vermont and the New England states, you have started to “invade” Canada. Can you tell us about your adventures there? Any other countries and places in the US on your places to visit list in the future?
Your “invade Canada” observation made me laugh! My writing and my photography is, of course, going to be focused on where I live. My work is primarily in Vermont, so that accounts for many of my posts. I live in Burlington, VT, which is only 2 hours from Montreal, 4 hours from Quebec City, and 3.5 hours from Ottawa. For reference, Boston is about 4 hours from Burlington! So, by travel time alone, if I want to get to a big city, Montreal is my best bet! I love exploring new cities, and Canada has such beautiful cities. My significant other is from Montreal, which makes traveling in Canada more fun, too. He’s an excellent Canadian tour guide + travel partner.
Actually, I’ve never been out of the country, other than Canada! I would love to visit Europe: Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Spain. In the near future? I don’t have any big trips planned, but San Francisco remains high on my list, as well as New Orleans. I love exploring the United States. One day, I’d love to take a cross-country train trip.
Word has spread that while Vermont prides itself on historic bridges, including the metal structures, other states, like Maine and New Hampshire are tearing them down systematically despite their historic significance. Can you explain why this is the case? And is this problem widespread in the US?
I can only speak to this generally. Many states (maybe most) delay necessary maintenance on bridges, which then adds to the repair cost. By the time the bridge comes up for repair/replacement/rehab, people just want a new bridge. I would say that this is a widespread problem in the US.
Covered bridges tend to be loved. Truss bridges don’t receive as much love. And concrete bridges have the worst fate usually, simply due to the ephemeral nature of concrete and the harsh climate conditions of the northeast (freeze/thaw cycles, and salt/sanding of the bridge). And the bridges that aren’t as loved, probably will not be high up on the preservation list.
While some of us love truss bridges; other people see just the peeling (sometime lead) paint and the hulking metal structure, rather than a beautiful historic structure. Sometimes this has to do with geometry and safety guidelines. Historic bridges have narrower lanes, no shoulders, or low clearances, and they are not always safe. On major thoroughfares, these bridges can pose problems. For those reasons, some bridges have to go.
What could you say about the care and preservation of HB in Vermont (giving a grade, in comparison with nationwide)? Why? (Based on historic places you’ve photographed that were not in the best condition)
ud to work for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and proud of the work we did as an Agency, especially in the Environmental Section. While we do demolish historic bridges in Vermont (like I said, we cannot save them all), replacement bridges are designed with context sensitive solutions in mind. That means that if the bridge is in a historic district, the design will be compatible with the setting. Vermont is known for rehabilitating covered bridges, and we have metal truss success stories, too, such as the Checkered House Bridge in Richmond, VT. I haven’t worked on bridges in other states, but I think Vermont should be proud of its work.
When photographing bridges, what features are important, in your opinion? (Choose the main bridge types you’ve visited).
The most important features to me are elevation shots, context shots, and details. Details can include connections ( is it a pin connected truss? Bolts? Rivets? Hand hewn timber?) and date plaques.
12.When a person wants to preserve the bridge for reuse, what are some important aspects to keep in mind, especially when maintaining the structure?
What is the current condition of the bridge?
How will it be transported to the new location?
How will it be used? What does the load rating have to be?
Who will maintain the bridge? Is there an annual maintenance agreement? Who will pay for it?
Will the location benefit the public?
Do you still talk history over a coffee? (I owe you one for this interview if you come to Germany, BTW)
Yes, I do! Okay, often it’s preservation over wine – depending on the time of day, of course. I will take you up on that when I make it to Germany.
14. What is your favorite bridge in VT? US? North America? The World?
Oh, that is a tough one. In Vermont, I have an attachment to the new Lake Champlain Bridge because working as the Historic Preservation Monitor for the bridge replacement project was my first job in VT. But, as for historic bridges? I’m not sure I can pick a favorite. I love finding bridges on back roads that most people wouldn’t see. The Proctor Marble Bridges (rehabilitated) is one of my favorites: https://preservationinpink.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/proctor-marble-bridge/
In the US? I love the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York, because I have many memories of driving over it with my parents + sisters to visit family, and later with college friends on our many routes up and down the east coast.
In the world? I’d love to see the Fourth Rail Bridge in Scotland.
If you want to know more about PiP, check out her website and follow her to get updates on some preservation successes and policies. You can follow PiP on twitter, instagram and other social networks. Some of her articles will appear in the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles as guest columnist.
And let the coffee-laden flamingos go wild in preserving America’s history and pride! 😉