In connection with the BHC’s 10th anniversary, we’re conducting a campaign to promote historic bridges in terms of preservation, photography, stories and tourism. After the first campaign on the strangest encounter while bridgehunting, our next campaign deals with:
THE FIRST HISTORIC BRIDGE YOU PHOTOGRAPHED.
The question to the readers is: what was the first bridge you photographed and what was your first impression of the structure? The historic bridge must be older than 70 years and you must also describe it.
The first bridge I photographed was this one: The Petersburg Road Bridge in Jackson, Minnesota. The through truss span was built in 1907 and was torn down in 1995 after having been abandoned for 11 years. Although my first photo of the bridge came in 1990 with a camera taking 110-film, this photo was taken with a Kodak camera taking 35mm film in 1992, the time the bridge was fenced off because it was unsafe. The bridge used to be a gathering point for not only my family but for a neighborhood that was located along the West Fork Des Moines River before flooding in 1965 and 1969 forced them to move away. Many people jumped off the bridge and took a swim in the river. The bridge was a meeting point for fishing and grill fests; even so in 1987 when two boys wandered off and got lost for many hours before they were found. My grandma and many neighbors living nearby fought to keep the bridge open for pedestrians in 1985, which was successful. Yet the Great Flood of 1993 sealed its fate as a portion of the bridge collapsed. On February 1st, 1995, a day after I turned 18, the structure was removed. The area has been converted into a recreational area.
Now it’s your turn. What was your first bridge you photographed? Tell us your story and share your photo, either here or on the Chronicles’ facebook page here.
We are still accepting strange encounters while bridgehunting, the story behind it you will find here.
This story is part of the series on Most Bizarre Bridgehunting Encounters with People and Animals. If you want to submit your stories, click here to find out how to do it. You will also find more stories in the comment section.
The best bridgehunters started out as novices and as a novice, you encounter the common variables that will stick to you as you go from bridge to bridge. This story came from Melissa Brand-Welch as she was just starting her career as a bridgehunter/photographer. Hers dealt with one common variable that all of us have dealt with- especially in the summer: Mosquitos!
These blood-sucking creatures can be found anywhere where there are tall weeds and lots of moisture. Not even the toughest insect repellent will phase them for they will consider it, an attraction. Not even repellent with lavender scent- a mistake I made in one bridgehunting adventure a decade ago. And to the person who is reading this: I still have the repellent and will instead use it on my next date with my wife. 😉
Here’s her story and the bridge where she encountered these pesky things with wings:
In October 2018, 4 days into my bridge hunting adventurers, I took my granddaughter to Sigler Bridge. James Baughn found it and added it to bridgehunter.com. I wanted to add the first photos. We arrived around 7am and as soon as I saw the weeds I knew it was a mistake! We started towards the bridge; it was the longest mile of my life in thick, three foot high weeds. The river bank was swarming with mosquitoes. I took a few photos and we hiked back to the truck. Despite all of that, I was hooked. I went back to the same bridge later in the month after the field was cut and took some great photos.
In 2011 at the Historic Bridge Convention in Missouri, I had a chance to meet Clark Vance in person and found him to be open-minded in many aspects, but having knowledge that is enriched for historic bridges, and other artefacts. Mr. Vance just recently retired from his position as high school teacher, but has been a key contributor of historic bridges for bridgehunter.com for as long as the website has existed, providing readers with photos and interesting facts on historic bridges, mainly in the Midwestern part of the US, centering around the states of Kansas and Missouri. Because of his contributions to historic bridges- as a photographer, historian and sometimes consultant- Mr. Vance won the Ammann Awards for Lifetime Achievement in 2018.
I had a chance to interview him recently about his interests in the topic and found some more interesting facts about him, how his interest in historic bridges first started and some words of advice for those who are working in the field of historic bridges, in terms of photography and preservation. This is what I learned from him, as you read the interview:
Tell us more about yourself in terms of professional and private life.
I recently retired from 11 years of teaching engineering, math, and software engineering to high school students. I previously worked in IT and automotive technology. I still enjoy working with and driving my (too many) cars and motorcycles. My wife is a psychologist in private practice and her daughter is a professor at an art and design school. I highly recommend being retired.
What got you interested in historic bridges?
My father was a civil engineer with the Kansas Highway Department in the late ‘40s before going to work as a structural engineer in private industry. He didn’t mind my gazillion “What’s that?” questions as a kid and actually had the knowledge to answer a lot of them, particularly about man made artifacts in the natural environment. My curiosity about infrastructure was rewarded with good explanations of whatever odd item caught my attention. Some of my best times as a kid were when he and I would visit road construction sites and he would answer all my questions then add information about things I hadn’t noticed.
You do mostly bridge photography, right? Or do you write or talk about them?
My main public activity surrounding bridges is as a contributor to BridgeHunter.com. I’ve enjoyed old maps as a way to see into the past and discover things that are unused and forgotten. My enjoyment of driving back roads and hiking fit with this, and BridgeHunter gave me an excuse to photograph the things I found. I don’t consider myself a bridge expert or historian and I try to avoid spending too much time talking with others about bridges lest they consider me odd(er).
Do you teach historic bridges in school? If so, how?
I didn’t get a chance to teach the second year class where we taught truss analysis, so my role as an educator was mostly as an informal consultant for the students working on entries to bridge building competitions. I taught an intro civil class where I got to cover infrastructure and of course I exposed my students to a lot of structural history using bridges. I hope they came to appreciate the significance of structures that their later instructors will possibly dismiss as obsolete.
What kind of historic bridges do you look for?
Although I enjoy simply documenting older existing structures, my greatest enjoyment comes from locating and documenting bridges that have been forgotten. Most of the time there is little left physically but I like to record the location and identify any visible remnants. Kansas City still has places where one can see the paths worn by the wagons heading out on the Santa Fe Trail. For whatever reason, I feel it’s important for people to remember the paths used in the past.
A historic bridge in your opinion is…….
Defining what constitutes an historic bridge is similar to identifying an historic car. Anything old enough is worth preserving, and the more important it was when new, the more significant when old. Even the plainest, cheapest Model T should not be scrapped if it’s possible to preserve it. A Cadillac V-16 is obviously more rare and more worthy of preservation. From the perspective of the people trying to use objects in the economy, is would be foolish and wasteful to try to run a fleet of Model T taxis and it’s equally foolish to expect a tall, narrow pony truss to carry a combine or loaded grain trailer. It’s fun to drive old cars across the Chain of Rocks bridge but trying to keep it as part of the interstate system makes no sense.
What is your favorite historic bridge?
Picking favorites is difficult. Friends and I would walk out on the Chain of Rocks bridge not long after it closed. I haven’t been back since it got cleaned up but I imagine it’s still pretty spectacular. As a kid my family would visit relatives in southeast Kansas and I have a long standing love for the Marsh arches. I also enjoyed driving the old Flagler railroad bridges linking the Florida Keys back in the ‘70s.
What historic bridge(s) do you miss the most?
Probably the bridges I miss most are: The Chouteau Bridge in KC. Totally obsolete and awful for trucks and cars alike, it was nonetheless an important bridge when built and quite impressive an an old, still functioning work. The ASB automobile lanes were narrow and had a reputation for fatal accidents where the lanes split to go around the trusses. For better or worse, one could have a close look at the structure and mechanism while driving by. More generally, I miss the many through trusses that were everywhere when I began traveling and which have almost all been replaced by much more efficient boring bridges guaranteed to keep concrete plants busy repairing and replacing them.
What words of advice do you have for the following:
Photographing Historic Bridges: Get the big picture and the little details. Show the setting and what one would see driving by or passing under. Also, catch the details that can help identify the builder, date, and other parts of the history.
Teaching about Historic Bridges: I wish I had more knowledge about this. I found that I could engage students by providing some of the history behind modern concepts. Bridges played an important role in the development of engineering as a field, so I tried to cover bridge technology in discussions about changes brought about by developments in material science, structural analysis methods, etc.
Preserving Historic Bridges: Two things strike me as most important, public support and technical skills. Right now old bridges are in a place similar to steam locomotives in the ‘50s. They are being phased out and replaced by products deemed superior by policy makers. I don’t think there is much hope of their remaining in common use. The focus needs to be on finding ways to save them from being scrapped and preserving the knowledge needed to put them back in limited use when more of the public has the desire to experience the old technology. Each one lost will make the remaining ones more valuable and more likely to be saved.
Thank you for your time, Clark and wishing you all the best in your endeavors. J
The next question is who will win the now rebranded Bridgehunter Awards in the category Lifetime Achievement? If you haven’t voted yet, click here and you will be directed to the ballot. Deadline is January 10th and the winner will be announced two days later.
Note: Photos posted but not cited here are all courtesy of Clark Vance.
As we celebrate National Historic Bridge Month, one question came to mind that would be worth talking about is the first bridge you ever visited- and photographed.
It’s no joke. 🙂
Bridge enthusiasts, preservationists, historians and bridge photographers became great when they saw and photographed their first historic bridge. Just by looking at its age, unique features and its setting, the bridge provides a person with a chance to cross it from the present into the future aspects. That means, with every plank that you cross, you step even closer to your dream job of being a pontist until you reach the opposite side, and to your destination. Your first bridge is the place where you look beyond its history and towards possibilities that are there for you to learn about, research on and write about or (even teach) the histories that tie everything on this planet together, just by that bridge you visited.
My destination to becoming a teacher and writer started with this bridge- the Petersburg Road Bridge on the south end of Jackson, Minnesota. The bridge was built in 1907 by Joliet Bridge and Iron Company, replacing a bowstring arch bridge that had once spanning the West Fork Des Moines River at this spot. The Pratt through truss span with Howe lattice portals with heel struts was in service until it was closed in 1984 to motorized vehicles and in 1992 to pedestrians. After partially collapsing during the Great Flood of 1993, it was torn down in February 1995. The bridge used to be a primary crossing for people living on the south end of Jackson who wished to visit the north end or even the cemetary that was on the west end. And it was that bridge, where I took my first pics, using them for a science presentation in 7th grade in 1991. And while I never became a civil engineer, my interest in historic bridges grew during my time in college, which led to several articles being written on them.
And with that came the Chronicles, in its current form. After eight years, the column lives on. 🙂
I really don’t know if the interest in saving the bridge would’ve saved the Petersburg Bridge, where I spent my time there with the camera, but the bridge did serve as the call to go out and get some more photos of other bridges, and encourage people to save them.
Now it’s your turn: What was your first bridge that you photographed and what got you to becoming who you are because of that? Feel free to leave a comment below or on the Chronicles’ facebook page. 🙂
If there is a word of advice to give to a person wanting to engage in the hobby of photography, it would be this:
1. Look the surroundings. What do you see beyond the naked eye? What is most unique about the surrounding that is worth photographing?
2. Choose an object and/or a person you find attractive. Why choose this subject and how unique is it from the eye of a photographer?
Photography has become a popular hobby for many people, as they find the best spot/subject for a good photo opportunity and after taking dozens of snap shots, find the best photo that they are proud of- that they display for others to see, and benefit from the prize money from the photo contests sometimes. 🙂
For Jet Lowe, photography has been a major part of his life for almost five decades. Ranging from skyscrapers to bridges, Lowe has produced some of the most unique shots of his subjects from angles that even some of the amateur photographers today can even dream of doing. Lowe was selected as the winner of the 2014 Ammann Awards in the category of Lifetime Achievement for his role in photographing hundreds of bridges in the US, Europe and elsewhere, and the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles had an opportunity to interview him about his experiences and the secret to being a great photographer. Here is what we found out about him:
1. Tell us about yourself: how did your career start, and how did it lead you to HABS-HAER?
I owe my career to an academic trip to Haiti in 1966. A faculty member of the school I was attending loaned me his Pentax h3v with which to take pictures. It was a one month trip, film was expensive so I rolled my own cassettes of 20 or more black and white tri-x, a dozen rolls of kodachrome and basically got hooked. This was my first year of college, from that point on I knew I wanted to be a photographer, did not know exactly how to go about it so I ended up majoring in Art History which in retrospect was a great choice. Straight out of college I landed a job as the staff photographer for the Georgia Historical Commission doing museum photography as well as photographing historic districts for the then new federal program of the National Register of Historic Places. It was working for the Historical Commision that put the bee in my bonnet about how it might be neat to work for HABS some day ( I did not know about HAER at the time which in retrospect was a much better match).
2. How did you become interested in photography?While traveling in Haiti with my professor’s loaned camera I found myself ending up in places that I might not have been in had I not been in search of images, and meeting people. The Haitians although quite poor economically have a strong and magical spirit.
3. A large portion of your photos posted on HABS-HAER have been historic bridges. Are they your primary targets, or do you also photograph other historic places, such as buildings, stadiums, etc.?As the staff photographer for HAER our mandate was and is to photograph the engineered and built environment of the United States. From windmills to the Space Shuttle, No small mandate! I like to think of bridges as a subject matter for HAER(Historic American Engineering Record) like houses have been for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Bridges tend to encapsulate the structural engineering thought of any given time period.
4. Which bridge you photographed was your favorite?The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson always comes first to mind for its complexity, significance, as well as photogeneity.
5. Which bridge was the most difficult to photograph? How did you overcome this difficulty? I would have to say the Brooklyn Bridge because it was my first major documentation of a nationally significant bridge. The documentation was to involve getting to the towers via walking up the cables. Never having done this caused me a bit of anxiety in the week leading up to the day of working on the bridge. The maintenance men who were my hosts drily assured me they had not lost any one yet walking up the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was also the first one that I photographed from the air using a world war II vintage aerial camera. One thing that helped in overcoming the more difficult hurdles of the assignment was a week spent in New York getting as many photographs completed on the ground before climbing the towers. When the big day finally arrived I was at least fairly familiar with the structure. One of the great privileges of my job at HAER was the opportunity to climb around on numerous other big suspension bridges,including the Takoma Narrows, Oakland, Golden Gate, and Verrazanno Narrows to name a few that are now housed in the HAER collection.
6. Which bridge that you had photographed but was later demolished was one that you wished to have preserved and why?The Bellows Falls (Vermont) arch suspension bridge was amongst the most elegant of bridges I have photographed and represented also one of the greatest losses to our patrimony.
7. Many other photographers, including James Baughn (who finished second in the Lifetime Achievement category) and (Nathan Holth, who finished third) have done a great deal of contributions of photos for their historic bridge websites. How important has photography been in addressing the importance of historic bridges and ways to preserve them? Photography is still the most palpable way of showing us the way a bridge structure looked, and occupied its environment. I think the photographer David Plowden deserves credit for being one of the first photographers to focus attention on the contribution and richness that bridges add to our built environment.
8. If someone is interested in photography as a profession, what advice would you give him/her and what is the outlook in your opinion?I think there will always be a market out there for photographers that have a special vision and are obsessed with their work. Young photographers should look at the work of others and study the great prints in the museums and also think in terms of converting their favorite images in to a photographic print, not just an electronic entity. It is probably even more difficult to break into the discipline as a means of making a living now because of the dilution of the medium via iPhones and the internet. The outlook is difficult, however I can not stress enough the rewards for following one’s muse.
The last sentence stated by Jet Lowe could not be any clearer than that. With social networks and iPhones dominating our livelihoods, many of us have a canny for selfie shots, shooting events in our lives, or even getting some shots of places of interest while travelling. However, the quality of real photography has declined because of the flooding of pictures that would be considered null and void in the eyes of the professionals. However, it does not mean that professional and amateur photography will die off. Many of us will specialize in areas once considered unknown, such as night photography, landscape photography and forms of architectural photography (and in particular, bridge photography) because they are important for people interested in not only looking at them on display but also to document the historical importance, using them as a springboard for preservation efforts. Therefore, one should not be afraid of engaging in such a unique hobby. It may not be a full-time profession, but it is one that will satisfy the interest of the photographer and those interested in taking a look at his/her work. So to close the interview, take the camera, take your girlfriend out with you, take some shots of what you think is beautiful and show her life from your perspective- from your own lens. You may never know what your photos will look like, let alone be worth when selling them on the market or entering them in a contest. Henceforth, click-click!
Each year since 2009, the Historic Bridge Weekend Conference has taken place in August or September, and each year, it has drawn in more people who are experts in historic bridges, preservation or history, as well as those who are either bridge enthusiasts or have a keen interest in how these vintage structures were built and how they played a role in American History.
This year’s Historic Bridge Weekend is coming to America’s heartland, the state of Iowa, where the history of transportation and infrastructure and the development of America as a whole go together like bread and butter. The Lincoln and Jefferson Highways meet in the state. Iowa was the first state to introduce the No Passing Zone signs. Kate Shelley made her heroic deed by stopping a passenger train from falling through a bridge washed away by flood waters.
And the bridges? Iowa takes pride in its bridge building. The first bridge designs, like the Marsh arch, the aluminum girder and the Thacher truss originated from Iowa. Numerous bowstring arches were built throughout the state. Many big-name bridge builders from Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania made their mark in Iowa, while the state had its own bridge building companies located in Clinton, Ottumwa and Des Moines, which dominated the American landscape during the first half of the 20th Century.
This year’s Historic Bridge Weekend will take place August 9th through the 12th and will focus on the eastern half of Iowa, where many historic bridges dating as far back as 1870 still exist today. Please refer to the detailed agenda at the end of this message for more information.
For those who are interested in participating in the dinner and presentations, please RSPV Jason D. Smith at the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles at: email@example.com or JDSmith77@gmx.net by no later than 15 July. Information on the bridge tours and the dinner and presentations will be provided through e-mail. Lodging and camping possibilities are available upon request.
Agenda: Day 1 – 9th August, 2013
The journey starts on 9th of August at the Old Barn Resort in Preston, Minnesota beginning at 10:00am, and after touring Fillmore County, we’ll focus on the northeast corner of Iowa, which includes the bridges in Winneshiek, Fayette, Dubuque and Jones Counties and features the bowstring arch bridges in the region as well as the Black Hawk Bridge, the Red Bridge, and the remaining spans of the original Dubuque bridge, built in 1868 over the Mississippi and is one of the last remaining historic bridges made of cast iron in the country.
Dinner and presentations will take place at the Stone City General Store in Stone City (near Anamosa) at 6:30pm. This event will be dedicated to James Hippen, who spearheaded efforts to save historic bridges in Iowa for over 40 years until his unexpected passing in 2010. People who worked with Mr. Hippen will speak at this event in his honor.
Day 2 – 10th August, 2013 August 10th will feature a tour of the historic bridges in the east-central portion of the state. This will include a guided tour of the bridges of Linn and Johnson Counties by Quinn Phelan, which starts at 8:30am at Palisades-Kepler State Park at Mt. Vernon and last throughout the morning. This includes a trip to F.W. Kent Park near Tifflin (west of Iowa City), where one can see nine fully-restored historic bridges, including a roof-top bowstring arch bridge, built using steel trusses from a building that was demolished in the 1980s.
Afternoon tours include visiting bridges along the Lincoln Highway, as well as the Quad Cities and can be done individually or in groups, pending on preferences.
Saturday evening’s dinner and presentations will take place at 7:00pm at Baxa’s Tavern and Grill, located at Sutliff Bridge, south of Mt. Vernon. Sutliff Bridge features two original Parker through truss spans and a replica of the easternmost span that was destroyed in the flooding in 2008. Members of the Sutliff Bridge Authority will talk about the restoration of the bridge and answer any questions the people have about the project. In addition, a pair of presentations by two important figures in historic bridges and preservation will also be provided. Day 3 – 11th August, 2013
Tour of the bridges in the southeastern part of Iowa including the bridges in and around Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk, as well as the bridges along the Des Moines River between Keokuk and Des Moines. Afternoon:
Meeting to talk about the Horn’s Ferry Bridge at the Red Rock Informational Center located near the site beginning at 2:30pm, followed a tour of Marion County‘s bridges and finally the last of the presentations and dinner at Bos Landen Golf Course south of Pella at 5:30pm. A silent auction will accompany the evening event. The Weekend will conclude with a night tour of the bridges of Des Moines. Day 4 – 12th August, 2013
For those wanting to see the Kate Shelley Viaduct, there will be a tour of Kate Shelley, her life and the bridge named in her honor beginning at 10:00am at the Boone County Historical Center in Boone. The 2-3 hour tour will include a tour of the Kate Shelley exhibit, a trip to the train depot at Moingona and the remains of the bridge that was washed away by flooding (the same bridge which Kate Shelley crossed before informing the tenant of a nearby bridge being washed out), and a tour of the bridges, including the two viaducts (the 1912 steel viaduct and the 2008 replacement viaduct), the (freshly remodeled) Wagon Wheel Bridge north of the viaducts (which is opened to pedestrians), the Bass Creek Viaduct, and the Madrid Viaduct.
One More Note:
The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is also accepting donations for the following projects: The restoration of the McIntyre Bowstring Arch Bridge in Poweshiek County The restoration of the Sutliff Bridge in Johnson County.
A donation box will be made available on each of the evening dinner events for you to make a contribution.
Note: We will have a silent auction on Sunday 11 August at Bos Landen Golf Course near Pella at 5:30pm, the same time as the dinner and presentations. All proceeds will go to the two aforementioned projects.
Donations of Info and Photos for Bridge Book also being taken:
In addition, donations in the form of pictures, postcards, information, money for research, etc. are currently being accepted for the book project “The History of Truss Bridges in Iowa” which is being written by the author of the Chronicles. An information box will be available during the Historic Bridge Weekend, but you can also contact Jason Smith in person at the event or via e-mail of you have any information about any of Iowa’s bridges that is worth entering in the book.
A few months ago, I was approached by a musician from Louisiana, who wanted to use one of my photos of a bridge I photographed near St. Louis last summer while at the Historic Bridge Conference. It was located over the Chain of Rocks Canal, one of the alternative parallel routes along the Mississippi, carrying an Interstate highway. It is unclear how he came across the website Historic Bridges of the US, let alone why he wanted this photo:
But I know there was a certain vantage point I took advantage of when I got this shot and the gut feeling that this bridge would get some fame in one way or another. I gave the man the green light and (as you can see in the photo at the beginning), it really paid off. I did receive a pair of copies from the guy and listened to the music. It is definitely contemporary and easy to listen to while traveling- in other words, he will definitely see some of his songs reach the Top 40 at some point before the year was over, let alone receive some awards for the best album cover.
This brought me up to a couple of questions I have for the forum for you to chew on over the weekend (and beyond). Many bridges (and in particular, historic bridges) were used in many musical pieces, movies, and literary genres as a way of attracting the readers. Some people have written stories about them. The most commonly known story and later film was “The Bridges of Madison County”, talking about the story of a photographer taking covered bridges in a small Iowa community, who falls in love with a farmer’s wife, who originated from Italy. However, it is unknown how many pieces are around that have bridges in them, but they seem to be plenty in number.
So the question for the forum on this topic is the following:
1. Do you know of any other musical piece/album, book, literary genre or film that you know where a bridge is used as the centerpiece?
2. Do you think that the usage of bridges in these pieces contribute to their success, and if so, how?
As for the CD I just received, I can only recommend you purchasing it as the lyrics are easy to listen to and the music falls right in line with other contemporary music that we are accustomed to. After all, one cannot be used to only one form of music or another. Alternatives can open new avenues. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to thank Michael Dean for the use of the pic for the album and wish him the best of luck with the success of his newly released album.
There are many ways to look at a bridge and determine its value, both aesthetically as well as historically. From an engineer’s point of view, the bridge is built to function as a vehicular crossing until it is rendered obsolete and considered for replacement. From a historian’s point of view, each bridge has its own history and identity to the community, going beyond the bridge builder, the dimensions and unique value that make it eligible to be protected by preservation laws. From a photographer’s point of view, each bridge has a beauty that makes it fit into the landscape, whether it is a truss, arch, cable-stayed or suspension bridge.
In the case of David Plowden, each bridge not only presents a beauty that warrants a black and white photo worth remembering, but it contributes to the history of the American architecture, infrastructure and transportation. Born in 1932, Plowden started his photography career at the age of 25, providing the readers with a look at the development of American society, from the steel mills to the farming community, from the slums of the big cities, to Main Street USA, where small talk and hard work are the norms. He has published over 20 books including his latest one on the state of Iowa (which was released earlier this year), where a traveling photography exhibition of the state and its hilly landscape is currently taking place until 2014.
In the book Bridges: The Spans of North America, published in 2002, Plowden combined his photographic genius with some history to provide readers with an insight into the development of bridges in North America, beginning with those made of wood in a form of covered bridges, followed by brick and stone bridges, the metal bridges (both in terms of short- and long river crossings) and finishing with the bridges made of concrete. The over 400-page work provides the reader with an in depth look at the types of bridges that were developed, the bridge builders who used them for their crossings and where the bridges were located. While some of the bridge types mentioned in the book are well-known to the bridge community and historians, such as the Bollmann Truss Bridge at Savage, Maryland the concrete arch bridges of Pennsylvania and Oregon, and the common suspension bridges, like John Roebling’s suspension bridges, there are some others that had been mentioned briefly in other documents but were brought to life in this book, like the Whipple-Murphy truss bridges, many of which were constructed along the Missouri River between Sioux City and Kansas City under George S. Morrison in the 1880s, the Poughkeepsie Suspension and Railroad Bridges in upstate New York or even local bridges like the Bellefountain Bridge in Mahaska County, Iowa. Plowden provides a tour into the life of each bridge engineer and his contribution to the American landscape with examples of bridges that bear his name and were meant to serve traffic for many years.
As for the bridges themselves, the photos taken by Plowden were genuine and provide the reader with an inside look at the structure’s appearance from a photographer’s point of view. Some bridges were photographed in areas that were run down and were not part of the urbanization movement in the 1960s, such as the outer suburbs of Pittsburgh, for example. Some bridges in his book were taken in heavily industrialized areas, like New Jersey. And then there are others in the book that had a unique natural background, like the bridges of Oregon and western Canada. In terms of how they were photographed, there were many bridges that were photographed at a portal view- meaning the entrance of the bridge, presenting the reader the bridge’s facial feature before entering the structure. This includes the past bridges, like the Point Bridge in Pittsburgh as well as those in the present, like the railroad bridge at Beaver, Pennsylvania. While some of the bridges are known to the bridge community today, there are many that were rarely recognized but brought to the light by pushing the snapshot button and presenting a black and white picturesque view that definitely belongs to an art gallery somewhere. While many of these bridges, such as the Central Bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati and the St. Mary’s Bridge in West Virginia, a sister of the Silver Bridge, which collapsed in 1967 killing 46 people, have long since been demolished, Plowden photographed most of them in the 1960s and 70s, giving the reader an idea what they looked like before they were replaced. Each bridge photographed in the book has some information on its history and the status at the time of its publication.
It is very difficult to write a book on the history of bridges and how they were developed without having to narrow the focus down to the key aspects. In the case of the books on the bridges of Erfurt, Germany, one was focused on the technical aspects; the other on the historical aspects. One cannot have insight into the bridges without having to read both pieces of literature, even though they are both in German. In the case of Plowden’s book, he divided the subject up into the materials used for bridge construction, followed by the bridge types that were used and the engineers who built the bridges. To a certain degree, when focusing on bridges on a scale as large as North America’s it is a good idea, for it provides an overview into the development of the bridges from the beginning to the present time. This has been used in a couple other literary pieces, the latest of which will be the book of the month for August on Minnesota’s bridges by Denis Gardner (which falls nicely into the five-year anniversary of the I-35W bridge disaster in Minneapolis).
Yet when looking at the content of the book, most of its focus was on the development of bridges in the United States, together with the photos he took, with a small fraction being focused on Canada’s bridges (like the Lethbridge Viaduct in the province of Alberta and the Quebec Bridge). Most of the information and photos of the bridges came from those in the northern half of the US along the major rivers and in the northeastern part of the US, such as the Ohio River Valley, the Hudson River, and the Mississippi. These areas were the breeding ground for bridge development that spanned over 150 years and expanded into the Plains Region and beyond. If a person was to be picky about the content of the book, and focus on the history and development of bridges per se, then perhaps Plowden could have had two different books on the subject- one for the US and one for Canada. After all, despite the fact that this history run parallel in both countries, each one had its own set of bridge builders and bridge types with much of Canada’s bridge designs being imported from Europe as it had close ties with Great Britain and France.
But there are two main reasons why Plowden chose to incorporate the two countries into one for the book. First of all, the history and development of the bridges were interchangeable. Canadian bridge builders immigrated to America to start their business and prosper. Bridge companies in the US had exceptional influence in Canada. The designs used for bridge construction were mostly similar in both countries, with a few minor exceptions. That means we have cantilever truss bridges in both countries, and we competed with each other to construct the longest and tallest bridges. And through their exchanges in information and designers, both prospered during the Industrial Age of the late 1800s.
The other reason is the fact that Plowden is a photographer by heart. He not only provides people with a look into the lives of others in black and white, but he also provides them with unique scenery through the photos of antique works of art that still rules the streets (even though the numbers have dwindled rapidly over the years). He does not just showcase the photos for people to see. That would be too easy to do, especially in today’s technological age where anyone can post their pics on facebook, flickr and other websites. But each bridge that is photographed is accompanied by a story of its existence and the bridge builder responsible for erecting the structure and sharing his success to others so that they can either follow the lead or challenge it. The book provides the reader with general knowledge of the development of the bridges and the role of the engineers that contributed their history. And even if the majority of the readers are not engineers, bridge fanatics or historians, and even if one is unable to read the entire book from cover to cover, looking at the bridge photos themselves is enough to tell the story of how it was built and how it became part of North American history.
So to end this review process, get your cameras ready and set out to go bridgehunting. Find a bridge that means a great deal to you, regardless of its appearance and surroundings, its history and identity to the region and regardless of its age and whether you can cross it or spend time walking to it. As soon as you find it, start shooting. Show the bridge to others and make it known to the public of its value through your camera lens and point of view. After all, there are more people interested in historic bridges than you know. Plowden knew about it and therefore, the book is sitting in my bridge library, waiting for me to open the page and have a look at the work that he did. Pride can help you prosper and people will take note of that. Author’s note: I just sent a batch of interview questions to Mr. Plowden for him to answer and send back. As soon as I have them, they will be posted in a separate article.