Historic Structures and Glasses: Restore vs. Replacement in Simpler Terms

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Co-written with sister column, FF new logo

The discussion about the preservation and reuse of historic places has existed since the 1950s, thanks to the preservation laws that have been in place. The German Preservation Laws were passed in 1958, whereas the Historic Preservation Laws that established the National Park Service and National Register of Historic Places in the USA were enacted in 1966. Both serve the lone purpose of identifying and designating places unique to the cultural identity and history of their respective countries. Furthermore, these places are protected from any sort of modernization that would otherwise alter or destroy the structure in its original form. Protected places often receive tax credits, grants and other amenities that are normally and often not granted if it is not protected or even nominated for listing as a historic site.  This applies to not only buildings and bridges but also to roadways and highways, windmills, towers of any sorts, forts and castles, citadels and educational institutions and even memorials commemorating important events.

Dedicating and designating sites often receive mixed reactions, from overwhelming joy because they can better enjoy the sites and educate the younger generations, to disgruntlement because they want to relieve themselves of a potential liability.


Since working with a preservation group in western Saxony on saving the Bockau Arch Bridge, a seven-span stone arch bridge that spans the Zwickau Mulde between Bockau and Zschorlau, six kilometers southwest of Aue, the theme involving this structure has been ownership. The bridge has been closed to all traffic since August 2017 while a replacement is being built on a new alignment. Once the new bridge opens, the 150-year old structure will come down unless someone is willing to step in and take over ownership and the responsibilities involved. . Taking the structure means paying for its maintenance and assuming all responsibility for anything that could potentially happen. And this is the key here: Ownership.

Who wants to own a piece of history? To examine this, let’s look at a basic example of a commodity where two thirds of the world’s population wear on a regular basis- the author included as well: glasses.

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The author’s sunglasses: the older model from 2005 on top; the newest pair from 2018 at the bottom.

Ever since Marco Polo’s invention, glasses have been improved, innovated and modernized to not only make the person look great in appearance. It also helps them to better see the environment surrounding them, regardless of whether they are near-sighted or far sighted, have astigmatism or require bi-focals to read, or if they want protect their eyes from the sun in the form of shades. Glasses can be plastic or metal (or even both). And like the historic structures, the materials can be recycled if no one wants them. Yet by the same token, many of us love to keep them for the purpose of memories or give them away to those who need them. For over 30 years, I have worn nine pairs of glasses and two pairs of sunglasses; this does not count the eight years that I primarily wore contact lenses, which was during my time in high school and college. Like our historic structures, glasses have a life span. They are worn until the frames develop rust and corrosion, the vision changes or they are broken.

In some cases, many look for a new frames because they want to “look cool” in front of their peers. The “look cool” mentality has overtaken society to a point where it can be applicable to about everything: cars, clothing, houses and especially historic places and structures of interest. Basically, people just ignore the significance of these structures and things that had been built in the past, which hold memories, contribute to the development of a country, region or even community, or are simply fashionable. Still in spite of all this, one has to do something about the glasses, just as much one has to do something about the historic building.

So let’s take these two pairs of sunglasses, for example. Like in the picture above, the top one I was prescribed by an optometrist in 2005; the bottom one most recently in June 2018. The top one is a combination of plastic and steel- the temples, ends and hinges are made of steel; the eye wires are plastic. The lenses are made with Carl Zeiss branded glass with a sealcoat covering to protect it from scratches.  The bottom ones are plastic- frames, temples and nosepiece; the lenses are plastic but with a sealcoat protectant and dimmers to protect the eyes from the sun. The brand name is generic- no name.  The difference is that the changes in the eyes required new sunglasses for the purpose of driving or doing work outside.  As I wear the new sunglasses, which are not as high quality but is “cool,” according to standards, the question is what to do with the old sunglasses?

There are enough options to go around, even if the sunglasses are not considered significant. One can keep the old pair for memory purposes. Good if you have enough space for them. One can give them away to someone who needs them. If they are non-prescription lenses, that is much easier than those with a prescription. With the prescription lenses, one will need to remove them from the frame before giving them away. Then there is the option of handing them into the glasses provider, who takes the pair apart and allows for the materials to be recycled.  More likely one will return the old pair to the provider to be recycled and reused than it would be to give them away because of the factors of age, quality of the materials and glass parts and especially the questions with the lenses themselves. One can keep the pair, but it would be the same as leaving them out of sight and out of mind.

And this mentality can be implemented to any historic structure. People strive for cooler, more modern buildings, infrastructure or the like, but do not pay attention to the significance of the structure they are replacing in terms of learning about the past and figuring its reuse in the future. While some of  these “oldtimers “ are eventually vacated and abandoned, most of them are eventually torn down with the materials being reused for other purposes; parts of sentimental values, such as finials, statues and plaques, are donated to museums and other associations to be put on display.

The Bridge at Pointer’s Ridge. Built in 1910 by the Western Bridge Company of Omaha, NE. The Big Sioux River crossing was one of five bridges removed after years of abandonment in 2012. Photo taken in 1999 when it was still open.

One of examples that comes to mind when looking at this mentality are the bridges of Minnehaha County in South Dakota. The most populous county in the state whose county seat is Sioux Falls (also the largest city in the state), the county used to have dozens of historic truss bridges that served rail and automobile traffic. As of present, 30 known truss bridges exists in the county, down from 43 in 1990, and half as many as in 1980.  At least six of them are abandoned awaiting reuse. This includes a rails-to-road bridge that was replaced in 1997 but has been sitting alongside a gravel road just outside Dell Rapids ever since.  A big highlight came with the fall of five truss bridges between Dell Rapids and Crooks in 2012, which included three through truss spans- two of which had crossed the Big Sioux. All three were eligible for the National Register. The reasons behind the removal were simple: Abandoned for too long and liability was too much to handle

This leads me to my last point on the glasses principle: what if the structures are protected by law, listed as a historic monument?  Let’s look at the glasses principle again to answer that question. Imagine you have a couple sets of glasses you don’t want to part ways with, even as you clean your room or  flat. What do you do with them? In the case of my old sunglasses, the answer is simple- I keep them for one can reuse them for other purposes. Even if I allow my own daughter to use them for decorating dolls or giant teddy bears, or even for artwork, the old pair is mine, if and only if I want to keep them and allow for use by someone else under my care.  The only way I would not keep the old sunglasses is if I really want to get rid of them and no one wants them.

Big Sioux River Crossing at 255th Street: One of five bridges removed in 2012 after decades of abandonment. Photo taken in 1999.

For historic places, this is where we have somewhat of a grey area. If you treat the historic place as if it is protected and provide great care for it, then there is a guarantee that it will remain in its original, pristine condition. The problem is if you want to get rid of it and your place is protected by law. Here you must find the right person who will take as good care of it as you do with your glasses. And that is not easy because the owner must have the financial security and the willpower just to do that. Then the person taking it over does not automatically do what he/she pleases. If protected under preservation laws you must treat it as if it is yours but it is actually not, just like renting a house.  Half the places that have been torn down despite its designation as a historical site was because of the lack of ownership and their willingness to do something to their liking. Even if there are options for restoration available, if no one wants it, it has to go, even if it means taking it off the historic registry list to do that.  Sometimes properties are reclaimed at the very last second, just like the old glasses, because of the need to save it. While one can easily do that with glasses, it is difficult to do that with historic places, for replacement contracts often include removal clauses for the old structure, something that is very difficult to rescind without taking the matter to court.


In reference to the project on the Bockau Arch Bridge in Germany, we are actually at that point. Despite its protection as a historic structure, its designation was taken off recently, thus allowing for the contract for the new bridge at the expense of the old structure to proceed. Yet, like with the pair of old glasses, last ditch attempts are being made to stop the process for there are possible suitors willing to take over the old structure and repurpose it for bike and pedestrian use. While neither of the communities have expressed interest, despite convincing arguments that the bridge can be maintained at a price that is 100 times less than the calculated amount, the group working to save the bridge is forming an association which will feature a network of patrons in the region, willing to chip in to own the bridge privately. Despite this, the debate on ownership and the bridge’s future lies in the hands of the state parliament because the bridge carries a federal highway, which is maintained on the state and national levels. Will it become like the old pair of glasses that is saved the last second will be decided upon later this fall.

To summarize briefly on the glasses principle, glasses and buildings each have a short lifespan because of their functionality and appearance. We tend to favor the latter more than the former and therefore, replace them with newer, more modern and stylish things to keep up with the pace. However, the older structures, just like the discarded pair of glasses, are downgraded on the scale, despite its protection under laws and ownership. When listed as a historical site, the proprietor works for and together with the government to ensure its upkeep, just like lending old glasses to someone for use, as long as the person knows he/she is “borrowing” it. When it is not listed , they are either abandoned or torn down, just like storing the glasses in the drawers or even having them recycled. However the decision is final if and only if no one wants it, and this could be a last-second thing.

The Bridge at Iverson Crossing south of Sioux Falls. Built in 1897, added to the National Register in 1996. Now privately owned. Photo taken in 1998.

We cannot plan ahead for things that need to be built, expanded or even replaced, for there may be someone with a strong backbone and staunch support who will step in the last minute to stake their claim. This applies to replacing older, historic structures with modern ones that have less taste and value. In the face of environmental issues we’re seeing globally on a daily basis, we have to use and reuse buildings and other structures to prevent the waste of materials that are becoming rarer to use, the destruction of natural habitats that may never recover but most importantly, remind the younger generations of our history and how we got this far. While some of us have little memories of our old glasses in schools with the exception of school class and party photos, almost all of us have memories of our experiences at, in, or on a historic structure that deserves to be recognized and kept for others to see. It’s just a matter of handling them, like the glasses we are wearing.




Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: A Review of the 2008 Proposal

Mead Avenue Bridge in Meadeville, Pennsylvania. Photo taken in August 2010. Bridge still standing despite being closed to traffic since 2008.


The votes have been counted. The decision has been made. We have our man for the job as President of the United States for the next four years- Barack Obama. While it is appropriate to congratulate him on his victory, which will keep him in office until January 2017, we do know (and perhaps he knows, too) that there is work to be done. A lot has been accomplished in the first four years in office, yet there is a long list of tasks that need to be completed. Among them has to do with historic bridge preservation.

When the president took office in January 2009, he was faced with numerous issues that came about. One was with high unemployment, the other with the problem with the infrastructure; especially in light of the I-35W Bridge disaster on 1 August, 2007. The Transportation Authorization Bill, passed in 2009 was supposed to provide funding to fix the ailing system, which includes building new roads and bridges and providing new jobs for those affected by the economic meltdown that occurred in the Fall 2008. But the question is: what about historic bridges and their role in the Act? A proposal on how to include funding for historic bridge preservation as part of the Act was presented by James Garvin, a historian at the New Hampshire Historical Society in December 2008, with the goal of securing more funding to encourage preservation and reuse of historic bridges, also with a purpose of generating jobs but in sections that deal with restoring bridges, such as welding, etc.

I asked Mr. Garvin if the proposal could be presented to light in this article so that we can review it and find out how far we have come with historic bridge preservation in the last four years and find out if there is a way to bring this matter up to the attention of the president in a different form. As the green light has been given, here is the 2008 version of the proposal.  If there is a way to convince the president that preserving America’s heritage is just as important as improving the infrastructure, let alone producing new jobs for the economy, what proposals would you bring to his desk at the Oval Office?  Read this and I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

Note: As you probably remembered, I conducted an interview with Mr. Garvin about the historic bridge preservation policies and its connection with the Presidential Elections. You can find the transcript here.  My opinion about this topic will come in the next article, however, some food for thought about the election results can be found in an article produced by the sister column The Flensburg Files, which you can click here.

The December 2008 Proposal to Barack Obama from James Garvin:

Summary:   Historic bridges are tangible and inspiring elements of American history.  Preservation of such bridges has been declared a national purpose by Congressional enactment of laws extending back through more than forty years.  Despite the will of Congress, the nation has lost at least 50% of these bridges in the past twenty years.  Few artifacts of American history have been erased so swiftly from our landscape.  The magnitude of this loss is becoming apparent to the American people, and a consensus favoring bridge preservation is developing.  Many of the tools needed to accomplish this preservation must be supplied by Congress, but the Executive Branch has an unparalleled opportunity, in fulfillment of its stated goal to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, to encourage these bridge preservation efforts and to inspire other initiatives to preserve the man-made elements of the American environment.  The preservation of our remaining historic bridges will realize a long deferred intent of Congress while providing a stimulus to the American economy, conserving materials and energy, and preserving the legacy of engineering and aesthetics embodied in these bridges.  Because bridge preservation has been so long deferred, countless projects are poised to begin as soon as funding is available.

Narrative:  Much of the history of the United States is written in our landscape.  Among the most evocative embodiments of that history are our historic bridges.  Bridges represent human thought given physical expression.  Whether rusting as ruins or carrying us safely over the greatest of obstacles, these structures stand among the proud inheritances of a society that became great not through wars and conquests, but by harnessing the power of water and steam and by conquering distance though railroads and highways.  The surviving historic bridges of the United States are a precious but endangered resource in our history of civil engineering, iron and steel manufacturing, transportation, and economics.  Many were among the first bridges to embody the full scope of the science of structural analysis as it was developed by American engineers after the mid-1800s.  They revolutionized transportation at a time when the nation’s roads were a national disgrace.  They transformed the American economy by providing safe passage over dangerous hazards and difficult terrain.

Congress first recognized the significance of America’s historic bridges in 1966 through passage of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Department of Transportation Act.  The latter allows the federal Secretary of Transportation to approve a transportation project that requires the “use” of a historic resource only if (1) there is no feasible and prudent alternative to such “use,” and (2) the project includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the historic resource resulting from such “use” (49  U.S.C. 303 §771.135 Section 4(f)).2  The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 similarly requires that every federally-funded or -permitted project avoid doing harm to National Register-eligible resources whenever possible.  If harm cannot be avoided, it must be minimized and/or mitigated.  The public must be invited to participate in the process of planning for preservation.

The directive in the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 to the Federal Highway Administration to work toward bridge preservation was strengthened in 1987 with the passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA). This act created a historic bridge program that codified a Congressional finding that it is in the national interest to encourage the rehabilitation, reuse, and preservation of bridges that are significant in American history, architecture, engineering, and culture (23 U.S.C. 144(o)).

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has likewise developed a policy on the rehabilitation of historic bridges for continued vehicular use when possible, noting that

historic bridges are important links in our past, serve as safe and vital transportation routes in the present, and can represent significant resources for the future. . . . Bridges are the single most visible icon of the civil engineer’s art.  By demonstrating interest in the rehabilitation and reuse of historic bridges, the civil engineering profession acknowledges concern with these resources and an awareness of the historic built environment.

Despite the intent of Congress, our legacy of bridges, and the intelligence and enterprise they embody, is at risk.  That risk can be measured with a degree of accuracy because most states began to inventory their National Register-eligible bridges during the 1980s under directives from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Using the baseline documentation provided by these state bridge surveys, a workshop on historic bridges, held in Washington, D. C., in December 2003, came to a dire conclusion:

Since 1991, federal legislation has inspired an important transformation within the transportation community, broadening its mission from the traditional task of providing a safe and efficient highway system to acknowledging that these activities play a critical role in preserving our nation’s natural and historical heritage. Despite this cultural shift, recent statistics suggest that half, if not more, of our Nation’s historic bridges have been lost in the last twenty years—two decades in which transportation and preservation consciousness was at a high level. This is an alarming and sobering statistic.

The will of Congress has been thwarted by a general inadequacy in the level of maintenance of historic bridges and by a pervasive preference among transportation officials for replacement rather than preservation.  State and regional highway agencies, intent on building anew instead of preserving, often perform insufficient maintenance to ensure the preservation of historic bridges.  When the resulting deterioration reaches a critical stage, agencies commonly ignore the Congressional mandate to engage in all possible planning to avoid harm to historic bridges.  Moving quickly, often with minimal public participation, to a decision that there is no “prudent” alternative to the removal of a bridge, these agencies frequently condemn historic bridges to oblivion.  Despite the laws and studies cited above, this pattern of behavior has been recognized among transportation agencies nationwide.  In some states, two-thirds of metal truss bridges have been lost since 1984.

Perceiving the gap between our theoretical commitment to bridge preservation and the catastrophic losses in the field, the Standing Committee on the Environment of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) commissioned the development of general guidelines for bridge rehabilitation and replacement, hoping that such protocols might be adopted across the nation. The resulting report, Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement (March 2007), points out that

there is no . . .  protocol that ensures a nationally consistent approach to determining when rehabilitation is the appropriate decision or when replacement is justified. State and local transportation agencies have developed a wide variety of approaches for managing historic bridges . . . but few of the processes are founded on written protocols or guidelines that ensure balanced decision-making that spells out to all stakeholders when rehabilitation is the prudent alternative.

Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement is a recent offering that so far is unsupported by any mandate or initiative from AASHTO.  As yet, it has had little impact on individual states and certainly has not yet had the anticipated effect of encouraging bridge preservation or standardizing the treatment and preservation of historic bridges across the nation.

Yet there is a national consciousness of the enormity of our loss of so significant a part of the American legacy.  Several statewide preservation organizations have declared historic bridges to be among their “most endangered” historic properties.  Individual bridges, and historic bridges in general, have been nominated to the “Eleven Most Endangered” listing of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The present moment offers an opportunity for action.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has recently offered its “Vision for the Obama Administration.” Included under Section 8, “Transportation,” are four recommendations affecting historic bridges.  They are:

Promote the reuse rather than the demolition of historic bridges by removing current obstacles to their repair or relocation

Include additional [enhanced] historic preservation-based language in the new 2009 Transportation Authorization Bill to encourage the adaptive reuse of the existing transportation infrastructure

Ensure that Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] are not weakened in the 2009 Transportation Authorization Bill

Continue to fund Transportation Enhancement [TE] grants, which have been instrumental in aiding the preservation of historic bridges

Preservation of historic bridges is in keeping with longstanding public policy.  It is ecologically beneficial, inasmuch as it reuses existing materials and greatly reduces the “carbon footprint” of a project in comparison with the demolition of existing structures and building anew.  It is economically beneficial, inasmuch as rehabilitation, while usually less costly than new construction, is labor intensive and thus generates the need for many skilled jobs.

Because existing incentives for bridge preservation have proven insufficient to stanch the loss of half of these structures over the past few decades, an earnest attempt to fulfill the long-expressed will of Congress will require more resources.  In fulfillment of the will of Congress, the United States must develop a national strategy for and commitment to the preservation of historic bridges.  The upcoming reauthorization of the federal Transportation Authorization Bill in 2009 offers an opportunity to reshape bridge preservation practices of the United States.  Among the steps that have been suggested to accomplish this goal, augmenting the vision of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are:

An FHWA mandate, with funding, to develop statewide bridge preservation programs

An FHWA mandate, with funding, to develop a national context for historic bridges

AASHTO backing for preservation and better maintenance for all bridges, with further studies like Guidelines for Historic Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement (2007)

Congressional appropriation for the preservation of historic metal truss bridges, comparable to the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program, including funding for study, planning, development of a national database of National Register-eligible bridges, and identification of national “best practices” for bridge preservation

Enhancement of the provisions of Section 4(f) to allow 200% of the estimated cost of demolition (rather than 100%, as at present) to be applied toward the preservation of historic bridges that are bypassed, and to encourage the use of those bridges for alternate transportation uses such as hiking, bicycling, and off-highway recreational vehicles

Provision of dedicated Transportation Enhancement [TE] funding specifically for historic bridge preservation.

Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation: Interview with Nathan Holth

Parshallburg Bridge in Chesaning, Michigan: It was one of only five Thacher through truss bridges remaining in the United States before flooding and ice jams destroyed the newly restored structure in 2008.

Author’s Notes: This is the first of many interviews that will be posted on the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, as the column will look at the successes of President Obama with transportation policies and with it, historic bridge preservation, what challenger Mitt Romney will bring to the country if elected President, and how the Presidential elections will impact the future of America’s infrastructure and bridge preservation and maintenance in general, which despite improvements since the Minneapolis Bridge disaster on 1 August, 2007 (see part I and part II for more details), there are still some critical flaws that need to be addressed, even after the November 6 elections take place.

The first interview is with Nathan Holth, webmaster of HistoricBridges.org, a website focusing on historic bridges, preservation and some interesting facts that he has gathered since the website was launched in 2005. Most of the coverage is in the eastern half of the US and large parts of Canada. In addition to that, he has been actively involved in the Section 106 and Section 4f Process of the 1966 Historic Preservation Laws and has worked with many parties in ensuring that historic bridges targeted for replacement are preserved, regardless of whether they are in place or in a different location.  Here are some questions I had for him, which he took some time to answer. Note that all pictures in this article are courtesy of HistoricBridges.org and the author would like to thank him for the usage.


1. How big of a role have you played in historic bridge preservation since Obama was elected in 2008?
In May, 2011 myself and Luke Gordon worked to remove five abandoned pin-connected truss bridges in danger of collapse in Monroe County, Michigan and place them into storage for future restoration and reuse in new locations. In 2009, myself and Vern Mesler worked to provide the city of Mt. Pleasant, MI with information about the historic significance of a pin-connected pony truss (which turned out to be an 19th Century truss built by Wrought Iron Bridge Company) and the feasibility of its restoration. These efforts helped the city decide to rehabilitate the bridge for pedestrian use rather than replace it with a modern bridge. I have also participated as a consulting party in a number of bridge projects that triggered Section 106.

One of many pony truss bridges in Monroe County, Michigan

2. How would you rate the transportation policies in the US in comparison with the policies regarding preserving historic bridges?

Current United States policy toward all bridges (not just historic bridges) encourages deferring maintainance and repair of bridges while encouraging demolition and replacement projects even though these practices cost taxpayers more money in the long run. This is due to limited federal and state aid to help local agencies with costs of basic bridge maintainance and repair (these costs come exclusively out of local bridge agency’s pockets) while at the same time if a bridge has a sufficiency rating of below 50% (a rating that takes into account many aspects of a bridge including structural condition) the agency is elgible for and frequently awarded a huge grant from the federal and/or state government. As such, bridge agencies tend to be rewarded for allowing their bridges to deteriorate, since the grant money is more widely available for demolition and replacement of under 50% sufficiency bridges. From their perspective, they are saving money because the federal government or state pays for it. However from a taxpayer perspective, this will cost more in the long run and is wasteful in this time where the country needs to lower the national debt and budget deficits, while dealing with aging roads and bridges. The current policy is harmful to historic bridges because it is not possible to build a new historic bridge, a historic bridge can only continue to exist by being maintained or rehabilitated.

3. What improvements would you like to see made?

A far greater percentage of federal and state grants to bridge / transportation agencies should be devoted to aid for projects that involve maintaining, repairing, and rehabilitating existing bridges. This is a policy that would be beneficial for all bridges, not just historic bridges, although historic bridges would greatly benefit. Because it benefits bridges in general, such a policy should enjoy widespread support from the people, since even people who could care less about historic bridges could see the value in maintaining bridges better.

From a historic preservation perspective, it would be nice to see Section 106 apply to all public bridges, not just those with federal involvement. This may be tricky to make reality however because it would touch on a greater issue of states rights and sovereignty. It would also be nice to see Transportation Enhancement grants expanded, or a specific funding program for historic bridges be created similar to the Federal Highway Administration’s  covered bridge funding program, except that this program would preserve all types of historic bridges.

Bridge Street Bridge in Portland in Ionia County, Michigan. One way street, but it appears the politicians are going the wrong way regarding transportation policies and bridge preservation.

4. How would you rate Obama’s performance with regards to what was mentioned in nr.2?  Do you think it will have an impact on the presidential elections?
Obama has not made any improvements to the way in which bridges are funded. The focus continues to be on demolition and replacement projects with limited to no funding for improving existing bridges.

5. Do you think Romney will do better?

Romney would not do better. Both Obama, Romney, and also the various Senators and Representatives that hold positions on surface transportation committees appear to lack understanding of what actually goes on in the world of bridges. They hold the position that this country suffers from “aging” or “crumbling” “infrastructure” as they loosely describe it. They are correct that the “infrastructure” including bridges is crumbling, however I do disagree that “age” is a problem, since if an old bridge is properly maintained in good condition, it can still be safe and functional. These politicians feel that increasing funds is the primary solution to solve the crumbling infrastructure problem. They seem unaware that if we spent more money on rehabilitation and repair that we might be able to make each dollar go further and make greater improvements to infrastructure without increasing the level of funding. They also seem unaware of how wasteful it is to focus only on demolition and replacement.

At the same time, because liberal policy focuses on having government provide people and businesses with assistance to make sure everyone can be successful, liberals (like Obama) are more likely to continue to provide funds for infrastructure. Conservatives like Romney would more likely believe that the people do not need help from government and therefore feel that maintaining a government-owned system of roads and bridges is not a priority. As such I suppose in the short term reduced transportation funding would prevent some historic bridge demolition and replacement projects from moving forward. However it would not bring a halt to the deterioration of these bridges and they would eventually fail and have to be closed. We really do need funding for bridge projects. We just need to change the focus of those projects to maintaining existing bridges.

6. In your opinion, who will win the elections and how will that impact the transportation policies as well as that of historic bridge preservation?

I expect Obama to be reelected and I see no changes in existing surface transportation policy. However, if Romney is elected, I do not see any changes to surface transportation policy. There is a risk that Section 106 and Section 4(f) could be abolished under Romney however, because these protections for historic structures would be seen as government regulation. With the exception of social/religious issues, where Republicans strongly support big government and heavy regulation, Republicans support drastically reducing the role of government. Since historic preservation is not a religious issue, it is undoubtedly something Republicans wish to get rid of.

7. What are your future plans regarding historic bridge preservation?

I plan to continue projects similar to those I outlined above. Continued work through Section 106, and selective direct efforts to save specific bridges.

Thank you, Mr. Holth for your time and assistance in answering some of my questions and best of luck to you.  More interviews between now and 6 November are yet to come.

Tracking Down a Bridge’s History Part I: Overview

Chimney Rock Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Photo taken in September 2009

Researching a historic bridge is like doing genealogical research. You track down your family history, finding out where you originated from, where members of your extended family are located and finding ways to connect with them. One can find out how many (first, second, third, ….) cousins you really have (including the ones that are once or twice removed), while at the same time, travel to some places where your extended parts of your family once resided. My aunt in Minnesota has done a lot of research into my  father’s side of family for about two decades, finding out that several branches of the family once resided in Europe and parts of Africa, including areas in the north and western parts of Germany, like Bingen and Marburg (north of Frankfurt in the state of Hesse) and Oldenburg (both in Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony.) My uncle on my mother’s side of the family managed to trace down the origins of  the family, which was in northern Schleswig-Holstein in the village of Stein (near Kiel), but had branches of the family residing in the northwestern part of Germany and in particular, in North Rhein-Westphalia.
Researching a historic bridge is similar to doing genealogical research in many ways. While one can track down the history of the bridge builders, as Alan King Sloan has done with the history of Zenas King and the King Bridge Company in Ohio, and Fred Quivik has done with the Hewett Family, Commodore Jones and Alexander Bayne, who created the Minneapolis bridge building empire in the early 1900s, it is also possible to track down historic bridges, based on the question of where they originated from.  The reason I posed this question is simple: many historic bridges- in particular, truss bridges- were moved around from place to place. This concept was introduced in the late 1890s but was carried out extensively beginning in the 1920s and 30s as part of cost-cutting measures carried out by local communities and counties. Constructing brand new bridges were too expensive because of the scarcity of materials, like steel, resulting in the increase in prices. Other materials, like wood, were prone to weather extremities, resulting in dry rot and fungi that eat away at the wood. Furthermore they cannot resist floods and ice jams as well as those made of other materials. Relocating truss bridges is easy for they can be dismantled, transported to their destination and reassembled on site, before starting its next life serving a new round of traffic going across it.

One of the more well documented bridges in the US: The Three Sister Bridges in Pittsburgh over the Allegheny River. Named in honor of Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson. All built in 1926. Photo taken in August 2010

Speaking from personal experience, tracking down the history of a bridge can be blessing if the structure had its service life in one place. However, when it is relocated from place to place, it can be a curse, for once the structure is moved out of the county, chances are most likely that the records are lost forever, either intentionally or through other factors. That is why it is important that when tracing down a bridge’s history, you have to have a fond knowledge of history and geography, a good memory and ability to do the math and put the pieces of the puzzle together, and most of all, the passion to do this research and solve the case. While the first few factors can be learned, if you do not have the passion for this type of structural genealogical research, then it will not be fun at all. I have compiled a few simple steps that will help you trace the bridge’s history starting from when and where it was first built, followed by the question of if and how many times it was relocated, all the way up to whether it still serves traffic or was replaced through modernization with the structure being scrapped or recycled for the next modern bridge to be built.
Step 1: Check out the records that are on file through state and county agencies: Most agencies will have bridge files (also known as inspection reports) available based on the bridge numbering system that was adopted and used for inspection and research purposes. 99% of the time, each file will have a photo of the structure as well as the date of construction. Nine times out of ten, there will be records and photos of the previous structures- the ones that had previously served traffic before they were replaced. There are two issues that should be taken into account: 1. Not all bridges have records dating back to when it was originally built, let alone when it was relocated. In other words, missing information.  That means if there is a bridge built in the 1950s, even though the design was no longer used on the roadways at that time, chances are that the bridge was imported from another region. A classic example of a bridge that falls into that category is the Chimney Rock Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Records showed it being relocated to its present site in 1952, yet the bridge was originally built in 1906 by the Continental Bridge Company in Chicago. More information can be found here through an essay written in 2007. In some cases, even in state historic bridge inventories, there are estimated dates of construction even though in all reality, the bridge existed before that date.  In some cases if there is no further evidence to support the construction date, you have to refer to other sources of information to determine whether the date is correct and if not, when exactly it was built and where.  The second issue is the fact that not all records of structures that were replaced with present structures are kept on file. Some agencies prefer to discard the files once the replacement bridge is open to traffic. The fortunate part is the fact that in the past 35 years, state and county agencies have done a better job of keeping these files available to the public, allowing people to access them for their own purposes. Yet up to the early 1970s, the practice of eliminating old records was well-known for there was little interest in preserving historic bridges at that time. The exception to the rule:  areas that were not only heavily populated with historic bridges but also had detailed records of their history, like the cities of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York City, for example.  Regardless of how detailed the information is, bridge files provided by the state and local governments is the starting point for your research.
Steps 2 and 3: The next two steps are the most time consuming tasks but also crucial ones. You need to look through the newspapers, court records and other documents to determine the following: 1. Whether the data provided on the bridge files is correct, 2. If the bridge is imported from another region, where exactly did it come from, 3. How was the bridge constructed and 4. If the location of the bridge matches that of what is in the bridge files you received from the agencies. For this, you need to look through as much materials as they are available, especially newspapers, as many libraries and museums have them in archives. You need to plan in days, if not weeks to trace through the archives of one or two newspapers serving one community or region. Sometimes, you have to read through the archived papers twice or three times to make sure the information is accurate. In the case that the bridge is imported from outside, travel may be required if the place of origin is determined. The same procedure applies to other documents, such as city and county records, bridge company records, as well as records from transportation entities, such as railroad companies, etc. One should have a series of maps available to trace the location of the bridge; especially if a bridge was imported from outside, it is important to pinpoint not only its location in the present, but also in the past, regardless of how many times it was relocated. There are many examples of historic bridges that were relocated more than once but research was needed to track down its history, namely through newspapers and maps. The most recent was the Mulberry Creek Bridge, which the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles wrote an article about recently. You can view the article here.

Durrow Road Bridge in Linn County, Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011

Step 4: Also useful are postcards and oral sources. Postcards with pictures and images of historic bridges can help a person fit the description with the bridge being researched, even though they can become blurry and difficult to see with age. Oral resources in the form of people associated with building the bridge as well as residents living near the bridge can help the researcher by providing some facts about the building of the bridge and its association with the area. It can be an interesting experience when they tell some stories that can be useful for the project. This was the case during a visit at the Durrow Road Bridge in Linn County, Iowa in August 2011, when I found that the 1920s truss bridge was brought in to replace a wooden stringer bridge in 1949 and was named after a century old farmstead located just 300 feet away. The bridge still serves traffic and has been well maintained.
Step 5: Once you have all the information gathered and exhausted all your resources for gas, travel and copies, you can start putting the information together in chronological order from the time the bridge was constructed for the very first time all the way to the present, putting in the right order the time and place where the bridge was relocated, and adding stories to help fill out the bridge’s history. One will find the story of a bridge’s life more interesting as the pieces of the puzzle come together.

South River Bridge in Warren County. Photo taken in August 2011. This is one of many bridges that was built in the 1950s but is rich in information through records and newspaper articles.

Should you run into problems with putting the pieces together, sometimes it is useful to spread the word through media sources. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles is the latest of a handful of websites that has helped researchers by informing the public of bridges, whose information is lacking, not just in a form of mystery bridges- bridges with no information on its place of origin but was relocated to its present site, but also bridges that have existed for many years but are missing the stories and history that makes them potential candidates to be recognized on the state and national levels. James Baughn has a list of photos of mystery bridges on his website, with no information of their places of origin, submitted by various people. The same is with Todd Wilson of Bridgemapper, even though the website focuses mainly on pinpointing the location of the bridges with some basic information on some of them. In either case, informing the people through the use of media, including social media, can encourage new contacts with people with information on the bridge you are researching about, which can help you complete your research in the long run.

Heron Road Bridge over the Volga River in Fayette County, Iowa. This is one of many bridges that was replaced (this one in the 1970s) but has not been researched properly. This one has potential to be historically significant. Photo taken in August 2011. This one is used as a background photo for this website.

Why is tracing a bridge’s history really important nowadays? Many of the historic bridges are being taken off the highway system by the dozens- either through demolition and replacement, abandonment, or conversion into a recreational bridge- for they have reached the end of their service lives as a vehicular bridge. While states have carried out their research since the 1980s and have renewed the bridge inventories recently, there have been some discrepancies in terms of information that is either inaccurate, missing or both. Part of it has to do with the lack of funding and time to conduct the research. Another has to do with the lack of willingness of some agencies and people to share the information on the bridge’s history, fearing that they could be considered historically significant. As a result, many find ways to avert Section 106 4f of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, requiring all historic bridges (both listed and eligible) to undergo a mitigation study to document the history of the structure, determine the environmental impact of the bridge replacement project and find alternatives to bridge replacement. Such aversion had worked up to the last decade, but calls have gotten louder by preservationists and other interested groups to review and revise the documentations done on their bridge to determine their historic significance, respect the policies regarding historic bridge preservation versus replacement, and consider preservation for future use.  This is one of the important pieces of the puzzle and one that can potentially save more bridges than destroying them and with that their history.
Running parallel to the need to preserve historic bridges by redoing the inventory, the interest in historic bridges through literature has increased over the past 15 years. Thanks to the likes of Mary Costello, who wrote a two-volume set on the bridges over the Mississippi River, James Cooper, who wrote a book on the bridges of Indiana and the people at the Institution of Civil Engineering at Milton-Keynes near Oxford (England), who wrote a 10-volume set on the bridges in the United Kingdom and all of Ireland, many people are jumping on the bandwagon and writing about the historic bridges in their regions, which includes info-tracking them to find out more about their history. The trend will increase over the next five years, as pontists, photographers, locals and writers will continue to churn out more materials on historic bridges, whose information will be more accurate than the information provided in previous bridge studies. Therefore it is important to treat the bridges like you are doing a genealogical study of your own family: each bridge you profile in your project must have its history traced from the present to as far back to the past as history allows it. This includes the possibility that when a bridge you are researching was relocated from another region, traveling to the place where the bridge was first constructed may be a necessity. Such a measure should not be treated as a burden, but one where you can learn a lot along the way.
While there are many examples of bridges that have traveled a long ways from their original starting point to the present, I’ve identified two examples worth noting which can serve as a reference point for you to start your bridge research. These examples can be found in the next article. Happy Bridgehunting!

Three Pennsylvania Bridges Coming Down

Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge- now gone

During the Historic Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh last year, I was reminded by a fellow pontist, Nathan Holth who runs the Historic Bridges.org website, of how important it is to photograph and document every bridge that is threatened with demolition to better imform the public of the importance of historic bridges in connection with US history and the history of industrialization, architecture, and other social aspects as a whole, when we discovered that an 1873 bowstring pony arch bridge in Ohio was removed before we could photograph it. Although angry with the fact that the bridge was gone, he and I were lucky to visit and photograph the other bridges in the vicinity, for three of them are coming down and one has been taken out already.  While the Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge in Crawford County was removed in November of last year with no plans of replacing it and its railroad overpass a mile up the road, three other bridges are facing the wrath of the digger and crane sometime this year or latest next, with others set to follow beginning in 2013, unless PennDOT streamlines these projects in order to begin the bridge replacement process earlier (more will come as the construction season starts in a couple months). Here are the bridges one must see before they’re gone forever:

Miller Station Bridge (Crawford County):

UPDATE: Should the bridge still be standing at the time of this article, it will not be for long. The 1887 Wrought Iron Bridge Company structure, consisting of a pin-connected Whipple through truss bridge with Town Lattice portal bracings and ornamental designs on the heel bracing and top chord is about to be replaced with three tunnel-like steel culverts, which will impede the flow of French Creek, a large stream resembling a river. The last update is that work on removing the road took place in the middle of February. If weather delays the demolition process, then it is not too late to get a pic. However, don’t count on it.

Miller Station Bridge- maybe gone already

Charleroi-Monessen Bridge (Washington County)

Spanning the Monongahela River southwest of Pittsburgh, bordering Washington and Westmoreland Counties, this three-span pin-connected Parker and Pennsylvania Petit through truss bridge built in 1905 by the Merchantile Bridge Company was suddenly closed in 2009 due to poor conditions on the bridge deck. Since that time, there was a lot of political wrangling due to the fact that the bridge was (and still is) listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore had to go through the mitigation process in order to find alternatives to replacing the bridge outright. This included Pennsylvania Senator’s Barry Stout’s comment of abolishing the National Preservation Act as it is time and cost consuming and impedes the progress of bridge replacement, which resulted in a clash between preservationists and the politicians. Although Stout is now retired, the end result of the Section 106 Mitigation Process was keeping the deck truss approaches, but dropping the three through truss spans into the Monongahela. This is the general plan for the contractor Joseph B. Fay Co. of Tarentum, while replacing them with a new span, which has not been revealed as of present, for a total of $26 million. The process will begin at the end of April of this year, making it a possibility for bridge enthusiasts to see the structure for one last time before it is dropped by implosion and cut up for scrap metal. Once this happens, questions will be raised on whether to keep the bridge listed on the National Register as this technically does not count as bridge rehabilitation as PennDOT sees it, but as an outright bridge replacement project according to preservationists. To the residents and business owners in Charleroi-Monessen areas, it does not matter as they will have their main structure back in service by 2012, eliminating the need to detour to the nearby bridges located over 30 miles (60 km) away in both directions and thus hurting business in the two communities, at the same time.

Charleroi-Monessen Bridge- still around until the end of April

Wightman Road Bridge (Crawford County)

Also known as Stopp Road Bridge, this single span pin-connected Pratt through truss bridge with Town lattice portal bracing and geometric shaped heal bracings represented a classic example of a bridge built by the King Bridge Company, which built the bridge in 1887. Unfortunately, as it can be seen with other structures, like the Mead Avenue Bridge in Meadville, the county commissioners made their point explicitly clear that despite the fact that the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore has to go through the Section 106 mitigation process prior to replacement, that the bridge will be demolished and replaced no matter what alternatives to bridge replacement may be brought to the table. Should the stance remain, the county may risk losing federal funding for this project and the bridge will be taken off the National Regsiter list.  While the structure is located in some heavily forested areas, one could move the bridge over and convert it into a small park, like it is being done with the Quaker Bridge in neighboring Mercer County. However, the county has not thought that far yet and it is unknown whether they will think that far ahead. Good news is that the bridge is still standing and can be visited, but for how long?

Wightman Road Bridge- to disappear soon unless the county changes its mind

Potential Candidates:

At the present time, there are plenty of candidates out there that may be demolished as soon as possible. However for these bridges, the two variants working in their favor at the moment are: 1. No bridge replacement date has been set yet and 2. No decision on the bridge’s fate has been set yet. Who knows how long that might be the case, but as the lessons have been learned over and over again, one should visit the bridges before they’re gone as one will never have an opportunity to see what they look like. These candidiates include:

MEAD AVENUE BRIDGE IN MEADVILLE (CRAWFORD COUNTY)- While the community wants to see this unusual through truss bridge gone at the earliest possible convenience, there are still discussions as to what to do with the truss structure, let alone when the replacement will actually take place. More will come soon.

DONORA WEBSTER BRIDGE IN DONORA (WASHINGTON AND WESTMORELAND COUNTIES)- Spanning the Monongahela River, this six span through truss (5 Parker and 1 Pennsylvania Petit- center span and the longest in the state) has been closed since July 2009 and there are still discussions about the bridge’s fate still happening, even though most sceptics will claim that this bridge is doomed and it’s just a matter of time before it is removed.

CARLTON BRIDGE (MERCER COUNTY)- The future of this two-span Pratt through truss bridge over French Creek is in question as this Columbia Bridge Company structure is nearing its end of its useful life despite being rehabilitated in 1990. The question is should the truss bridge stay or should it go? Many claim that it should and will stay and some believe the structure can be rehabilitated again but for recreational and non-vehicular use. But the question is will it happen? We will see….

To summarize, that the bridges are disappearing fast does lead to two conclusions: 1. A person wanting to visit a certain historic bridge should do so before it is gone, as the replacement process can occur as quickly as possible and sometimes without notice and 2. If there is even the slightest hint of a historic bridge slated for replacement, one should take action as early as possible to ensure that it is preserved for future use, even if it means informing the media about it before the replacement plans are put on the table at a city council meeting. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles will continue to present these bridges to the public (in addition to presenting the cities and regions that are rich in bridges and profiling historic bridges) to better inform the public on the importance of these bridges and their connection with history and culture, tourism and commerce, and preservation and reuse for purposes other than vehicular use so that people have a chance to either see them before they are gone, or take action and save them before they are gone.