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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Second Annual Historic Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh

Steelerbot sculpture near the Sixteenth Avenue Bridge

There is something very special about Pittsburgh that attracts a first-time visitor and keeps him there for a long time. Established in 1758 by William Pitt, the city was home to the steel industry until it collapsed in the 1970s. It is home to the perrenial powerhouse the Pittsburgh Steelers in the American Football league NFL (National Football League). And lastly it is the city where the Carnegie Science Museum is located, the Heinz Ketchup company was founded, and where the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River, which meanders its way towards the Mississippi River for over 900 miles. Furthermore, as one can see with the “Steelerbot”- a sculpture whose body parts consist of the city’s bridges,  Pittsburgh is the city with the second highest number of bridges in the world with 442 structures, young and old spanning the three rivers and other tributaries and valleys. Only Hamburg in Germany has more with as many as 2479 structures reported to exist in the “Hafen City.” Therefore it is a foregone conclusion that the city, which prides itself in being called “Steeler Nation” would host a conference devoted strictly to historic bridges. For the second year in a row, the Historic Bridge Convention took place in and around Pittsburgh, where as many as 40 people participated in the event. This included the five guest speakers for the three day event that took place on 20-22 August, including one from overseas (Germany).

The event started out with a Friday night dinner at the Rock Bottom Restaurant in Homestead, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. The location was unique because of its location almost directly underneath the Homestead Bridge.  The special guest speaker was John F. Graham, Jr. who is a distinguished member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Principal, Mid-Atlantic Region, Osmos, USA, former Chief Engineer of Allegheny County Department of Engineering and Construction, and retired Pennsylvania Turnpike Deputy Executive Director and Chief Engineer, who talked about the effectiveness of monitoring bridges through sensors in comparison with the traditional visual checks and documentation, which he claimed was a waste of money and resources. In addition to that, Nathan Holth and Luke Gordon of Historic talked about compromises with historic bridge preservation policies and finding and solving problems with bridge rehabilitation, respectively. The former of which deals with finding the middle ground between preservationists and government officials.

The next day was divided up into a bridgehunting tour and a Saturday night lecture from two guest speakers. The tour, which was divided up into groups, took the guests to the northwestern part of Pennsylvania, Crawford and Mercer Counties where as many as 25 historic bridges were visited by many who have never seen them before and for some bridges, may only see them once in their lifetimes as they are scheduled to be replaced in the coming years. Already it was evident when the first bridge visited on the tour, the Kreiz Road Bridge was taken out when the tourists arrived. However, the other bridges that were visited on the tour are still standing at the time of this writing. This included the bridges along French Creek in Crawford County, like the ones in Cambridge Springs, Saegertown, and Meadville. The Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge and the Meadville Bridge, the two bridges profiled in the Chronicles are among the ones included in the list.

After leaving Crawford County, where these bridges were located, it was onto Mercer County where the Carlton Bridge, a Colombia Bridge and Iron Works piece of art from 1898 was waiting for a pose, together with Clark’s Mill Bridge and three other bridges. It was on the way to the Clark’s Mill Bridge that the tourists had to go through a herd of cattle and one of the pontists pointed out that it would be a perfect defense against the machines of progress, engineered by PennDOT. (For more information please view the bridges in Pennsylvania and their dire state).

Finally the last stop on the tour was also the centerpiece of the 2010 Conference, the Quaker Bridge. The person in charge of the project, Nathan Clark, saved the bridge from its imminent demise in the last second of negotiations before it met the wrecking ball in 2007 and plans to convert the 1898 structure into a park, which would be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. His lecture on the bridge, its history, and how it went from PennDOTs hands into his started at the bridge and ended at the Hilltop Tavern in Greenville. This lecture was followed by one on the attitudes of people towards historic bridges between Germany and the USA by Jason D. Smith of the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt, Germany and columnist for the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. The lecture was based on a questionnaire that was carried out during the spring and summer of this year on both sides of the Atlantic as well as two case studies in Germany that were presented in comparison with the US as a whole.

Quaker Bridge. Nathan Clark (pictured in a white dress shirt) explains to the public about the bridge and how he saved it.

The third and final day of the Conference was devoted to the tour of the bridges in Pittsburgh, or at least part of the city, as many guests had to leave for home that afternoon. For those who did stay, sections of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers were visited, where many pre-1960 bridges were located, including those along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and bridges like the New Kensington, and Hulton Bridges. It was rounded off with dinner with some fellow pontists at a small restaurant near the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Overall, the Historic Bridge Conference was a proven success as the themes for the event was more or less diversified, which includes focusing on technical and social aspects of historic bridge preservation. In addition, more participants were involved in the event than the first one, which took place a year ago. This included more people who are not bridge enthusiasts per say but were interested in the topic of historic bridges and preservation. A bigger eye opener was the fact that because one originated from outside the US, the Historic Bridge Conference has the potential to attract more people from overseas in the future. Furthermore the media in the greater Pittsburgh area and the northwestern part of Pennsylvania was curious about the content of the Conference and interviewed many people who were involved in the event. And finally the Conference set off a chain reaction which resulted in the birth of another website, the Bridgehunter Chronicles, a column which devotes its time and energy on providing readers with a tour of bridges worth visiting both in Europe and the US and in particular, the structures that are slated for demolition.  There is hope that this success can be fanned out further in many directions as the next Conference will take place in 2011 in St. Louis and vicinity and in 2012 in Iowa (where exactly will be announced in due time). And with that hopefully more people from abroad and those from other disciplines will come and share their experiences with historic bridge preservation so that in the end, there will be more than enough tools to protect these bridges from the grips of modernization, which includes making some fundamental changes in the policies that exist in the US as of present.

The author of the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to thank Todd Wilson and Lauren Winkler for coordinating the 2010 event in Pittsburgh and for providing the guest with a grand tour of the bridges in and around Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. It was great to learn more about the city and its bridges and we learned quite a bit from the tour. All photos taken by Jason D. Smith. More bridge photos from the Conference can be found on James Baughn’s website The Historic Bridges of the US, available at