A Lament for Mary

In prior entries, I have mentioned my lifelong relationships with place, and with those streams & rivers that divide our landscape and my having come up within sight of Watts Brook and the but a ten minute walk from its confluence with the Merrimack. I now live better than an hours drive north and no longer within earshot of moving water. For twenty plus years I have lived without the lullaby of water, but none so far from it, and almost equidistantly between two branches of the same river, a tributary of that selfsame Merrimack, and none so far from its headwaters at the big lake known as Winnipesaukee – My waters still join the Merrimack, it is still who I am, even with it now being the Suncook which is the river I call home.

With this kinship, I have of course looked into the history it drove, and wondered after the bridges its people built to carry themselves to and fro, as the demands of their days drove their need to cross over the waters which barred their way.

Among the local river stories which might merit a share, is a story of fog and misfortune and loss. This is the story of Mary and her Bridge.

This postcard image is shot from a downstream perspective and over the widening Millpond - Image courtesy of the Pittsfield Historical Society

This postcard image appears here as a courtesy of the Pittsfield Historical Society

On Thursday the 8th of January 1874, twenty six year old Mary Bodge was nearing the end of her long walk to work from Barnstead to one of the many mills in neighboring Pittsfield, and she crossed the Suncook on what sounds like some sort of low slung simple rope and board bridge. Several clues in descriptions of the days events suggest the day was part of a January thaw. At some point during the day rising water and ice flow saw two concerned town residents disconnect the bridge and draw it over to the west bank for fear that it would become entangled in the ice flows. Nightfall would descend without the bridge being returned to position.

Colorized postcard image courtesy of both The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard Sanders Allen collection & The Covered Spans of Yesteryear – Lost Bridges Database

Colorized postcard image courtesy of both The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard Sanders Allen collection & The Covered Spans of Yesteryear – Lost Bridges Database

Mary would leave the mill for the return trip home under cover of darkness, the light of a waning moon greatly diminished by a heavy fog. As she worked to retrace and reverse her mornings footfalls, she stepped off the rivers bank unaware the bridge was no longer in place. Her cries for help quickly brought people to the rivers edge, though not before she had slipped below the ice filled waters surface.

With the light of day the river was repeatedly dragged with grapples launched across the widening millpond with cannon-fire, (The river begins its transition from stream to millpond just below this point) these efforts proved to be unsuccessful. A sum of money was raised to bring a diver up from Boston, that call for help was reversed when on Saturday Mary’s body was discovered below the dam.

The view has changed little in the 110 years which have passed since this 1905 postcard was issued

The view from this dam-side perspective has changed little in the 110 years which have passed since this now public domain 1905 postcard was issued

The funeral was held the next day at The Free Will Baptist Church, (The Randall line of the FWBC – A denomination begun in the town north of Mary’s birthplace and unique to the greater Lakes Region) a huge crowd of fellow workers in attendance. A local grand hotel donated use of eighteen carriages to bring attendants to the graveside service in Center Barnstead.

Two months later at Town Meeting the town voted to raise $1200 to build a Covered Bridge in the location where Mary met her end. Additional monies were placed in capitol reserve the following three years. A bridgewright was contracted in 1879 to build a 130′ Town Lattice Bridge for a sum just in excess of $3000. As a memorial and in rememberance the span would be known as Mary’s Bridge.

In the Historical Marker's background which stands adjacent to the current concrete deck bridge we see the frozen Suncook

In the Historical Marker’s background which stands adjacent to the current concrete deck bridge we see the frozen Suncook

There are records of repairs on several occasions, and a need to raise the bridge several feet, the floor would be replanked in 1907. The hard look this availed perhaps exposed issues with the Bottom Chords, as talk of poor condition seems to have begun at this time. Soon thereafter Mary’s Bridge was “deemed unsafe”

This image is courtesy of the archives of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges - Richard E. Roy Collection

This image is courtesy of the Archives of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard E. Roy Collection

A service life of such a short duration is beyond uncharacteristic of covered spans. In no surviving image is either balustrade of either sidewalk seen as boarded in, and as can be seen in the image to the left, the overhangs and their drip-lines do not appear to have cleared the sidewalks. Though there were dissenting voices at the deciding Town Meeting, voters would opt for replacement. At but thirty short years, Mary’s Bridge would outlive Mary by only four years.

It was removed in 1909 with a charge of dynamite. In a report in the Valley Times, the blast for demolition was described with a sense of seeming admiration – “The work was most skillfully done”

As was common of towns a Truss Type is often seen as preferable - H.W. Osgood was a local Pittsfield photographer in practice during the 1880's - The Barnstead Road Bridge had a single sidewalk and was later boarded in - It was removed in 1934 as part of a WPA makework project

Pittsfield’s other covered span, The Barnstead Road Bridge – As was common of towns a Truss Type is often seen as preferable – Pittsfield’s preference was Town Trusses – H.W. Osgood publisher of this postcard image was a local Pittsfield photographer in practice during the 1880’s – This bridge had a single sidewalk and later images show The Barnstead Road as fully boarded in – It would be removed in 1934 as part of a WPA makework project – One of many such depression era faux stone arch concrete rigid frame replacement bridges built in the state

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Swept Away

With our last several entries on area Bridgewrights and the bridges they have left for us, we have alluded to a Concord New Hampshire Merrimack River crossing. I thought we would go on to expand on this running series of sorts – It seeming that the moment might be at hand to pay homage to what is about to be lost, and to again focus on the crossing at Sewell’s Falls.

Beyond mentions in recent entries alluding to how events here at the Fall’s may have influenced the work of Bridgewrights in the immediate area, several archived entries speak to this crossing – One includes a virtual reprinting of an 1875 report by the city appointed project building agent for the construction of a then new iteration of this crossing. A report which relayed in depth the odd bits of happenstance that demanded the Fall’s be bridged and re-bridged in quick succession, by some of the State’s still well known wooden bridge builders.

Another discussed the designer of the bridge which still spans the Merrimack at this location, and his connection to the world of wooden bridges, and the parallels his career path held to his contemporaries and fellow designers.

Our homage to what was and what will be lost at this crossing, should begin with its beginnings – The first bridge constructed at Sewell’s Falls was sanctioned by the State Legislature one hundred and eighty two years ago this winter, the petitioners would build their “Balance Beam & String Bridge” (some kind of simple cantilever stringer braced back to the wooden piers and abutments akin to Hale’s Walpole span?) the following summer. Their un-housed bridge would be swept away just shy of six years later by ice flows cut loose in a January thaw on 27 January of 1839. (Several other bridges were lost that same day on the river, two in nearby Boscowen) The corporation held by the original petitioners chose to rebuild the following summer. This second bridge would in turn be swept away by an uncontrolled log drive in the Spring of ’49. Despite a case against the owners of the log drive, the corporation, with never having turned a profit would this time around choose not to rebuild.

Three years would pass before a public demand was raised to again bridge the crossing. Circumstances and approach would on this occasion take a completely different tact – With preliminary input from county road commissioners beginning on 25 March 1852, on 14 August of the same year the “town” would vote to “put the bridge under contract, to be completed on or before September 1st of 1853” – Simpson Balch & Co. was contracted to complete stone piers and abutments, Philip H. “Henry” Paddleford (who had then recently completed construction of both the Free and Federal bridges for Concord) was contracted to build a “covered wooden truss bridge” The total contract price for both the stonework and the bridge came to $6339.86 – This bridge would somehow just eight years later, also be swept away, this time by “a gale of wind” on New Year’s Day 1862.

Later the same year John C. Briggs would rebuild both 170′ spans using his soon to be patented arch reinforced Triple Lattice. The contract price for the this un-housed through truss was $1758.19 – The record suggests the rafters and the cladding, the “house” was added three years later by a former mayor of the city for a sum just in excess of one thousand dollars – A single decade would pass and this bridge would, like its predecessors, also be swept away. In the spring of 1872 yet another log jam would take down the west span, the compromised eastern span was lost to heavy snow load the following January.

Hard lesson learned, the city would with this loss, choose to increase the freeboard, the distance between the river and the bridge, and would contract Lyman Fellows as stonemason to not only repair, but raise the height of the piers and abutments prior to engaging Dutton Woods to build a new “Double Lattice and Arch bridge” as replacement.

The 1873 Dutton Woods built  Double Lattice Truss with Encased Arch Bridge - Note the shift in coloration in the newly Fellows raised Stonework - Photo courtesy of both The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges - Richard Sanders Allen collection & The Covered Spans of Yesteryear - Lost Bridges Database

The 1873 Dutton Woods built Double Lattice Truss with Encased Arch Bridge – Note the shift in coloration in the newly Fellows raised Stonework – Photo courtesy of both The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard Sanders Allen collection & The Covered Spans of Yesteryear – Lost Bridges Database

Dutton’s bridge unlike those that preceded it, would survive the forces of time and nature for fortytwo years. With some irony it would instead of being lost, be replaced, (undoubtedly with many years of viable service life remaining, and almost oddly with another single lane bridge) when as I explained in Storied Crossing in the Spring of 1914 several “auto trucks fell through city bridges” The City Engineer was ordered to inspect every bridge in town. His resulting report recommended that “five bridges be strengthened or replaced with suitable modern structures” Sewall’s Falls was among these.

The 1915 John Williams Storrs designed Riveted Pratt Truss seen from near the same perspective as the Covered Span which preceded it - Photo credit UmaNHamU http://fav.me/d77c9v6

The 1915 John Williams Storrs designed Riveted Pratt Truss seen from near the same perspective as the Covered Span which preceded it – Photo credit UmaNHamU – http://fav.me/d77c9v6

As our Winter recedes and its snows and ice leave the River, and this years freshet ebbs away to the none so distant Atlantic, and this coming Spring brings yet another building season, the Storrs designed incarnation of The Sewell’s Falls will just as it hits the century mark, also be swept away.

A photo capture by the author shortly before the Sewell's Falls was closed to vehicular traffic December 1st 2014

A photo capture by the author shortly before the Sewell’s Falls was closed to vehicular traffic December 1st 2014

It’s passing to intentional replacement will be lamented by many, for reasons great and small –

What might not be mentioned by others in such observations, will be the sweeping away of the still sound Stonework of Simpson Balch and Lyman Fellows and their crews of un-named masons, the newest of their cooperative tiers of stone laid up one hundred and forty one summers past. Stonework which has stood fast against the flow of time and an untold volume of water and all the flotsam that carried with it, and shouldered well both Woods’ Lattice Truss, and this sixth incarnation of the Sewell’s Falls into the present day.

The west span seen in the rivers reflection with Fellows' mid-river pier in the background - Photo courtesy of Scott Wagner

The west span of the Storrs designed Pratt seen in the rivers reflection with Fellows’ mid-river pier in the background – Note the compound slope of the icebreaking Cutwater on the upstream side – Photo courtesy of Scott Wagner

Stonework, like as is already true of the bridge pinned to it, soon to carry no more…


Briggs – the Man – the Truss – the Enigma

Delays in obligation, delays in meeting self imposed deadlines – Holidays, power failures, and the resulting loss of hard-drives and research materials, and even passwords.

Time again to pick up the pen…

As I’ve worked here on the weblog to document all the various personalities with roots here in New Hampshire, whose lives works included the design of still recognized truss types, and/or the advocacy of wood as a building material in their construction (the spark for me in this adventure was in part the sheer number of individuals with this shared connection, numbers seemingly disproportionate for a state of this size, and not being simply that they chose to design in wood) – In research for this series, I have returned a time or three to the same name, only to hit the same dead ends, time and again.

This is both puzzling, and more than regrettable, a bit sad really. As the legacy of what can only be seen as a successful life’s work, should not end up like this, somehow, through the fog of time, shrouded in mystery.

Our subject in this look back, John C Briggs, was not only the builder of many short and long span bridges, and at some of the most famed crossings in the state. (Over The Merrimack at both Sewell’s Falls and Hooksett Village) He is the holder of two bridge patents.

The first of these dating to 1858, No. 22,106 though titled as a “Truss Bridge” and picturing Truss panels of several mongrel varieties, (and also a Strong-Arc type “Truss Beam”) is a patent for what he describes as his “having invented a new and Improved Mode of Giving Elasticity to the Compressed Joints of Truss-Frames” essentially this the idea that the addition of rubber shock washers to Angle Blocks and Cast Washers would somehow extend the life of these truss framing connections. We can’t know with certainty with what is left to us, but it does seem probable that the idea put forward in 22,106 was put to little use, seemingly even in bridges he himself went on to build.

Just five years later, in 1863 John was awarded patent No. 38,653 for a distinct Lattice Truss variant he describes in his Letters Patent as a “Triple Lattice” now known as the Briggs Truss. He successfully sold his truss locally (He advertised and began building this variation of his “Patent Bridges” well before the second patent was awarded – I will edit and add his advertisement to this entry after visiting a special collections library and upon securing a public domain copy) and built examples in numbers as both highway bridges and for area Railroads.

– Sadly, somehow none survive.

Henniker Road Bridge - Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress and the Historic American Building Survey - Photographed in May 1936 by L.C. Durette

Henniker Road Bridge – Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress and the Historic American Buildings Survey – Photographed in May 1936 by L.C. Durette

Happily, perhaps the last of these was documented by a HABS team (Historic American Buildings Survey) just months prior to its removal in 1936, and both photographs and a full set of as-built drawings were archived as part of their survey. (Click underlined text here and above to link to associated records)

A glimpse Through Time - Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress and the Historic American Building Survey - Photographed in May 1936 by L.C. Durette

A glimpse through time – The Henniker Road is a Briggs Truss example built the year before the patent was awarded – Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress and the Historic American Buildings Survey – Photographed in May 1936 by L.C. Durette

The almost greater irony in this story of patent holder and his truss, is how little is known of either his bridge building concern “John C. Briggs Civil Engineer – Builder of his own Patent Bridges” and likewise time has seemingly lost for us any real sense of just who John was. There seems to be no image of the man, no bio-piece in one of the who’s who of industry so common to the era, no obituary yet found. We do know through the unusual Lateral Bracing system seen on the Henniker Road Bridge, and the funky roof boarding detail described in his patent, that he was a man who thought outside the box.

The decade of the ’60’s was hugely successful for John, his truss, and his Concord based company, and then like physical examples of his Triple Lattice, he too, is somehow, almost lost to time.


The Kinship & Influences to be Found in the Journey

In our last entry we explored the possibility that the design of an area Long variant was perhaps influenced by other nearby Longs, or as a particular detail suggested, a Paddleford, constructed just the year prior – Others have pointed out how the Bement and its Counters share a commonality in detail with the none so far off Rowell’s, itself a variant, one which however sees its Counter Braces placed atypically as they are, with purpose, in that they are displaced in the configuration of truss-work as demanded by the placement of an Encased Arch sandwiched between the double Posts & Braces. (an Encased Arch variant detail we have discussed as perhaps having influenced another famed Bridgewright in a previous entry) And though yes, it is not impossible that this bridge did influence the Bement’s designer, it is perhaps too easy to put too much into what is in truth only chance and happenstance.

The Counter Braces in The Rowell's are in this case displaced by the Encased Arch which runs between the typ Double Posts

The Counter Braces in The Rowell’s are in this case displaced by the Encased Arch which runs between the typ Double Posts

Nearby bridges with a shared detail still standing in our time – In their time the area was peppered with Long’s, both in Hopkinton and the bridgwrighting hotbed of Henniker. A number there built in the decade prior and one rebuilt just the in the previous year as demanded in loss driven by a high-water event. The 1853 Long was built by Henniker Bridgewright Frederick Whitney, who is also credited with a Paddleford right there in Henniker, this in the very capitol of Long and Childs Land.

I may have over emphasized the what in the influences over design in last months wonderings. More appropriately, whomever was the designer of this span was influenced as much or more by those he had worked with, as he might have been by any bridge he may have helped build.

I know this in the kinship I find with our unnamed friend. He lived and worked in what was then arguably a center in bridgewrighting knowledge, yet traveled as the work demanded. This bridgewrights abilities were found in things shared by the core of capable others in both the local framing yard, and in traveling for on site assemblies of yard-cut examples, and in rigging, layout, and joint cutting skills and knowledge shared in the mixed crew site builds a Journeyman Bridgewright might have then found himself signing onto.

Today this area is still arguably a hotbed of Bridgewrighting skill and knowledge, and I have likewise traveled. There is much to be found in the Journey, the demands of the road and projects found on it reveal much. Some who share experience on that road willingly share all they know, others little. Irregardless, every destination, every project, every coworker, be they capable equal or up and coming apprentice can and will daily reveal insights.

In their time I can understand a reluctance to share, though even with competition being what it was in that time, the common era of wooden bridge building, I expect this was the exception and not the rule. Today there is far less work in this discipline, though no shortage of competition. I for one, would rather see the work go to a cast of highly capable equals, rather than the all too common and more than vexing alternative.

I also believe it is an obligation we hold as Journeyman, to pass on that hard won wisdom garnered as what was almost lost was somehow pieced back together. Knowledge, is that most important of tools of our trade in the journey of a life’s work. It also should be handed down, and continue to see daily use.

This, a hope I cherish, that someone after me will likewise do what feels right in their heart and hands. It is part of that same hope we all hold, that someone might pick up a tool we once held, and see it as we did, and do with it, what needs to be done…

But for his time at heart, hearth & home, for the Journeyman, the Journey is the destination.


A Theme and its Variations

Several years back I became highly familiar with The Bement Bridge in Bradford New Hampshire, this in a series of surveys while preparing a Structural Condition Assessment. That hard look was the genesis of a deep exploration of its named Truss Type, and a bit of a bio-exploration of its engineer patent holder, (and tangentially a running theme of an on-going wonder in how someone with no bridge building background might have come to design the complex joined timber truss that he did ) that exploration in large measure unfolded here on the pages of The Bridgewright Blog.

The Bement has recently recaptured my attention with my again working just a skip down the road from it, and with an area historical society recently making available several photographs which predate alterations made in recent decades. Changes structural and aesthetic.

The Bement with its original far more elegant Portal Trim - Image courtesy Hillsborough Historical Society - MPM Collection

The Bement with its original far more elegant Portal Trim – Image courtesy Hillsborough Historical Society – MPM Collection

In again skipping this stone of interest into the waters under this bridge, two ripples surface once more. Who was it who built it, and just what Truss Type is it? Individual Panel components typical to the named type are all there, and I am going to continue calling it a Long, while acknowledging it is a Variant. Many truss types are found in an array of variations, this perhaps driven by a desire to avoid the cost of patent royalties, or as explorations of capable minds guiding capable hands in looking for a better way.

The Bement while fitting the typ Panel component configuration of the type, varies markedly from Long’s patent, both in the number of these components – Single as opposed to double Posts, and not three, but four Chord Lams. Additionally the components vary completely in how they are joined to one another. The Braces and the Counters are reversed in their configuration and their number. And perhaps the most striking variation / departure from the patent are the absence of the pre-stressing wedges at the Counter Braces, a key feature of the type and the Colonel’s patent itself.

Double Daps and a reversal in number and purpose

Double Daps and a reversal in number and purpose

The Counters in the Bement fully join and pass through the Chord Lams in reciprocal double Daps, (simple notches) and do not simply abut the Chords & Posts with one wedged end as is typical to the typology – As if intended to act in tension as opposed to the norm of compression.

I point these features out for a number of reasons, foremost among these being that of a form of kudos for the bridge itself. There are other Long Truss bridges and Long variants still existing, and I have a deep appreciation for their detailing in how they are joined, yet find the simplicity of this little bridge intriguing, and worthy of admiration.

Secondly the historian in me thinks it just may be time to put to bed the oft repeated notion, that The Colonel himself built this bridge. The record does not seem to suggest where this bit of mis-information was first floated, but it is simply that. For Long’s whereabouts for the whole of the year, are well recorded in his work for and travels demanded by his position on the Board of Engineers for Lakes and Harbors and Western Rivers – He was nowhere nearby. And had he been in any way involved in its construction, I think it reasonable to suggest it would not have been a variant, but a textbook (Series of Directions to Bridge Builders) example.

So who did build the Bement? I think it safe to assume it was someone from the immediate area if not a local. There is not a ten mile distance from the Childs Brothers framing yard in Henniker to where the bridge stands, and there had by this time been a multitude of covered spans built all up and down the Warner River for both Railroad and highway use. There were those in numbers in the area with the necessary skills and knowledge to have designed and built it.

The Tie has been modified to carry a Flying Plate, the Rafter Seats now sits abandoned

The Tie has been modified to carry a Flying Plate and the altered Steplap Rafter Seats now sits abandoned

An interesting aside is the sometimes mention to the Bement’s Counter Braces and their joined relationship to the Chords as having similarities to Paddleford’s – The Bement shares (or did share) another even more uncommon feature, one found almost exclusivly in Paddleford’s, that of the Rafters joining the Ties in Steplapped Rafter Seats – Philip “Henry” bridged the Merrimack at Sewell’s Falls (but thirty miles to the east) in Concord just the year prior. (1853) Could our Bridgewright have maybe served on his crew and borrowed a detail worthy of repeating. I find it not improbable, and a smile rising with the realization and the on its head irony, that perhaps a Long variant was modified with influences driven by a Paddleford.

Here can be seen the Steplap Rafter Seats still serving their original purpose - Image courtesy Hillsborough Historical Society - MPM Collection

Here can be seen the Steplap Rafter Seats (Click to enlarge) still serving their original purpose – Image courtesy Hillsborough Historical Society – MPM Collection

Should you need a short span bridge, why should we not build a variation of The Bement, over another waterway, and set yet one more story in motion?


Heritage Does Matter

Heritage Matters is a favored catch-phrase of mine, perhaps familiar to many of you as being the chosen name of newsletters and magazines published by those in the preservation / conservation community seemingly the whole world over.

I’m choosing to cite this phrase in this months entry in that I am penning it as a response to a number of recent news “stories” – stealth missions really, thinly veiled opinion pieces questioning the use of public monies to fund Covered Bridge preservation. The piece that touched a nerve, visited a single bypassed bridge, and suggests spending dime one to maintain such is wholly unreasonable, then goes on to intimate that funding maintenance on any example is money poorly spent.

I would ask those suggesting zero maintenance what alternative is it they see or might suggest. The funding of immediate demolition? The gating of Portals and simply letting time and neglect take the bridge to the river, someday accepting the inevitable expense of in stream cleanup and removal?

These are the only alternatives – Both are as silly as zero maintenance, and I would contend the cost of either would exceed the cost of decade upon decade of maintenance.

Postponing simple maintenance, is the unspoken of multiplier that drives up the cost of bridge rehabilitation’s. Timber does not simply go bad – Unchecked leaks in roofing or siding, and the buildup of dirt and leaf-litter, these all too easily preventable and correctable issues, are the causal factor in most all problems requiring any more than simple maintenance.

Putting aside that heritage tourism inarguably though indirectly offsets the cost of simple maintenance, (though perhaps not the costs of neglect) lets talk about heritage…

Unwittingly, even to those who care not one iota about history or historic preservation, Built Heritage still matters. In that this is where our sense of selves and place come from. The barns and historic homes we pass each day are our sense of place.

The Brownstones of Boston, Brooklyn and Harlem, the Victorian rowhouses of the Haight-Asbury, the Triple-Deckers of Mattapan, Manchester and Pawtucket, the Log Crib Barns of Appalachia, the Forebay Barns of Pennsylvania and beyond, all provide our sense of region and place.

This sense of place is also carried by the Howe Truss bridges of Oregon and the place-bound iconic Kennedy Portals of central Indiana – These things are all part of the landscapes which tell us who both we, and our Grandparents are. These things are who we are.

Forsythe Covered Bridge, Orange Township Indiana - Photo credit  James W. Rosenthal - Use courtesy of The Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division HAER: IN-106-2.

Forsythe Covered Bridge, Orange Township Indiana, Built by Emmett L. Kennedy & Sons
Photo credit James W. Rosenthal – Use courtesy of The Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division HAER: IN-106-2.

Transportation Heritage like all Built Heritage is part of this little thought of, almost subconscious sense of who we are. With any and every example of our built heritage forever removed from our landscape, part of who we are is also lost.

Our sense of place is now being endlessly eroded and homogenized, as it is re-placed with strip-malls, chain restaurants and tract-mansions.

Heritage lost, is the loss of who and what we are, both as a culture and a people.

Why would we want to intentionally fail to maintain any of it?


Carpenters and their Marks

They’re everywhere and they are not, and perhaps that is part of the problem. With Carpenter’s Marks being somehow so ingrained in our collective subconscious, most everyone (even those without interest in historic carpentry and its methods) holds for them some blip of understanding, some seemingly just short of intuitive sense of their necessity and purpose. Perhaps this is why so much assumption is intertwined in much of the written description found on what and why they are.

Much of the supposition as to purpose is wound around how Timber Framed structures were often scribed, cut, and partially assembled in Carpenters’ Yards miles or more from where they were ultimately erected. While this is happenstantially true, it is only tangentially a driver in why the marks are necessary, and over-complicates the case. The real driving need for their use is far simpler than that.

Most Timberframe constructions have multiple copies of the same piece, arranged in assemblages of which there are also multiple copies, be they walls or bents or roof planes, or in the case of bridges, a pair of like trusses and the braced Tie and Floor Beam systems which connect them – Much to keep track of.

An atypical five at a Check Brace / Top Chord connection on Berk's County PA's Griesimer's Mill Covered Bridge - Roman numerals as used by carpenters vary from the norm to avoid confusion - Four is expressed as IIII instead of IV simply to make it impossible to confuse it with a VI - The same is true of Nine / VIIII - But Five is always V - This was in all probability mismarked as a Four and corrected with a fifth I

An atypical five at a Check Brace / Top Chord connection on Berk’s County PA’s Griesimer’s Mill Covered Bridge – Roman numerals as used by carpenters vary from the norm to avoid confusion – Four is always expressed as IIII instead of IV simply to make it impossible to confuse it with a VI – The same is true of Nine / VIIII – But Five is always V – This was in all probability mismarked as a Four and then mistake caught, corrected with a fifth I

Carpenters’ Marks are a simple system to identify place for each individual piece to properly maintain its relationship with adjacent pieces – In the most common form in which such marks are found, that means assigning the low number roman numeral to the reference end / reference corner of the frame, this most often chosen as the Southeast corner – The entirety of the first Bent is assigned Roman Numeral I – Differentiation as to East & West corners (and any pieces found between these) is achieved by incising that Roman Numeral with chisels graduating in size. To these numerals there are often slight variations added to delineate and describe placement as to such things as first & second floor…

Pieces can and do share the same Numeral like they share the same address

Pieces can and do share the same Numeral like they share the same address – These marks are found in The Sandown Meeting House ca. 1773 to be part of a Timber Framers Guild conference tour this coming week – See you in the attic – Though but 22 years of age at the time of its framing, Timothy Palmer of Schuylkill Permanent Bridge & Piscatiqua Great Arch fame is said to have been clerk of the works in the construction of this Meeting House

Scribe type layout is also a driver in the need for this system, with each individual piece, no matter how much it looks like a carbon copy of its opposite other, only fitting in the one place into which it was scribed.

Here a small Scribe Layup is in process, the three timbers above are being scribed into the same configuration as the co-planer set below them, a Rafter Pair with a Collar Tie - As this layup is completed individual pieces will receive their mark as they are taken to the horses to be cut

Here a small Scribe Layup is in process, the three timbers above are being scribed into the same configuration as the co-planer set below them, a Rafter Pair with a Collar Tie – As this layup is completed individual pieces will receive their mark as they are taken to the horses to be cut – Placement is assigned as the process begins

The system however survived the transition to Square rule layout, (See Dec ’12 archival entry – Overnight Turn on a Paradigm) simply as a proven aid in efficient assembly on raising day.

I still use traditional Carpenters’ Marks on both Scribed and Square Ruled frames. I find it both simpler and more interesting than a grid described with Sharpie markers & ABC / 123 – I’ve also found it holds appeal for clientele. This driven home some years ago in a newly raised house, with the owner beginning a friends introduction to the frame, not with a view of some interesting detail in the timber-work, but in pointing out the Carpenters’ Marks in the Great-Room. (These typ incised on reference faces in the area of the Brace joinery on both the Posts & Braces – ie: A standing height field of view) In watching his description of their purpose play out, his genuine enthusiasm for what he was working to describe suggested to me that he felt his choosing to build a Timberframed home was in some way including he and his family, through their home, in some nameless and timeless continuum – Something I feel part of each and every day.


Of Curves and Chords

In casting a wide net to both pull together a non-blog bio piece on Timothy Palmer, and in searching deeper for more information on the Trussed Arch Trusses a type commonly associated with him, (not to be confused with the Burr Arch images to be found below) I came across John Trautwine’s 1834 description of the construction of a ‘987 bridge (Then the longest Railroad Bridge in the world, built just one year prior) which came to be known as The Great American Viaduct – From The Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania Vol. XIV No.2 August 1834 – A piece titled – Description of the Viaduct near Peters’ Island – and thought excerpts worthy of a share here.

The whole of Trautwine’s description is ripe with seldom recorded details, from description of the coffer dams built to construct the piers, (and the steam engine used to pump them out) to the trestles emplaced to be used as falseworks on which to re/assemble the Trusses as they were erected over the Schuylkill. To how this Double Barrel was intended for one lane to serve rail traffic and one to serve foot and wagon traffic. (Several Philly area early Railroad bridges were two lane constructions for this purpose)

The following excerpt is intriguing in that it describes and pays homage to Palmer’s nearby Permanent Bridge which still stood at the time this Description was put to paper –

Always of interest to me is the period nomenclature (in this instance a wealth of it) found in this kind of first person source material – Here Joggle is again found to be the term of choice for the opposed swellings often milled into Posts in MKP variants to receive the Braces – It being to my mind logical to use common construction era terminology in our time also.

A rare treasure trove for wooden bridge geeks (this one in particular) are deep description of construction details little found elsewhere, detailing so descriptive the author begs pardon for the tedium borne by the reader…

I for one, am most thankful to John for these very details little shared, and this glimpse through time into his world, a world almost lost to us but for yet standing examples, and in words of description such as these, from the very minds of those who have left us our wooden transportation heritage.

We have yet to discover when this bridge was lost to time.


Phenominal Impact

Massive truck damage is again the subject of current news stories – In this most recent incident the level of damage is beyond any level of understandability, so far beyond, that it is without exaggeration almost impossible to understand how the truck and the fool piloting it, made it to the other side.

Impact damage has long been an issue with Covered & wooden spans, with but the 20th Century exceptions of Oregon and New Brunswick and British Columbia, most such bridges were built before heavy trucks existed and clearances were standardized.

We have spoken to truck impact damage here on The Bridgewright Blog in prior entries, and of how the frequency of these impacts and the level of damage both seem to be on the rise in recent years. GPS systems are often assigned blame by the offending drivers, this most recent case included. I can’t help but wonder however if some of this is not perhaps due to the continuing disappearance of through trusses of any kind from the National landscape. Modest span through trusses of any type are virtually no more. In their stead we are left with concrete deck bridges. None of the wonder of trusswork to perhaps spark the imagination of future builders and engineers. Just the continuation of an unending ribbon of pavement, unending road – Road seemingly levitated over water, supported by what, few who find themselves crossing even glimpse into the rear-view for a second glance at but a blip in passing to wonder…

Thought need not be spent, road is road.

Clearance and load limit signs are found less and less frequently on that road.

All that and I still can’t understand this level of unthinking – I drive a diesel fired behemoth, large enough that it is a pain to park in most parking lots, high enough that clearance signs in parking garages and drive thru’s need be heeded, heavy enough that I am pushing it with three ton load limit signs.

So somebody pointing a Semi through the Portal of something so atypical as a covered wooden bridge, passing load limit and clearance signs in the doing, is impossible for me to understand.

In helping the Graton Assoc's with the restoration of The Blair One of the tasks I was assigned was replication of the the many missing & impact damaged Wind Braces

In helping the Graton Assoc’s with the restoration of The Blair for these last many months – One of the tasks I was assigned was replication of the many all too common story, impact damaged & impact missing Wind Braces

I’m wondering with this entry, what needs be done to avoid more of this phenomenon of impact as the future unfolds?


Carpentry Made Easy

Long part of this rolling and ever ongoing obsession I hold in just what this is, this stuff of timber and bridge carpentry, has been an ongoing participation in the recovery of information almost lost.

These Trades nearly fell away as time morphed differing efforts, and materials towards those ends shifted away from what had been the norm for countless generations – Timber and its long evolving and practiced methods, would for a time be almost completely marginalized as dimension lumber and steel in their turn became the chosen norms.

Much in the everyday practice of these trades was no longer shared as the almost unspoken, was little conveyed in the fewer and fewer conversations of instruction were had over timbers on horses, as fewer practitioners found fewer up and comers interested in what was still there to be shared.

I spoke of how some of this, the spoken and shared side of this continuum was but barely saved, in Living Memory

Fortunately, though the everyday in a time when trades training was little written down, but shared one on one in literal Master to Apprentice relationships – Some in these transitional years of morph and change did take the time to put words to paper.

The collection of Treatises on Carpentry and method has also long been an ongoing obsession. This has in recent years become easier as the worlds libraries have become digitized, and the absolute need to find a rare copy of an often little printed work was now made everyday possible in public domain downloads.

I can’t deny I love my e-reader, and it is ripe with the works of among others, Sutcliffe and Dewell, Jacoby and of course Hodgson. And I do love being able to carry what amounts to a sizable electronic library with me anywhere circumstance demands I go.

I do however, still prefer the real thing, this the printed page. With everything this brings, the whole of it. Sounds and smells and a presence and physicality, the literal textural experience, the very textures of text, these often begging a reminder that I again flip open a neglected cover.

So when I became aware a specialty imprint had recently republished a particular favorite, a treatise that touches on the varied intricacies of Timber Carpentry, from the framing of mill buildings to that of spires & steeples, and because it touches on bridge building from a perspective little shared, that of a Bridgewrighting Carpenter…

I am now expecting a hardcopy to soon materialize shrouded in bubblewrap – For now an excerpt from a tome first printed in 1858



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