Monthly Archives: August 2011

Living Memory

A slightly off topic entry this time around, on how I’ve come to see Living Memory, as Living History, and my seeming fascination with capturing such memory so as to avoid losing these everyday unspoken aspects of our history.

The “fine grain” which is so often overlooked, but all the same, it is this intertwining grain, which holds everything together.

I was recently reminded of one of the main reasons why this easily lost grain is so high in my mind. A historical context movie brought to mind one of my early boyhood memories. A serious first grade bout with Scarlet Fever. Though, it is not being ill which is the vivid memory, but a post recovery reaction to me. I was both confused and stung a bit. By doors slammed in my face, (this was a different time, a world when six year olds could still roam the neighborhood) meetings were called demanding my removal from school, despite a doctors all clear, and an all around months long shunning.

My confusion was based in how children dieing was not a part of my reality, or a world I understood. It was only years later, that I came to know, just how recently (at that time) childhood mortality had been beaten. Most of the mothers of then young children in that neighborhood, had been born in the thirties or before, if it had not touched their lives, it had touched someone they knew. It was a part of their living memory, and Scarlet Fever had been a vicious taker of children.

I don’t believe any similar reaction would happen today, such memory is now faded. It is sometimes said “It is not natural, we are not supposed to bury our children” And this is so, here in the first world, for the past seventy or so years. But for most of time, it was simply part of the human condition.

When I think of those former childhood mortality rates, The Bridgewright I admire most, Nichols Powers, always comes to mind. Only one of he and his wife Loriett’s five children grew to adulthood, and outlived them. Knowing the demands of long and distant bridgework related travel, I can almost feel the painful tinge of regret he surly felt, over every missed day of each of his lost children’s lives.

Another reason living memory stays on my horizon, is the allied trades I practice. Timberframing & Bridgewrighting. Both were briefly lost, and in the fifty years which slipped by with few or no practitioners, vast amounts of information (everyday information so seemingly mundane that few thought to describe it in written words) slipped beneath the visible surface.

I’ve been practicing both now long enough, to have borne witness to a slow reawakening. In the last quarter century, much has been deduced, through both research, and with careful observation and a growing understanding of historic example. Some of the reawakening however is attributable to nick of time talk. Folks simply asking the right older folks, what they knew, what they remembered.

It is under realized, but this too, is part of the grain, the interwoven threads that bind the fabric which is our living history. The threads which tie us to those we follow, and in turn, bind us, to those who will carry on from here. There are holes in that fabric, but there are those of us who are always patching those holes, even as we continue to weave the same, ever unending ribbon.

And back again to bridges, as a team member a few years back, in the restoration of the Cilleyville, I was fortunate to also bear witness to how an oral folklore, not written down till long after the the bridges construction, proved to have more than a grain of truth to it. This revealed for me the power and the viability of the genuine information, the living memory, sometimes to be found in folklore.

The Bridgewright for The Cilleyville, a Town Lattice bridge, was Print Atwood, it appeared to lean upon completion. He seems to have blamed his help, Al Emerson and Charles Wilson, claimed they did it with full intention, because they were angry with him…

In truth it doesn’t so much lean, it simply has inconsistencies. The two trusses Top Chords vary slightly in length and height, even the raking angles of the last few lattice vary from side to side. The east truss does differ from the west. It added some extra challenge to re-trimming the north Portal, part of several job challenges to deal with real problems, yet stay true to the original.

North Portal in snowfall

It is possible, there might be some truth to the anger issue, Print may have peeled off for an overdue visit home, and left the boys the “boring” and physically demanding job of boring hundreds of large diameter trunnel holes in the layup of the multiple lamina in the second truss. It might just have been the blame game, either way it doesn’t shine so well on ‘ole Print. In irony (always these things hold some hidden irony) Al and Charles were probably less than happy to have been scapegoated, and to have had the finger pointed at them. Had that not happened, their names would likely have long since faded from known history.

Such everyday things, as the names of carpenters, are among those many things which almost always slip below the surface, to those places where light seldom shines.

Here’s to ya boys.


Bastard Childs ???

Being a Timber Framer has me hold a special appreciation for certain carpentry-centric truss types. Specifically, Longs and Paddlefords, this not solely for their connection to New Hampshire, but for their solving structural truss required needs with advanced carpentry and not Iron. This just appeals to something in me, which is more than a simple appreciation for the cleverness exemplified by how their developer chose to make them work. But yes, something of the carpenter in me, just plain appreciates a carpenters solution.

So I must admit being a little surprised at how much fun it was I found in pre-tensioning the Pratt Trusses in the Chester Bridge. I fully expected that tuning the angled tension rods to easily change the geometry in each panel. It was just how responsive that seemingly modest additions in tension were, in dialing in a desired modest 1 inch camber in each truss. This Hyper-finetunableness – I failed to foresee.

Bang, done.

I’m used to iron in bridges, but its use is seldom fun. This was, and with an appreciation unanticipated. Like that one holds for a new tool which is both well designed, and just also functions particularly ably.

This sent me on a differing quest, with a desire to look with new eyes, at truss types with angled Tension Rods in their Panels. This happily seems to coincide with this running series of Blog entries on New Hampshire truss types…

I opened the Patent folder to Childs Patent No. 4963, (patents can be readily accessed though the Patent office or Google Patents) and that of Concord engineer J.C. Briggs and his first patent No. 22,106, both have such Rods in their designs. Another reason to again read, what are dry, but seldom better, seldom more direct, in the mans own words kinda way, source materials, was a welcome one.

Besides the tensile Counter Rods, and being contemporaries and living none so far from one another, John and Horace share another sad commonality. This that, despite their prolific success, and with both doing much Railroad work, no example of either of their trusses, (2 for JC), built here in their home range still exists.

This had me then looking at what are seen as the living embodiment of existing Childs Trusses, and I came across this welcome oddity. Always love ads placed by bridgewrights. This one has me scratching my head a bit….

He offers to build Howe’s, Burr’s, or Sherman’s – No mention of Childs.


Despite the fact that every bridge attributed to the man is held up as a Childs. Here’s where the what-if wonderment kicks in. Everett holds but one patent, No. 191,552, a very short span iron pony – Yet here in his advertisement he lists a “Sherman” under a heading of “Covered Wood Bridges” and holds up his “truss” as being “30 to 50 percent stronger than any iron bridge”.


Putting aside for a moment, just how right he was, that time proves his postulation that a wooden bridge, provided that it’s cladding is properly maintained and remains weather tight, can and will have a far longer service life than one built of iron or steel…

It does seem more than likely, if not probable, that he was appending his own name to his own much modified iteration of a Childs. Which in truth, do not use either of Horace’s “claims to invention”, those aspects of his design, which he saw as unique and new and and therefore deserving of a patent, nor do the Sherman bridges have the double rods or double posts.

Turning up some contract documents for a still existing bridge will answer one of the obvious questions this opens.

Are the Ohio spans something other than that which they are held up as?

Did Everett ever call them Childs Trusses? Or something else all-together?

A Chain unbroken

The new Chester Bridge is still taking up much of my attention, today should mark an end for trim on the east Portal. It’s been especially fun having a little autonomy and being able to play a little with the chosen detailing and help form up what is the face of this new bridge.

The volunteers are still showing, new faces and those who have played into the process from the get-go.

Many new friends, many new faces, from both far and near…

One of those new faces from the cast of Characters who dropped in to lend a helping hand with the bridge lets me segue back into the running theme of New Hampshiremen who have played into the wooden bridge community here. And in a way that had somehow never crossed my mind. It had occurred to me that someone somewhere should be interviewing people in those places (namely BC and Oregon) where wooden bridge building carried on well into the 20th Century. That there still is a base of knowledge, which for some, is still part of living memory, and that some attempt to record those memories should be attempted before those too are lost. Somehow it had escaped me that such living memory, still potentially resided here.

Then into the fray walks Chuck Ross, a member of a multi-generational family of Railroad men, and longtime member of the Boston & Maine’s bridge maintenance crew, a Railroad which built covered spans longer than any other major Railroad, well into the second decade of the last century. The B&M then fastidiously maintained them right through to the end of their service.

It turns out Chuck and I know several of the same bridges, well, something approaching intimately. This like you can only deeply know a structure, in the spending of many hours, or in replacing parts placed by someone who knew the same construction equally well, but years before.

Chuck & one of the still prone trusses

Chuck donned an Amtrak hardhat and climbed down under the new Chester Pratt to help remove the falsework with us.

Somehow I have to find a way to break bread with the man, tell tall tales and a few stories in trade for the chain of knowledge he might be willing to share.