Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Mans Name is Nichols

Some attempt to shine light on the fact that the builder of The Blenheim Bridge is misidentified more often than not, has been a quiet crusade of mine for some while. I’m not entirely sure why, except that it is just plain wrong to call someone by a name not their own. It is innocent enough to add an a to the mans name in the mistaken belief, that an error is thereby being corrected. (this seems to be how this whole silly business began) But as it far more often happens, a long ago error is just repeated, and re-repeated, and then repeated yet again.

Even bronze plaques at Blenheim, and recent flood related mentions in newspapers, even in the mans towns of birth and residence misidentify him as Nicholas.

I’ve been intrigued by this bridgewright and his life’s work since the late Nineties when I was involved with the restoration of the Ashuelot Bridge. Though still unconfirmed, it is thought to be his work. The high level of workmanship, and details common to his other bridges, such as double Lateral Braces, strongly suggest to me that he was its builder. ( Sanford Granger builder of the Bartonsville, lived closer and also used double laterals, but tended to omit the third Chord ) It was that its builder “family’ed” the 3 X 11 Lattice plank in both the Chords and the Truss Webs, using the thicker plank just where time now tells us is most appropriate, which told me the Ashuelot’s Bridgewright was both practiced, and at building Town’s in particular. And a cut far above, simply capable.

I stopped by the mans grave a year ago or so on my way back from some distant work related travel, because it had occurred to me that his name etched in stone might bring it home.

The mans name is Nichols.

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We Will

The simply staggering power of moving water has of course, been much on my mind lately. Too much really. With news of similar flooding devastation seemingly every few days, happening somewhere in the weeks since Irene’s visit to our patch of the planet. With travel into areas which suffered devastation, and research and planning for the probability that I will be involved in some of the rebuilding.

The Contoocook RR Bridge was twice tipped by floods in both ' 36 & ' 38, and both times righted and returned to service

It is in thinking about the rebuilding that I find some solace. And this not because it brings much needed work, but because history tells us the power of high water seems equaled and even excelled by the resilience of humankind to pick ourselves up and rebuild. And to learn in the doing.

The Hall, on the Saxton’s River in Bellow’s Falls, none so far from the lost Bartonsville, was itself, very nearly lost to Irene. With a large section of a dry-laid stone abutment washed away, and a set of Bolsters, (visibly displaced in this flooding footage) a support sub-structure, was very nearly punched out from beneath it at this same compromised corner.

We have been here before, like those we share similar experience with on these very same rivers and waterways.

Flood Scene, Wrack and Ruin Postcard

Just as they have done, again, we will rebuild.


Tropical Irony

A short blurb to bridge the gap.

There is more than a little irony to be found in this stunning reality…

In the just over six weeks time which has passed since The Timber Framers Guild’s Chester Bridge Project, two of the attendees who helped build a new wooden bridge in New Hampshire have happened upon and shared photographs of bridges lost to tropical storms in their home states.

Photo Katie Hill

Katherine “Katie” Hill, a Vermont structural engineer shared a photo of The Bower’s, a Tied Arch truss washed off its abutments in the aftermath of Irene.

Bruce Cowie a timberframer from Lancaster Pennsylvania shares a photo of the Siegrist’s Mill Bridge, a Burr Arch. This past weekend it was similarly washed out of place by Tropical Storm Lee.

Photo Bruce Cowie

There is hope that both will be returned to service.

Work on the "The House" continues and nears completion - Photo Darrell Quinn


Lost to Evermore

Those of you who occasionally click in on my twitter feed might recognize this image as its background. (click to enlarge) I’d meant to only someday post a blog entry about it. Someday, when I’d moved on from New Hampshire’s historic connection to wooden bridge building. The recent floods however have moved up someday.

Irene’s aftermath will long be memorable, perhaps in part for video caught as the Bartonsville slipped into the storm swollen Williams River. We still don’t know the full number of bridges lost or damaged, but we do know this image has several things in common with what is perhaps the greatest loss. There is no question that it was the largest lost, and arguably, (and silly, my dog’s better’n your dog, arguments were ongoing) among the very last of the giants, that being New York’s Old Blenheim.

The image is, for a number of reasons, one of my favorites. In part because it shows one of history’s giants. Many are not aware that such wooden giants existed, because they have long since been replaced, usually because they crossed at all too important, high traffic areas. As often, the piers they were built on were far more expensive and time consuming to construct than the bridge they carried, and they were wanted to carry a new span which could carry a higher volume of traffic.

This bridge circa 1866, stood just upstream from the confluence of the Susquehanna with the Chesapeake Bay. It was a fourteen span Howe – Thirteen of 250′ and a Draw Span of 175′, for a total length of 3,500′. It carried the rail traffic it was designed for until the 1906. And then was re-purposed in 1910 for vehicular use, and continued to serve another couple of decades until its removal sometime in the late 30’s. Its Piers still sit idle next to the yet operational Iron Railroad Bridge.

Another reason it’s a favorite, is because, though as photographic technology of the time demanded it is obviously posed, all the same, it captures the actual circumstance of that moment in time. Drawn from a photograph prior to the existence of affordable ways to print photographic images on newsprint, a common technique of the day. It shows us not only the Falsework still in place under the near span, and how that Falsework is designed to interact with the masonary in the piers, and how the seeming ornamentation in the masonry was designed with two-fold purpose to receive that Falsework. We also see crews at work, and various aspects of the bridge still under construction.

The Bottom Chords of the Double Barreled Blenheim

It also pictures two men at the images center. Though only a theory of mine, I don’t see it as much of a stretch. The one in the top hat is George A. Parker, engineer and designer of this bridge built for the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. The man next to him with the cane, is undoubtedly his clerk of the works hand picked lead framer, and Master Bridgewright, Nichols Powers.

Parker and Powers, in building this span, on this stretch of the Susquehanna, which like the nearby Schuylkill, stood host to many of these early giant spans, quite literally joined the ranks of bridgewrighting’s giants. Palmer, Wernwag and Burr.

Nichols, eleven years earlier, also built the now lost Blenheim –

The Trait de Jupiter / Bolt 'o Lightning Bottom Chord Scarfs of Powers' Masterwork

Among other still existing bridges, he also built the Brown, near his home town of Clarendon Vermont. We are yet to hear how it fares in the aftermath of Irene.

Recent video imagery accompanied by particularly timely & poignant original music by Kevin Sullivan.