Monthly Archives: December 2011

Long Lost, though in part, Not Forgotten

Another brief diversion from our running series, in part to allow research time to dig deeper on the local front, though also to mark two little remembered anniversaries.

The fifteenth of this month marked the full One Hundred and Seventy Fifth year since the the loss of the Patent Office to a fire, this caused by the still all too common story of careless disposal of ashes. The fire consumed the building the Office was then housed in, The Blodgett Hotel.

A sketch of the burning Blodgett Hotel, Wm. Steiger Draftsman General Land Office - Courtesty

This loss was particularly ironic because the Patent Office was intentionally spared twenty two years prior when the British burned Washington, a largely singular exception in their razing of the city.

With the building, also lost were something approaching 10,000 patents, and the models required to be filed with the written descriptions, the “letters patent.” Of those many filings lost to the fire, 2,845 have since been recovered. This attempt at recreation of the record began the inception of a then new numbering system, recovered patents being issued a number with the prefix of X. Prior to the 1836 loss, patents were recorded simply by name and date. Such recoveries are still occasionally happening into the present day. Within the last decade fourteen original patent office documents, former papers of New Hampshire steam engine inventor Samuel Morey were discovered in Dartmouth’s Special Collections Library by researching Nashua NH attorneys specializing in patent law. Copies of these papers were reintroduced into the Patent Office record.

Discoveries such as these perhaps still lie unrealized in similar long unexplored archives, or in unopened trunks and dusty attics. But much was forever lost.

This is as true for bridge patents as it it is for any of the other many types then on file.

This might be no better exemplified, than in the person of Theodore Burr, perhaps the most recognized name in the history of wooden bridge building, and said to be the holder of the first issued bridge patent X662, filed in 1806. And like X883 (the first patent filed for a suspension bridge) issued to Pennsylvanian James Finley just two years later, all details, drawings and descriptions of what was actually patented are seemingly, forever lost to time.

Often it seems that it is assumed that X662 was an earlier incarnation of X2769, Burr’s familiar Truss which he patented in 1817. I should think that this is more than highly improbable, and that there is no coincidence that the patent was issued within a month of Burr’s five span ahead of its time masterwork over the Delaware at Trenton being completed and opened to traffic.

This bridge consisted of multiple lamination Tied Arches from which the floor systems were chain suspended. I see it as no stretch whatever to suggest that the intent of the 1806 patent was to protect proprietary design elements used in the Trenton Bridge. The design was a long lived and well tested structural success. One of its two lanes was years after being opened to its intended service, in 1835, converted to Railroad use, and the bridge continued to carry traffic for another forty one years, through the completed construction of its iron replacement, which was built beside it and then rolled into place upon its disassembly and removal.

Though the cause and circumstance, and even the day and year of his death, and the very location of his burial are all somehow shrouded in mystery, some say Mr. Burr left us 189 years ago this very evening, 21 December 1822, while working on a another of his many long and multiple spans to bridge the Susquehanna, this one to have been in Middletown Pennsylvania.

New Beginnings Marked by an End

With this entry, a return to those native New Hampshire sons who made their mark on the development of wooden bridges, this brings us to a name now little recognized as one once seen as a famous native son, and little remembered as someone who made the significant impacts he did.

Humble beginnings building towards impacts of significance. Little remembered, in large measure, because his time and the works he did in it were marked by change so huge, that huge works have been almost lost in the fabric of time. The beginnings of that change and the huge shift in the social fabric of our then young nation was itself marked by an end. An end to modes of commerce formed by canal boats and river trade, and overland trade shaped by turnpikes, and teamsters, and taverner’s. Ways of life then nearing an almost abrupt end, brought about by the building of railroads, and the ripples of change in travel and commerce they would carry into being.

As this shift was unfolding, Lebanon’s Simeon Post went off to help build both, the railroads, and a growing nation. Seemingly a commonality amongst the uncommon men drawn to bridge building innovation in his time.

His stepping stone vocation and humble hometown beginnings would last though his mid-twenties, in these formative years he is often described as having apprenticed as a “House Joiner.” He and his fellow Lebanon native bride, Parthenia Peck married there in 1830, but had moved onto opportunity in Montpelier Vermont by the time their second child, Andrew Jackson (who will closely follow on in his fathers footsteps, which we will come back to downpage) was born four years later.

We can’t really know with what is left to us, but it can’t be helped but to imagine that Simeon was a naturally gifted draftsman, and possessed something of a towering intellect and was perhaps, in some ways, both charming, and a bit of a force of personality. For somehow, with no record of a formal education but a recently completed timber-framing apprenticeship, he set up in Montpelier as a practicing architect. This move began a meteoric career, first with work under the direct supervision of the Surveyor General of Vermont, which would see young Simeon as influential in the choice of his recently adopted city as the new state capitol. This in turn would see him offered by the General’s son, his first in a long series of railroad positions, by 1836 he is now serving as Assistant to the chief Engineer for the Auburn & Syracuse RR.

By July of ’40 he would monopolize this position into one as Resident Engineer of the NY & Erie RR. He would move up through the hierarchical ranks there at the NY & E, then engaged in endless construction, from Superintendent of Transportation to Chief Engineer by the time of his leaving in March of 1853, when he would move onto the same position with the Ohio & Mississippi RR, leaving their employ just two years later as General Superintendent. In ’55 he returned to the New York City area serving both as consulting engineer with his former employer The NY & Erie, and as chief Engineer for the Long Dock Co. in its construction of the Bergen Tunnel, continuing as chief of this project until its suspension five years later for lack of funds.

It was at this time he turned his attentions and long railroad influenced study of the bridge building branch of engineering, publishing his “Treatise on the Principals of Civil Engineering as Applied to the Construction of Wooden Bridges” in ’59. He is said to have during this period “tinkered with models” and prepared his Letters Patent for an “Improvement in Iron Bridges” receiving Patent 38,910 in June 1863.

He formed the “Atlantic Bridge Works” with fellow patent holder Daniel McCallum in 1867, This company would go onto build “hundreds” of Post Patent Trusses, most of these for railroads, both partners having deep roots in that community. The following year Atlantic dissolved, and Simeon formed a bridge building concern with his son called “SS & AJ Post, Civil Engineers and Bridge Builders” Andrew would that year patent both details for built up Iron Posts and a “Combination Truss” wood & iron variation of his fathers truss, No. 81,817

Bell Ford Covered Bridge - A Post Combination Wood & Iron Patent Truss - Photo provided courtesy of Tony Dillon

Their firm contracted Watson Manufacturing Company to fabricate its cast and wrought iron parts. AJ would later partner with this firm and become its chief Engineer. Building SS Post Patent Trusses would become Watson’s primary business for a full decade. At its height employing some 200 men at its plant and foundry in Paterson NJ, and another six to seven hundred divided up among multiple crews building bridges at sites across the nation.

A 19th C Stereoscopic view of an Unhoused Post Combination Truss Bridge - Colorado Central Railroad

Other well known and geographically dispersed bridge building concerns such as Boomer Brothers of St. Louis & Chicago (see prior entry Sister Bridge) would be granted right to build the patent. Some, such as Cleveland’s McNairy Claflen & Co. (company principles thought to be among former RR’ing associates of Simeon’s) would go on to specialize in this Truss Type.

Henry Claflen even filing an associated patent No. 47,395 for Top Chord Splices for the “Combination” versions their firm and foundry tooled up for and specialized in.

A Bell Ford Top Chord Panel Point

The last existing Post Combination Truss was lost just five years ago, the 1868 Bell Ford Covered Bridge was built by McNairy Claflen. I was part of a team which dismantled it after its collapse, and cataloged its parts for storage and a hoped for future rebuilding. It stood in Seymour IN, a town at one time served by, and which served as a north south / east west hub for Mr. Posts former employer, the O & Miss RR.

A Bell Ford Bottom Chord Panel Point

Thousands of Post Truss spans formerly bridged the nations waterways serving both highways and railroads. Single spans over modest streams and long multiple span versions bridging wide nationally known rivers. Only three all-iron examples still exist.

In March of ’70 Simeon returned to railroading, appointed chief engineer of the Northern Pacific RR, but would only some months later be stricken by a “Paralysis”. He passed quietly in his Jersey City home 29 June 1872, while at the height of his own personal success, a success also shared by his namesake Truss.