Monthly Archives: January 2012

Gleanings from the Grit

There are almost unintentional undercurrents here on the Bridgewright Weblog. Yes I’m intrigued by those we follow, my fellow practitioners in this trade, they in its heyday, we almost entirely from a preservation perspective. They with knowledge in abundance shared by necessity, from Master to Journeyman to Apprentice. We are left to glean what we can from what we might – Most of this is to be found not on paper, but in physical example.

Photo by and courtesty of C. Hanchey

So in this entry we dip the paddle and turn briefly, to follow a parallel current in the study of wooden bridges and bridgewrighting, and through their work, the people who built them.

The only set of Shear Block Joined Long Leaf Yellow Pine Bolsters to have survived the 30's floods & tippings - At the same corner as the Historical Marker

That brings us back to an undercurrent, Railroads drove change and innovation, and though their connection with wooden bridges is all but forgotten, being that this connection held a then almost unique place in straddling the emerging worlds of corporate style big business, civil engineering and academia, it is almost no surprise that railroading’s ties to wooden bridges are well represented in the written record. Part of the other undercurrent we ride is found as we run our fingers though and sift the dirt, the stuff, the sluff – The grit still left to us for interpretation in still standing examples is there to find, despite the passing of time.

What is sometimes hard to see, is that it might just be in the dirt under our nails in which we find much of what we are looking for –

It is tool marks left in long tightly closed timber joinery that no one has gazed into in multiple lifetimes, It is scribed marking knife and awl marks and remnants of layout lines and faded numbering left to us in the cursive grease pencil handiwork of some almost forgotten carpenter, the pride with which he executed his work daily still evident in the elegance found in his handwriting. It is a shear failure, and how the woods grain reacted to it. It is an expected depth of crush created by fifteen decades of constant and massive force. It is how a needlessly neglected leak led to unnecessary failure, and how that failure effected load-paths, and how those shifting load-paths effected the through truss as a whole.

As much or more is to be gleaned in the hands on side of things, as anything we might find on the written page.


As Mysteries Unfold the Compass Swings

Digging deep on the the local wooden bridge influencer front, though a trip to Concord and the Special Collections Library at the New Hampshire Historical Society or down to the Boston & Maine RR Historical Society in Lowell Mass, just might be what it takes to fill in some blanks.

I’m looking hard at B&M in house engineer Jonathan Parker Snow, he was a longtime wooden bridge proponent and the primary influence which saw the B&M continue with wood frame bridges through the second decade of the 20th Century, longer than any other major railroad. Mr. Snow wrote prolifically, so there’s no shortage of the material on the technical side of things. It is the stuff of life, the biographical side of the story, which find me furrowing the fields of unexplored history, working to plow up, the whys as to the preferences he chose.

The other side of things which drives my curiosity is that I know of no other engineer from the heyday of wooden bridge building who spoke to the high esteem in which he held their builders, both those nationally known, and the B&M crews and crew leaders (literally pairing names with his praise) he both worked with directly and with regularity.

In one of many such a paragraphs of homage for his fellow wooden bridge builders Snow suggested he’d like to join a “Mr. Storrs in honoring these early builders” with “The historians of America have generally ignored them, perhaps because they were regarded as mere carpenters. They are more deserving of large mention in history, and inscriptions on memorial tablets, than many who have achieved less for their country.”

I knew of a local Storrs to have been a contemporary and an associate of Snow, but hadn’t known him to have a deep connection to wooden bridges nor had I seen such similar rare praise for their builders as that offered by Mr. Snow. So finding a fork, we take the divergent and tangential, yet parallel path, before a return to the long road home.

It is a remarkably parallel path, I was somewhat shocked how much was shared in the life of John Williams Storrs with those of others we have already described here. A man of modest beginnings, he worked as a grocer for some years, eventually running his own grocery. Then started on at an engineering firm which did work both for the city and area railroads. Initially working as a rodman on surveying teams, he worked his way up the firm ladder, before then accepting a position with the Concord & Montreal Railroad as assistant civil engineer. In time he would work as a team member and direct associate of Mr. Snow, and for two different railroads both of which built and maintained many wooden bridges. He would go onto be named and serve as New Hampshire’s first State Engineer.

The mentioned “Handbook” co-authored by his son Edward, who would also go on to work in the B&M civil engineering department, seems to be exceedingly rare, and is somehow not listed in any library collection anywhere. It is a window I think we somehow need to look through.

Mr. Storrs interest in wooden bridges spanned the length of his career. In 1932 he described then recent work to a now lost Burr, which spanned the Contoocook in Boscowen, a bridge built in 1850 – “Repairs have been completed recently, and it will do service for a long term of years to come”

This “years to come” bridge has since left us, the whens and whys of how it fell out of service and out of existence, are seemingly also lost to us. I’m sure there are some granite leavings, maybe long fallen and scattered, random corners still standing proud out of some leaf covered ground. Or perhaps still recognizable abutments and wingwalls sit moss covered and ignored. There is maybe that off chance, that just possibly, they yet carry a successor bridge, and people travel over them still, though unaware, of all those who have tramped that same crossing, for reasons much the same, though years before.

But this now almost forgotten Burr bridge, like the good people who built and maintained it, continues to slowly slip, almost unnoticed, into time.