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.

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About Will Truax

I'm a timberframer and preservation carpenter, and regularly work on Covered Bridge restoration projects. Bridgewrighting can be a tough row to hoe, for a myriad of reasons. From scheduling issues to differing opinions and philosophies on what is appropriate in methods and materials, to multiple jurisdictions still not sufficiently vetting bidders resumes - Which is to say, just because a company is on that state approved list and capable of building that seven figure overpass, this does not mean they are capable of restoring a wooden bridge... So, I have much to say about all this and more - And despite my tough row observation, I promise not to whine. View all posts by Will Truax

3 responses to “Briggs – the Man – the Truss – the Enigma

  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Thanks again for another great post Will…

    I was just discussing this the other day with a town official that made the mistake in front of me, with pontificating his expertise as a contractor and why “wooden bridges” are doomed to failure from the moment they are finished…

    He goes on…”as the self proclaimed expert”…to further suggest that if it wasn’t for their, “…limited” historic value that they are often to much a burden on town and state finances…”

    Of course I could only hold my tongue for so long before confronting his ignorance and any actual expertise on this subject…

    I stated that we (his audience) must assume he, at least, is well versed in the art and craft of the Timberwright (if not Bridgewright)…He was not!

    Then you must at least have a solid understanding of how these structures are built, of their wood members, and how long the actually do and can last…He could not!

    So I closed with a question of how he presumes to explain their alledge frailties? His list of reason where not only poor assumptions (all to common as you know) but did not reflect even a solid understanding of what wood is truly capable of, nor any skill sets to deal with “real wood” and not some “stick” bought from a factory…

    Thank you for keeping the faith and the craft alive!

    j

    Like

  • Blair Howell

    I collect antique hotel guest registers. My oldest one if from the Franklin House in Rutland, VT and dates from Sept 1854 – April 1855. I am in the process of researching the signers/guests and came across John C. Briggs. I found your blog while researching him. Thank you so much for the information on him!

    you can see his signature here:
    http://www.pbase.com/image/160806688

    I hope you don’t mind that I put a link back to your blog from the signature but you seem to know more about Mr. Briggs than any other source online.

    thanks again,
    Blair

    Liked by 1 person

    • Will Truax

      Blair –

      I don’t mind at all!

      I’m more than happy to find our two areas of interest collide and coincide, particularly when there is so little in the record of of Mr. Briggs to be found, to have access to his very signature and to have some sense of his travels is for me hugely interesting.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to relay your find.

      Happy hunting in the pages of time,

      — Will

      Liked by 1 person

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