Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Curiosities of Miscreation & Happenstance

This piece will be about the multiple curiosities of the current project, and how these say much about Bridgewrighting, though in a way which for some might seem unexpected, or to others even somewhat harsh. Those who click in regularly, will however recognize my frequent allusions to the quality in execution that is common to framed wooden bridges, and why precise fit and full bearing are necessary, and drive that commonality…

Reaching completion in December of 1865, the contract to build The Jericho was to awarded to one Thomas Forsyth of Baltimore, the trade he practiced is said have been that of a machinist. This would seem to be an odd choice in someone to design and frame a bridge. Particularly in the day, this the common era of wooden bridge construction, (there are perhaps more such bridges standing which date to this same decade than any other) a time when the chosen Bridgewright was responsible for design as well as execution, and this Trade was in common practice.

Getting to know this bridge intimately during the rehabilitation process, (a process which avails to those doing it views of joinery last seen by those who assembled it, in this case a full century and a half ago) I have come to believe this curiosity, that this bridge was indeed, designed and built by a practitioner of another trade.

Why would be the wonder, particularly in an area which held much Bridgewrighing knowledge. The nearby Susquehanna hosted large efforts in numbers, and such knowledge would have been shared and without question would have left this Trade in this area the better for it. The first thought that came to mind, was that perhaps Thomas was politically connected, and some kind of cronyism potentially played a part. The second went to the year of construction – This country, with hostilities ending only in the Spring of this same year in the killingest war this nation has ever suffered, had just lost much in the fallen and sadly no longer flowering knowledge of what was quite literally, a lost generation. Was there potentially a war driven lack in ability?

With deeper wonder and exploration, as other entries here on the blog have touched on, this trade was in happenstance and terrible irony, bettered by the exchange of ideas and the networking availed to those building and rebuilding bridges during The War. It secondarily seems more than probable, that coming into the war effort with bridewrighting skills and being assigned to such a company, may well have made that terrible and costly war, a more survivable service than it may have been for the common infantryman.

Though it is left to supposition I have come to believe it may well not have been the certain uncertainties of those tumultuous times which left the call for proposals unanswered by any capable crew. Circumstance suggests that this curiosity was potentially driven by one of these nearby large efforts on the Susquehanna.

But twenty three miles away at the river which defines the northern border of Harford County, just as the Jericho bridges the Little Gunpowder, the waterway which forms part of it’s southern border, there was at that time an ongoing effort we have spoken to here on the weblog, an effort said to later have fifty hand picked crew leaders chosen by Nichols Powers, and working under them, some three to four hundred known quantity Bridgewrights.

The B&O Susquehanna River Bridge - Though a different image, here we see the same two gentleman... This image is seen here as a courtesy of Wikemedia Commons

Two of the fourteen spans of the B&O Susquehanna River Bridge – Though a different image, here we tellingly see the same two gentleman discussed in the Evermore entry – This image is seen here as a courtesy of Wikemedia Commons

This particular effort is shortlisted on my – Where and when would I visit, if I had an opportunity for time travel. (The other effort I would choose, would be that of joining the crews raising the Lintels to complete the Trilithons at Stonehenge) – I’m thinking the Bridgewrights with chops in this area, were both fully distracted and gainfully employed…

Mr. Forsyth did quite clearly subcontact in some Framers, (though of a caliber common to low quality barns and clearly unfamiliar with the demands of Bridge Framing) and he did somehow find someone capable of determining the radius of and the laying out the Arches, though even these are not up to normal snuff.

Not only is there a Lap Joint at every Post on both the inner and outer Ring - This type of atypical tear-out and over penetration is found commonly

Not only is there a Lap Joint at every Post on both the inner and outer Ring – This type of atypical tear-out and over penetration is found commonly

His chosen twists in design are beyond odd, and beg the questions – “Did the man not go give a hard look at standing examples?” & “How is this still here?”

Two issues here - Chord Lams are for reason typically spaced apart - And a simple bolted Half Lap is no kind of Tension Splice - All of those found here show this kind of failure and loss of geometry

Two issues here – Chord Lams are for reason typically spaced apart – And a simple bolted Half Lap is no kind of Tension Splice – All of those found here show this kind of failure and loss of geometry

That itself is a mystery of sorts. It is certainly not that it has enjoyed exceptional care and maintenance over the long term. It appears that part of this story is that the small mills, and the towns they supported on its either end, struggled, And as is common to other areas where circumstance and money left…

This Drop is shorter than is the typical standard, one of many clues which suggest a lack of familiarity with Bridgewrighting among those who framed the bridge – This lack of “end distance” was likely directly resultant in this shear failure

Without a booming economy driving “improvement” and change, time’s earlier stamp went untouched. Though seemingly less than desirable, such circumstance has left us much which would have otherwise been lost. Some of times most well preserved towns, pockets and places, as well as houses and barns, ironically stand as they do today for the lack of any money to update them. Thankfully here, the traffic count and the need, somehow also failed to demand replacement.

This short grain issue was caused by a Mortise cut too short - This section removed to compensate held an easily predictable outcome

This short grain issue was caused by a Mortise cut too short – This V-like section removed to compensate held an easily predictable outcome

When the need to be able to carry fire apparatus and school buses did demand a change, an usually high clearance height for its time saw it rejiggered to increase load capacity, and again, The Jericho was not replaced.

Those of us who both build, and work to preserve the work of those we follow, often see this as a promise shown to us in the workmanship in the structures we work to sustain and maintain. It being understood that the better something is built the longer it is likely to last.

And sometimes (though only sometimes) we find proof positive that what time has carried for us into our time, is as much about happenstance as it might be about anything else.