Category Archives: New York

Steadfast Against the Storm

I had it in mind to finally post a followup to The Central Bridge entry Friday, I’d been waiting on image accreditation permissions and access to an artifact, a literal lone surviving piece of that long lost bridge…

Then the distraction of this thirty hour April Fool’s Day storm and a bit of news which also crossed my horizon created a need to update the blog’s readership regarding an entry of a few months back, a lamentation entitled A Trace of Tears. The news and need to update is in how the low bidders chosen pre-qualified “timber specialist” has now formally engaged a subcontractor, one that redetermines how the framing of the new Blenheim is now to be executed, being that it is not the same automated manufactory they had enlisted to execute their last new-build.

A_Wall

A Stonewall in the woods standing steadfast against snowfall and time, much like little-known truths, somehow also obscured and almost lost, as if such were likewise buried behind layers of ice and a forest like tangle of trees

The timber framing community is a small one, so I have some sense of the firm enlisted. I do take solace in the fact that the three Trusses and the Tie, Floor Beam and Lateral Bracing systems which will unify them will be laid out and cut by genuine human beings.

I am at the same time bewildered that a pre-qualification process intended to limit bidders to those with deep wooden bridge resumés would then allow any of those deemed qualified, to sub off the whole of the fabrication effort (The very aspect of a joined timber truss bridge build that requires deep experience in know-how and understanding as to the requisite of full bearing tight fit) to a firm which had not navigated that same process. It is an absurdity that flies in the face of reason and fairness and makes a mockery of that process.

Bottom Chord Scarf

The multiple abutment Trait de Jupiter / Bolt ‘O Lightning tension splices specified in the man’s patent and common to Long Truss bridges through to the end of their common era – One of the flawless fifty plus Bottom Chord Scarfs of Powers’ lost Masterwork

That said this Timber Frame subcontracting firm does have a short bridge truss resumé, one limited to single numbers, recent developments which have only come to pass in the last several years since the very storm which took The Blenheim from us. Nor is this outfit a scribe-centric shop. historic practice demonstrates in the form of surviving example, and I adamantly hold to the notion that joined timber bridge framing, is for the need of both practicality and accuracy best laid out with “Scribe Rule” methods, this for all the reasons I articulated in Trace of Tears. I do unhappily understand that that notion is little shared and reasonably not understood by lay-people, nor for reason explored in an archival entry I penned a few years back titled Commonly Uncommon, is this even commonly understood by Timber astute Carpenters should they not be fully versed in both traditional bridge truss practice, and full blown layout to assembly scribe methodologies.

Blenheim's Bottom Chords

In the foreground a now lost glimpse of the beyond amazing Bottom Chords of the Double Barreled Blenheim – In the distance my truck and tool trailer in a stop to pay homage on a pilgrimage driven side-trip on a return home ride from a hired gun timber gig

That solace I find in this development is not only in the removal of the incapable robot, it is also found in the human connection which will undoubtedly unfold. Among those to cut this replication of the grandest of grand joined timber wooden bridges so recently lost to us, will be individuals, who will in the doing likely experience a spark of imagination, and perhaps that spark might help them find the focus to make this allied trade of Bridgewrighting, their live’s calling.


A Now Two Century Old – Overnight Turn on a Paradigm

My revolving focus is often driven by a particular bridge, or its Truss Type, or an interest in its developer or Patent holder. My current attentions have once again revolved around to focus on something of deep and long interest, something that is the core of who I am and what I do. And interestingly something of a mystery, one which is perhaps this very year, slipping into its third century of wide use.

Traditional / historical timber framing layout systems became a preoccupation of mine something over twenty years ago now. In part with a growing understanding that the non-traditional layout used by the shops in which the first frames I helped cut did not have a practical level of success, and in part because it was a connection to history and a historical continuum which drew me to this Trade. That and ample example that historical layout systems did possess a level of predictable success and practicality “then” suggested to me that they would still share these same practicalities in the now.

I sought out practitioners of these systems – The Scribe Rule & The Square Rule. (Scribe being the direct transfer of information from one timber or set of timbers to another – Square Rule being the shaping of timbers to a mathematical constant at each of its connections) And have gone on to, as a rule not an exception, regularly practice both, and also to teach traditional layouts in a series of workshops over the last dozen or so years.

Though in part it is out of preference, it is happily also out of practicality that I lean towards the Scribe side of things. With much of my work being Bridge related, and with Timber Bridges being the seeming lone exception (this due to slightly dissimilar pieces in what appear to be like, redundant and, mirror image Panels – Small inconsistencies driven by camber) to an amazingly rapid and geographically vast shift (here on the North American continent) away from variations of Scribe which had been the norm for timber carpentry for millennia.

Scribe layout survived all the many changes humanity brought to its fellowship and the need to house itself, including this migration to a new continent, this particularly well exemplified here (forty or so miles from the coast and just outside of first period settlement) in my little patch of Northern New England. Here settlement was, for the best part of the first two centuries of the then Colony’s existence, incredibly slow to expand. Long hostilities with the neighboring colony of New France including cross border raiding, and raids encouraged from those neighboring colonials among Tribal peoples from both sides of the border. This pressure saw to it that settlement here in Northern New England held fast at a standstill from the 1630’s through the 1760’s – As did building technology. As is found elsewhere in the New World, settlement patterns heavily influenced construction, in that colonials brought with them what they knew. This is particularly true of Timber Frame Carpentry, with country of origin and even regional variation in the home country heavily influencing the many regional variations found in the former Colony/ies. Framing style, technique and typology were brought from the Mother Country. Here in New Hampshire that transplanted Mother Country typology would be English Tying, in dominant use from the early 17th Century – the “First Period” on through to an end to the expansion standstill, and on into an area wide expansion and building boom. (settlement beyond coastal areas and nearby river valleys) The building boom and now rapid expansion of settlement brought on by an end to these formerly unending hostilities, this end coming with the close to what is little realized as, but was in truth the real first “world war” one encompassing multiple nations simultaneously on multiple continents – Known here as the French & Indian War, and elsewhere to history as the Seven Years’ War. Both Scribe and English Tying would survive this war and follow the boom of settlement into interior sections and remain in dominance another fifty years until a somewhat mysterious rapid change would morph both long used systems (Scribe & English Tying in both houses & barns) out of use in little more than a decades time.

An English Tying frame in Strafford County NH dating to the post F&I Boom-time

An English Tying frame in Strafford County NH dating to the post F&I Boom-time

This mystery of an almost overnight sensation shift away from what even here was a centuries old tradition in Scribe type layout has been high on my mind of late, with the current project being a Settlement Period barn in Bernhard’s Bay New York (here “settlement” was the mid 1790’s through 1815 or so) on the north shore of Oneida Lake. The Bernhard Barn is Square Ruled, and though the exact year it was first built is not yet determined. (research perhaps including Dendro is in the works) In part due to some unusual detailing, I believe it may be the earliest Square Ruled building I have ever put eyes and hands on.

A settlement period building, the Bernhard Barn is an early Square Ruled example of a common barn typology

A settlement period building, the Bernhard Barn is an early Square Ruled example of a common barn typology

Tax records suggest the property was held by John Bernhard - The Farm was developed by his son John - Improvements beginning in 1815

Tax records suggest the property was held by John Bernhard – The Farm was developed by his son John – Improvements beginning in 1815

With long study, exploration and preservation work on historic structures in my home region on the edge of First Period development and what might be the Nation’s first building boom, the sudden move to Square Rule and the concurrent move away from English Tying has long intrigued me. This seems to have begun sometime in the second decade of the 19th Century, and somehow saw total acceptance as the norm as not just common practice here in layout, this rapid shift to Square Rule would become dominant practice over the entirety of the then young nation. Everywhere north to south and as far west as settlement carried, and in this same contracted time-frame.

Some few have suggested, and having seen first hand great numbers of timber framed structures from the period, in not just my home region, but also in most all of those areas then settled – I adhere to the theory that the rapidity of this universal acceptance over a hugely wide geographic area is directly attributable to another violent international struggle, one this year marking its bicentennial – The War of 1812 – The theory holds that high hundreds if not thousands of Carpenter’s from all over the country were brought into the war effort (Hundreds did participate in a strategic effort to build Naval ships at pace on Lake Erie to outnumber British craft in what came to be known as the “The Battle of the Carpenter’s”) to build watercraft, bridges, earthworks & barracks buildings. They shared ideas and also a need to produce needed constructions quickly. An ability to throw more carpenters into an effort which lays out individual pieces mathematically than could possibly fit / fold into a Scribe layup assemblage, made this sheer numbers strategic advantage of Square Rule the Layout of choice for the wars duration, and upon its end Carpenter’s in great numbers returned home with a new tool in their kit, one that despite a generations long practice and tradition, and a tendency in humankind to resist change – Somehow, this became a new beginning, a foundational shift, a season change uncountable hundreds chose to use and share. And in little more than a decade’s time, carpentry would forever be changed.

It is not impossible that Square Rule is also now marking its bicentennial year as a widely accepted widely used system, and that this paradigm shift was in part responsible for setting the tone that the rest of the century would take. That conceptually the idea of interchangeable parts and mass production became an accepted norm and expectation and became part of the human psyche. All through this paradoxical chain of events, this bit about the horrors of war somehow leading to wide and rapid dissemination of a useful idea, coupled with humanity’s unending and simple need to house itself – And that this would in time and in turn, lead to techniques of mass production being used to also build, The Cotton Gin, The Springfield Rifle, and one day, The Tin Lizzy.

 


What Was Lost…

The entry here on the the Bridgewright Weblog which has seen more readership than any other, (and is still clicked in on with regularity) is now some thirteen months old. A piece titled Lost to Evermore, written in part in reaction to the devastation wrought by Irene. Some of which, as I put pen to paper in those first few days after the storm, I had already seen firsthand. Some, in the hard-hit Schoharie Valley of New York was at that point, less than fully known, to myself nor most anyone from outside the immediate area. Lines of communication were then down, and travel in and out of the valley was so hindered that little information about the level of damage had yet reached the wider world. What was known was that The Blenheim had been washed from its abutments.

With less than little known about the level of damage done to the Bridge, and with this blog being Bridgewright-centric, (for the most part but not limited to, an exploration of the works and work of Bridgewrights – Builders of wooden bridges, both past & present) my piece was as much about the builder of the Blenheim, as it was about the bridge itself.

The Bridgewright Nichols Powers – Photo courtesy of Schoharie Historical Society

Information then available suggested the bridge was not only lost, but had been all but erased – Even weeks later, in a group of folks at a Regional Gathering of Timber Frame Carpenters many of whom knew and had spent time on, in and under The Blenheim, (It being to the North American Timberframing Community among the greatest of timber works to be seen, a built heritage pilgrimage of sorts somewhat akin to Chartres, the Parthenon or Pont du Gard) no one knew either what was lost or what might yet be found.

Many of us from outside the area assumed that the needs to replace and repair homes and businesses, to restore livelihoods and a sense of normalcy were the demands of the day for those directly affected by the floods. It was seen as perhaps not even reasonable to wonder after the post flood state of the Bridge.

Yet despite all this much to do, locals somehow made time for their Bridge. A recovery effort was organized, advantage was made of the seeming irony of a mild, almost snow free winter, and regular efforts in search and retrieval were made.

This gained a sense of urgency when the Blenheim’s National Historic Landmark Status was seen as in jeopardy, and it was suggested that any effort at rebuilding would have to include 51% of the original “fabric” to retain Landmark status. A lower than typical Spring Melt also cooperated with efforts towards recovery, and activity intensified as the weather warmed.

And more recently even as recovery efforts saw the transfer of sections both large and small to a common staging area, another setback. A FEMA determination that the The Blenheim, because it no longer carried vehicular traffic, is ineligible for funding. An appeal of this decision was recently heard, the finding and a final decision is yet to be determined.

Some of you may remember the shot of the Bottom Chord Scarf (Splice) I included in the Evermore piece. I no longer see the Bridge as lost, (If I ever did, the piece was about circumstance and reaction) or the situation as evermore. I do still see that magnificent Scarf, that startlingly beautiful and complex bit of cooperative workmanship, as being a yet unbroken connection still tying the Bridges past, to its future. I see this as area residents do – The need is to rebuild.

Preparations for rebuilding began, but will not end, with recovery and retrieval.

The following shots were taken on a recent non-related timberframe restoration trip into the area – Several of Powers chosen multiple abutment “Trait de Jupiter” (Bolt ‘O Lightning) Scarfs are seen here also…

The Bridled Tenons which control the Wedge where the Counter joins an Arch

Double Mortises and a Flatting cut perpendicular to the axis of the Counter Braces in an Arch section to receive a Counter and its Wedge

An Oaken Angle Block & a Cleat to receive a Set of Lower Lateral Braces and the Tie Rod which controlled them

The Blenheim materializing out of the mist on an early morning visit in the Autumn of ’07


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.