Tag Archives: Blenheim Bridge

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

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The Mans Name is Nichols

Some attempt to shine light on the fact that the builder of The Blenheim Bridge is misidentified more often than not, has been a quiet crusade of mine for some while. I’m not entirely sure why, except that it is just plain wrong to call someone by a name not their own. It is innocent enough to add an a to the mans name in the mistaken belief, that an error is thereby being corrected. (this seems to be how this whole silly business began) But as it far more often happens, a long ago error is just repeated, and re-repeated, and then repeated yet again.

Even bronze plaques at Blenheim, and recent flood related mentions in newspapers, even in the mans towns of birth and residence misidentify him as Nicholas.

I’ve been intrigued by this bridgewright and his life’s work since the late Nineties when I was involved with the restoration of the Ashuelot Bridge. Though still unconfirmed, it is thought to be his work. The high level of workmanship, and details common to his other bridges, such as double Lateral Braces, strongly suggest to me that he was its builder. ( Sanford Granger builder of the Bartonsville, lived closer and also used double laterals, but tended to omit the third Chord ) It was that its builder “family’ed” the 3 X 11 Lattice plank in both the Chords and the Truss Webs, using the thicker plank just where time now tells us is most appropriate, which told me the Ashuelot’s Bridgewright was both practiced, and at building Town’s in particular. And a cut far above, simply capable.

I stopped by the mans grave a year ago or so on my way back from some distant work related travel, because it had occurred to me that his name etched in stone might bring it home.

The mans name is Nichols.


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.