SAVING OLD BRIDGES
by Allan King Sloan
We save old lamps, old paintings, old quilts, old teapots, old cotton gins, old baseball cards, and old cars as valuable "collectables" to be admired and treasured for their artistic and historic merit. We do the same with old houses and factories, particularly if they can be "reused" for some modern purpose. But what about old bridges? Obviously they pose a different problem, because they cannot be bought and carried home by some collector, nor can they be "occupied" by some admiring user. However, they are none-the -less valuable as artifacts of our history.
How then do old bridges get saved? Being put on a registry of historic places by an appropriate national, state or local agency is a start, but this may only insure that some process to determine the "historic value" of the structure has been recorded and it cannot be removed without some type of review and documentation. By far the surest way is that the structure be in the hands of an owner who has the "incentive for preservation". At present, many owners of old bridges, be they state and local highway or roads authorities, or railroads, have the "demolition incentive" -- that is they need to replace an old structure built for the horse and buggy era, or for a once profitable rail service, either to handle modern traffic, or to avoid liability in the case of abandonment. The exception are bridge structures which can still perform their function through major rehabilitation and maintenance. But it is usually only the great bridges of importance, like the Brooklyn Bridge, that are fortunate enough to receive this treatment.
The old bridges in the most danger are those whose owners have no "incentive for preservation" and which cannot perform a modern function. They are "in the way of progress" and few are willing or able to provide for their future. Those in the least danger have a strong "incentive for preservation" because the owner is or could receive benefits from the structure in the form of carrying some kind of traffic across a watercourse or other obstacle. Many old bridges with the best future are in parks where they play a role in the package of amenities available for visitors. Others are in locations where they can be used by hikers and bikers, or can be displayed as part of a visual or cultural experience to document a facet of local history.
Like old paintings and valuable silverware, many old bridges have "signatures". These appear in the form of a plaque or plate placed on the structure by the builder with a name and date, or indirectly in the design of the structure with certain key characteristic typical of the inventor or builder. Unfortunately, these latter signatures can be recognized only by a few experts in the field who known the difference between a "Pratt" and a "Whipple" truss or some other feature. In theory, the availability of a signature on an old bridge should increase its value to an owner, particularly if they were to know something about the history and importance of the designer or builder. The general public will flock to see works by Monet and DaVinci, and to see Faberge eggs and old cars designed by Cord and Maseratti. Will they also show interest in an old bridge if they knew it was designed by a Roebling, Eads, David Hammond, or Zenas King? So far we have no evidence either way, for old bridges have not yet made it into the world of valuable collectables.
In an effort to raise the consciousness of those interested in saving old bridges, we have been trying to track down the remaining bridges built by the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio founded by my great, great grandfather, Zenas King, in 1858 and active in building iron and steel bridges for over six decades until the 1920s. These bridges were built all over the country and represented a wide range of types from small bowstrings crossing streams to great cantilevers and swing bridges crossing great rivers. Few are left, but those that are could prove to be a valuable asset to those who own them.