Road Trips, Stories Told

Art in steel

My junior year in college I used to bum rides to Bloomington to see my girlfriend. I made a lot of trips down State Road 46 and came to know the road well. The halfway point was the Eel River near Bowling Green, marked by a pale green steel bridge, the kind with all the beams over your head as you drive through. I had never much paid attention to bridges before, but when this one became a milestone I started to look forward to it. Eventually, I came to appreciate it.

Old US 31 Bridge, Peru, IN

I was in engineering school at the time, studying mathematics. My friends in the engineering disciplines were all busy designing things, and because I could see the work that went into their projects I came to appreciate the engineering work that went into this steel truss bridge. I even learned a little bit about how the steel structure supported the weight of the cars that passed over, distributing the load throughout.

Steel truss bridge near Poland, IN

So those beams were not decoration; every one was deliberately placed to do a job. Yet I enjoyed looking at them, studying them even, as much as I enjoyed experiencing the art the summer I worked in a museum.

Steel truss bridge near Poland, IN

Every trip brought a new bridge experience. As the sun’s angle and intensity varied trip to trip, so varied the shadows the bridge cast, revealing new detail every time, often calling attention to the river or its banks.

US 36 Wabash River bridge

Overcast days removed the warm shadows and brought focus to the structure itself, stoically doing its job.

Steel truss bridge, Mill Creek

After that girlfriend and I broke up I still had reasons to go to Bloomington and cross the bridge. Over the years, the bridge itself changed as rust slowly took it over. And then on one trip it sported a fresh coat of pale green paint, ready to rust anew.

I once met an artist named Christo. He and his wife Jeanne-Claude are famous for wrapping a million square feet of Australian coastline in synthetic fabric; hanging saffron-colored strips of cloth from saffron-colored vinyl poles in New York’s Central Park; and filling two valleys on separate continents with 26-foot-wide umbrellas, blue ones in Japan and yellow ones in California. Their individual works each mean to say things about specific subjects, but for me the thread that holds them together is how they draw attention to their environments, helping us see them with new eyes.

I haven’t been down that stretch of SR 46 in at least 15 years. These photos are of other steel truss bridges in Indiana. The first crosses the Wabash River in Peru on old US 31, the second and third carry SR 42 over the Eel River near Poland, the fourth is US 36 over the Wabash River in Montezuma, and the fifth carries SR 42 over Mill Creek west of Eminence. But thanks to Google Maps I know the SR 46 steel bridge is still there. Maybe next spring I’ll go back, and if I do I’ll be sure to take my camera and share photos with you here. But much like Christo’s work, photographs seldom do public art justice. Most Hoosiers will never experience Christo’s work in person, but almost all Hoosiers live within an easy drive of a steel truss bridge.

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6 thoughts on “Art in steel

  1. roadmaven says:

    One of the quickly disappearing images of two-lane travel is the character a steel truss bridge gives to a road. I recall sitting in Grey Brothers Cafeteria when I was a tot in the early 1970’s and staring out the window at the steel bridge that carried SR-67 traffic south out of Mooresville. One of those vivid, early images we all have in our early years of life. Also, one of the bridges in downtown Indy that went across the White River was a multi-truss bridge….I wish I could remember if it was 10th, Michigan, or New York Streets (IUPUI Data Viewer will answer that!). I remember sometime in the mid-70’s when they blew it up for its generic replacement. But, INDOT has a good program to help find good homes for bridges that need to be replaced: http://www.in.gov/indot/6742.htm

    I don’t know if it was part of this program, but the steel truss pedestrian bridge in Hummel Park in Plainfield used to carry county road traffic.

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  2. RM, that link sent me down a rabbit hole. I explored every bridge, looking them all up on Google Maps. Next thing I knew, 90 minutes were gone! I’m glad to know that there’s a program to preserve these bridges. New ones aren’t being built; the time for that kind of bridge is just gone. I strongly prefer to see steel bridges kept in their original places and used for traffic (like the David Wolf bridge on E 86th St. in Indy), but if that’s not possible I can happily live with moving it to a park or a trail.

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  3. HR: I should not be surprised that you know of Christo, but I wondered if any of my readers would. It was the 80s sometime. High school or college, I forget. My dad’s best friend directed the Snite Museum of Art at ND then. I met several artists who had exhibits there, but Christo is the only one I remember clearly. He had his own atmosphere; the whole tenor of the room changed when he entered. He shook my hand when my dad’s friend introduced me; it was perfunctory and he didn’t look directly at me.

    EB: I’ve seen that site before… did you send me a link to it sometime? I would love to be able to take photographs like that.

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  4. EB says:

    I did send a link before; that artist had an exhibition in Chicago. Here is one from NYC–you may actually prefer this one since it is bridges from all over the place….. Sounds as if the artist is Chicago-based.

    There is a poetry to bridges; they are archetypal. I find the Brooklyn Bridge fascinating–besides the fact that it is very distinct, it was also one of those “Hey, you can’t do that–that will never work” kind of projects. And of course it is still standing.

    It is especially astonishing when one considers that it was built before there were cranes, etc..

    But I also like one that connects the UP to lower Michigan.

    http://www.rolandkulla.com/ny1.html

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