History, Preservation, Road Trips

An illustrated history of the American road bridge, part 2

1914 Leeper Bridge, South Bend, Indiana

1914 Leeper Bridge, South Bend, Indiana

This is the final part of this two-part series about bridges in the United States. See Part 1 hereAs the automobile became popular, the nation’s network of unpaved, narrow roads became insufficient — and so did the narrow stone, iron, and wooden bridges on them. State and local highway departments began to be formed during the 1910s to address the situation. Over time, they paved, straightened, leveled, and widened roads, and built new, wider bridges.

Reinforced concrete construction became a reality during the early 20th century. Concrete had existed before that — the Romans built some bridges with an early form of concrete. But it didn’t become a major player in infrastructure until the automobile era. Iron and steel truss bridges have a certain beauty to them, but that beauty is largely borne of function. In contrast, concrete can be formed for beauty. This ornate 1914 bridge in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, carries Michigan St., former US 31, over the St. Joseph River. The lamps on the bridge are reproductions of the original lamps installed when the bridge was built.

1906 Jefferson Blvd Bridge, South Bend, Indiana

1906 Jefferson Blvd Bridge, South Bend, Indiana

South Bend is known for its beautiful bridges. This lovely structure carries Jefferson Blvd. over the St. Joe in South Bend.

1935 concrete-arch bridge, Decatur County, Indiana

1935 concrete-arch bridge, Decatur County, Indiana

Many concrete-arch bridges are utilitarian, like this one. It was built in 1935 to carry US 421 north of Greensburg, Indiana. It features a 20-foot-wide deck, typical of the period. But standard road and bridge widths have done nothing but grow since then – today, 12-foot-wide lanes are the norm, and specifications call for shoulders even on bridges.

This bridge carried only local traffic for a few decades, ever since I-74 was built nearby and US 421 was routed onto it. But several years ago Honda built a plant about a mile and a half down the road; they manufacture Civic sedans there. It brought truck traffic down this old highway and across this bridge, which had received poor ratings on its last inspection. Repairs on a too-narrow bridge probably didn’t make sense, and this old bridge was replaced in 2014.

1951 Cataract Lake Bridge, Owen County, Indiana

1951 Cataract Lake Bridge, Owen County, Indiana

Sometimes, an old bridge gets renovated rather than replaced, like this great open-spandrel concrete arch bridge over Cataract Lake south of Putnamville, Indiana. A spandrel is the space between the arch and the deck. The concrete-arch bridges I’ve shown so far feature closed spandrels – you can’t see through them, like you can on this bridge. Open spandrels can create an air of grace.

1923 Brush Creek Bridge, Cherokee County, Kansas

1923 Brush Creek Bridge, Cherokee County, Kansas

What’s unfortunate about these open-spandrel bridges is that when you drive over them, their beauty is beneath you, out of sight. Fortunately, concrete is enormously versatile and can be formed into other bridge shapes, with above-deck beauty. This bridge on Route 66 west of Galena, Kansas, is of a type called both a rainbow arch and a Marsh arch, named for its designer, James Marsh. Bridges of this style were once very common across the Midwest. This one is far too narrow for modern traffic. Fortunately, this bridge was left intact when a new, wider bridge was built nearby.

1933 William H. Murray Bridge, Canadian and Caddo Counties, Oklahoma

1933 William H. Murray Bridge, Canadian and Caddo Counties, Oklahoma

Concrete is great, but you just can’t beat steel truss bridges for adding character to a highway. This is one of my favorite: a 3,944-foot-long, 38-span pony-truss bridge that crosses the South Canadian River west of El Reno, Oklahoma, on old Route 66. It is just a delight to drive across it and experience all of those yellow trusses whizzing by at speed.

Unfortunately, it is slated for replacement. It’s another case of a too-narrow deck and a poor ratings at its last inspection. Here’s hoping this great bridge is left in place and a new bridge built alongside it. What would be even better is if this bridge could be fully restored and used for traffic in one direction, while a new bridge carries traffic the other way.

1941 Astronaut David Wolf Bridge, Indianapolis, Indiana

That’s what the city of Indianapolis did with its last steel truss bridge, which was built in 1941. In those days, the city hadn’t annexed this area yet. These were the boondocks. But this road was important enough to be a state highway, and the state built this bridge. Today, it’s in the middle of one of Indianapolis’s major shopping destinations. To handle the traffic, the city widened this road to four lanes – and restored this bridge and built a standard-issue concrete bridge next to it. Eastbound traffic flows across this old bridge. I shot this video to record the joyful experience of driving over a truss bridge.

1931 Xenia Bridge, Carroll County, Indiana

1931 Xenia Bridge, Carroll County, Indiana

A great thing about iron and steel truss bridges is that they can often be disassembled and reassembled on a new site. When Indiana has needed to replace its truss highway bridges, it has been pretty good about offering them for reuse. I found this former highway bridge on a back road southeast of Delphi, Indiana.

1913 Houck Iron Bridge, now called Gray Bridge, Putnam County, Indiana

1913 Houck Iron Bridge, now called Gray Bridge, Putnam County, Indiana

I got to see one reused truss bridge in its original and new locations. The Houck Iron Bridge was on a back road northeast of Greencastle, Indiana. It had been unsafe and closed to traffic for a long time when I came upon it. The county eventually got around to replacing it.

1913 Gray Bridge, née Houck Iron Bridge, Delphi, Indiana

1913 Gray Bridge, née Houck Iron Bridge, Delphi, Indiana

Fortunately, the town of Delphi wanted it. They had it disassembled and shipped north about 70 miles to their town, where it was restored and reassembled on the town’s extensive trail system. It’s now known as the Gray Bridge, to match its gray coat of paint.

1923 Devils Elbow Bridge, Pulaski County, Missouri

1923 Devils Elbow Bridge, Pulaski County, Missouri

Some bridges are restored in place. This is the bridge at Devils Elbow in Missouri, on old Route 66. I snapped this shot in 2013 before its restoration. I’ll have to go back one day to capture it in its renewed glory.

1892 O’Neal Bridge, Boone County, Indiana

1892 O’Neal Bridge, Boone County, Indiana

This bridge on a back road in Boone County, Indiana, was restored in about 2010.

1925 & 1933 concrete-arch bridge, Indianapolis, Indiana

1925 & 1935 concrete-arch bridge, Indianapolis, Indiana

Some bridges just aren’t very lucky. This concrete-arch bridge was built with two lanes in 1925, and two more lanes were added in 1935. It carried US 52 for decades, until that highway was routed around the city on an Interstate beltway. The city took over the old road, including this bridge – and then ignored the bridge until it was in deplorable condition. From a cost perspective, this was a smart move: they would have had to pay for all of the maintenance, but the Feds would pay for a huge chunk of replacing it. The city saved big by letting this bridge crumble away.

1925 & 1933 concrete arch bridge, Indianapolis, Indiana

1925 & 1933 concrete arch bridge, Indianapolis, Indiana

I live near this bridge and documented its destruction. This is when I learned that a closed-spandrel concrete-arch bridge is filled with dirt! I was sad to see this bridge go, but it really had become a basket case and demolition was the only solution I could see.

1925 SR 37 bridge, Morgan County, Indiana

1925 SR 37 bridge, Morgan County, Indiana

Even though truss bridges can often be disassembled and moved, that’s not always enough to save them. This three-span pony truss bridge used to carry State Road 37 north of Bloomington, Indiana. A new alignment of 37 was built about 40 years ago, leaving this bridge to carry local traffic. It, too, was badly neglected, and at its last inspection it was called “basically intolerable” and was put on the demolition list. It’s closed to traffic today, awaiting its replacement.

1893 Bridgeport Bridge, Ohio County, West Virginia, and Belmont County, Ohio

1893 Bridgeport Bridge, Ohio County, West Virginia, and Belmont County, Ohio

Sometimes, they’re simply too far gone to be saved. This unusual, ornate bridge of wrought iron once carried the National Road and US 40 across the Ohio River backchannel between Wheeling Island in West Virginia and Bridgeport, Ohio. Its narrow deck and terrible condition made it a target for replacement, and a modern concrete slab bridge was built alongside it during probably the 1990s. This bridge was then left to rot. In an illicit mission a few months before this bridge bit the dust, I walked out onto it – tricky and stupid, as the deck had been removed – to have a look. I’m no civil engineer, but it looked like a basket case to me, with rotted structural members everywhere. Some of my bridge-loving colleagues say that the rot could have been cost-effectively replaced in a restoration. Maybe they were right, but it’s moot now: this video shows its demolition.

2011 Main Street Bridge, Columbus, OH

2011 Main Street Bridge, Columbus, OH

Plain bridges are built so often today because they are cost-effective to construct and maintain. But beautiful bridges can still get built. It just takes leaders with a vision – and money.

The city of Columbus, Ohio, is committed to enhancing the downtown view along the Scioto River by building beautiful bridges of many kinds. I happened to be in Columbus on the day this inclined arch suspension bridge over Main Street opened to two-way traffic. It cost a whopping $60 million to build, which I gather is still a sore subject with the locals. But look at what an architectural legacy they’ve built for the generations to come, a signature of this city, a structure that helps distinguish Columbus among other cities of its size.

Beautiful bridges can’t always be saved, can’t always be built. But isn’t it great when it happens?

A slightly different version of this post appeared last week at Curbside Classic.

History, Preservation, Road Trips

An illustrated history of the American road bridge, part 1


1828 stone-arch “S bridge” and 1932 concrete-arch bridge, Blaine, Ohio

Rivers, streams, lakes, and valleys have always hindered our ability to get from here to there. That’s why bridge building has been a fundamental human engineering activity since the dawn of civilization. We humans have always been a resourceful species that doesn’t let obstacles stand in our way! But thanks to the automobile, modern times have brought bridge building to a stupefying scope and scale. Unfortunately, it’s often been at the cost of aesthetics.

This is the first of two articles outlining the history of road bridges in the United States. Today, Part 1 details the kinds of bridges built before the automobile era. On Wednesday, Part 2 will show the rapid evolution of the bridge during the automobile era, as well as how the automobile has played a role in so many older bridges being lost to history — and efforts to save some of those that remain.


Modern steel-and-concrete bridge, Shoals, Indiana

Most bridges built today are some variation on this, generally built of steel beams and supported by T-shaped piers. They’re cost effective to build and maintain — critical components of any engineering effort. Unfortunately, they also utterly lack character. From the side, they look as utilitarian as a kitchen appliance. Driving over them, except for the concrete barriers on either edge, you might not even know you are on a bridge.

That hasn’t always been the case. In times gone by, beautiful bridges have been made of wood, stone, and exposed iron and steel.


1913 stone-arch bridge, Ripley County, Indiana

Stone has been used since ancient times. Arches are naturally strong, and stones can obviously be arranged to create them. This little one-lane stone bridge on a rural road north of Madison, Indiana, is a latecomer, having been built in about 1913.

1828 stone-arch “S” bridge, Guernsey County, Ohio

1828 stone-arch “S” bridge, Guernsey County, Ohio

Even in the stone-bridge age, engineers were constrained by cost. It is more complicated and expensive to build and maintain a bridge that crosses a stream at an angle, but roads don’t always reach the stream perfectly perpendicularly. So sometimes bridges were constructed to cross a stream squarely, with approaches built at angles to connect with the road. This created an S shape, which is why these are called S bridges. Most of those that remain are in Ohio, like this one on a former alignment of US 40 east of Old Washington. It carried traffic from its completion in 1828 until 2013, when structural worries forced its closing.  The stone bridge pictured at the top of this post is another S bridge that once carried US 40, near Blaine, Ohio.


1819 stone-arch bridge, Washington County, Maryland

The oldest remaining bridges in the United States are pretty much all made of stone. This bridge west of Hagerstown, Maryland was built in 1819. It carried US 40 until 1937. If you’re wondering why I’m showing you all of these stone bridges along US 40, it’s because from Maryland to Illinois, US 40 laid out (with a few exceptions) over the old National Road, the nation’s first federally funded road, built in the early 1800s. Those were prime stone-bridge years in the United States.

1813 stone-arch bridge, Garrett County, Maryland

1813 stone-arch bridge, Garrett County, Maryland

An even older stone bridge carried the National Road over the Casselman River in western Maryland. It was completed in 1813. Its unusually high arch was meant to allow boats to pass under. It became part of US 40 in 1926, and even though a newer US 40 bridge was built just downriver in 1933, this bridge carried traffic until 1956. It is open only to pedestrians today.


1849-60 suspension bridge, Wheeling, West Virginia

Stone bridges can span gaps only so long, however. The Ohio River is more than 1,000 feet wide where the National Road meets it in Wheeling, West Virginia. Bigger engineering guns were required to span that a gap. And so the famous Wheeling Suspension Bridge was built, the state of the engineering art upon its 1849 completion. The challenge with the state of the art is that the kinks might not be worked out yet: the deck collapsed in 1854. It was rebuilt by 1860.


1849-60 suspension bridge, Wheeling, West Virginia

I walked out onto the deck for this shot. Cars can still drive over this bridge, but at a top speed of 50 miles per hour, and separated by a good 100 feet.


1875 Medora Covered Bridge, Jackson County, Indiana

Other types of bridges were built through the 19th century, most of them of wood or iron. Probably the best-known kind of wood bridge is the covered bridge. The cover is largely to protect the wooden trusses from the weather. You don’t want load-bearing wooden members to rot! This is the Medora Covered Bridge, near the little town of Medora in southeastern Indiana, and it sports a fresh cover. The covers, being subjected to the deteriorating effects of rain and sun, needed to be replaced from time to time.


1875 Medora Covered Bridge, Jackson County, Indiana

It’s not very often you get to see a covered bridge undressed! This is what the Medora bridge looked like after its old cover was stripped away. This bridge hasn’t carried traffic in decades; the state highway that it once carried now bypasses this old bridge on a modern steel-beam bridge.


2006 Bridgeton Covered Bridge, Parke County, Indiana

It’s also not too often you get to see brand-new wooden bridge trusses. The 1868 covered bridge in Bridgeton, Indiana, was destroyed by arson in 2005. It had been a centerpiece of the many, many covered bridges in Parke County and a feature of the annual Covered Bridge Festival, so locals immediately rebuilt it to original specifications. I’m sure this bridge could support traffic, but like the Medora bridge, it is only a popular tourist attraction today. After it opened, I went right out and got this photograph. The curved members are Burr arch trusses, a truss type common among Indiana covered bridges but unusual elsewhere.


Ca 1920 wooden bridge, Jennings County, Indiana

Some wooden bridges were not covered, like this bridge in Jennings County, Indiana. It was built about 1920 to elevate a road over a railroad track, known in the biz as a “grade separation.” 1920 was mighty late for a new wooden bridge, but railroads still sometimes built them even that late. Sadly, this bridge was demolished a few years ago when nearby US 50 was realigned.

Believe it or not, this bridge actually carried US 50 for a while after the US highway system was created in 1926. It carried Indiana State Road 4 for nine years before that. Cars created demand for highways, and states had little choice but to route highways over existing roads. Frequently, the best roads available were unpaved and featured narrow bridges.


1903 Washington Road bridge, Knox and Daviess Counties, Indiana

All of these bridges were built for the light, slow traffic of horse riders, animal-drawn wagons, and pedestrians. As cars became increasingly popular, they overwhelmed the inherited infrastructure. This 420-foot-long one-lane bridge, built in 1903, carried the first alignment of US 50 between the Indiana towns of Washington and Vincennes a quarter century later. Can you imagine encountering an oncoming car here? Nationwide, state highway departments were formed to improve roads and bridges to suit the new kinds and volumes of traffic they were getting.

But meanwhile, wood truss bridges had given way to iron and steel trusses, and were the dominant bridge type by the early 1900s. Virtually all of them featured wooden decks, however. When you see a steel deck like the one on this bridge, you can be certain that it was a later replacement. This steel deck was probably installed with a renovation of this bridge in 2006.

1891 Cooper Iron Bridge, Putnam County, Indiana

1891 Cooper Iron Bridge, Putnam County, Indiana

Interestingly, bridges like these can sometimes be moved to new locations. This 1891 iron bridge was built to carry the National Road near Putnamville, Indiana. (It still wears a wooden deck, but it’s certainly just the latest of several replacements.) When a wider concrete bridge was built in about 1923 to carry this road, this bridge was moved, I believe intact, about a quarter mile up the creek to span this county road.

1887 Whipple through truss bridge, Aurora, Indiana

1887 Whipple through truss bridge, Aurora, Indiana

Truss bridges come in many types. Through trusses – the kind with connecting members over your head – are the most common, and there are dozens of types of through trusses. Pony trusses (no overhead members) are probably the next most common type. There are even bridges with trusses under the deck. The many truss variants have names: Pratt, Parker, Howe, Camelback, Warren, Fink, Bowstring, Baltimore, King, Waddell, K, Pettit, Pennsylvania, and others. This 1887 bridge in the Ohio River town of Aurora in Indiana is a Whipple truss.

On Wednesday, in Part 2, the kinds of bridges built as the automobile became popular – and how that doomed so many of the bridges described in Part 1.

A slightly different version of this post appeared last week at Curbside Classic.

Old cars, Photography

Sleepless among classic cars

I dragged my butt to the Mecum Spring Classic muscle-car auction this year. I normally go excited and energized, but this year I’d had an unexpected, serious case of insomnia the night before. I got no sleep whatsoever before I had to get up and drive my kids across town so they could get to school on time. I drove from there to Margaret’s, as she was going along to see the cars with me this year. I slept hard on her couch for an hour and a half, but then sleep eluded me again.

Insomnia and I go way back. When it visits, I just go with it. I read, or watch TV, or clean, or surf the Net. I usually get drowsy enough to sleep within a few hours. If I don’t, I go about my day as best I can. And so even on next to no sleep, we drove on down to the fairgrounds to take in the cars. I was groggy and dizzy and headachy all day, but I still managed to have some fun.

Even though the Mecum is primarily a muscle-car auction, many other kinds of old cars are on hand. I go to see those cars, actually. Every year, I see cars I’ve read about, or seen in photos, but have never seen in person. This year, that car was this 1927 Hupmobile.

1927 Hupmobile

I’ve seen plenty of Ramblers, though; they weren’t uncommon when I was a boy. I find this ’60 Rambler Super’s angular lines strangely alluring.

1960 Rambler Super

I love Ford trucks of this body style. My grandpa had one when I was very small. This one’s from 1967.

1967 Ford F100

Also from 1967, here’s a screaming red Pontiac Bonneville convertible. This car is about 18 feet long. You could park my Ford Focus on its hood, I’m sure.

1967 Pontiac Bonneville

VW Buses were pretty common during my 1970s kidhood, but the pickups on that chassis were not. So I was glad to see this ’70 Transporter.

1970 Volkswagen Transporter II

I love station wagons. There can’t be many ’72 Buick Sport Wagons left. Modern car design tends to push the rear wheels way out to the back of the vehicle, so it’s odd to see so much overhang behind the rear wheels of this Buick.

1972 Buick Sport Wagon

Margaret was taken with this ’72 Fiat 500. We both towered over it.

1972 Fiat 500

This is the first car we saw at the auction, a ’73 Chevy Impala two-door hardtop. It seems strange today, but in those days, full-sized cars came with many different roofs: hardtop (no pillar behind the front door) and pillared, four-door and two-door. And Chevy had two two-door rooflines. This one was the sportier of the two, and was called the Sports Roof. This one looks factory fresh, down to those awesome wheel covers that were typical of the period. Dad had a ’71 Impala with this roof. It was the most unreliable car we owned.

1973 Chevrolet Impala

I’m sharing this one just because it’s so over the top: a ’74 Ford Ranchero Squire, in double brown with a brown interior. This enormous vehicle was considered mid-sized in its time.

1974 Ford Ranchero Squire

A study in opposites: this 1976 Citroen CX. This car is cram-packed with engineering innovation, including a hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension and variable-assist power steering. US auto regulations prohibited such things then, so Citroen couldn’t legally sell them here. But they were very popular in Europe, being made from 1974 to 1991.

1976 Citroen CX

We stayed but a few hours. I normally stay all day, but finally I couldn’t hold out anymore. A nap was in my immediate future. Mercifully, blissfully, I slept through the night that night.

I’ll share my favorite car from the auction in an upcoming post.

I go to the Mecum every year. Here are posts from past years: here and here and here and here and here and here.


Continental hood ornament

1956 Continental hood ornament
Nikon F2AS (review), 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Plus-X Pan

Old cars, Photography

Imagining the stories behind old photographs of cars that weren’t that old yet


Even for someone who doesn’t love cars like I do, a new car can be a point of pride of pleasure. How many of us have photographs of ourselves with our new cars shortly after we got them? Perhaps that’s why this smiling woman was photographed with her 1966 Falcon. The Kodachrome slide from which I scanned this image is dated October, 1968, so if my guesses are right she bought this car used.


This slide from January, 1967, shows that the same family also bought a brand new 1967 Mercury Colony Park. At least in the late ‘60s, this family was loyal to Ford. About 30 years later I bought a Mercury wagon, too – but it’s the only car I’ve owned that I never photographed. I wasn’t terribly excited to own it so I didn’t take a “look at my new car!” photograph, and I didn’t own it for long enough for it to end up in the background of a photograph of something else.


Our cars do commonly wind up in the frame as we photograph the scenes from our lives. This young couple, newlyweds perhaps, look to be ready to load this box into their ’50 Chevy. The ’64 Falcon that lurks in the background of this undated slide makes this Chevy a very used car, just the kind of thing two kids starting out would own.


Just-married kids who do well eventually move up to a newer car and a starter home, like this ’60 Ford parked in this driveway. Not that this Ford was all that new; this slide was taken in February of 1967. But this photo is just the perfect image of the kind of suburban conformity that was starting to be challenged at this time.


Kids come sooner or later, and of course we take copious photographs of them. Sometimes our cars are the backdrop, or are even an integral part of the photo. This fellow proudly holds up his child in the cab of his ’65 F-100 in a slide dated July, 1968. This kid is about my age now! Of course, this young’un lived a more rural experience than the suburbanites above. And you know he’s from Illinois because it says so on his truck. I guess it was the law in Illinois for many years that farm trucks had to have such identification painted on the door.


This undated slide of a Karmann-Ghia looks to have been taken on a military barracks. Could this be a German-spec Karmann photographed on a US base in Germany by a soldier who decided not to ship his car back home and wanted to remember his good times driving it? Probably not; the cars in the background don’t look very European. But it’s fun to imagine the stories behind old photographs and slides that you find.


I recently bought an inexpensive negative and slide scanner to quickly scan in all my old negatives, which go all the way back to 1976. It doesn’t do pro-quality work, but it’s good enough for my shoebox full of snapshots. I decided to review the gadget here in an upcoming post, so I bought these old slides on eBay for a few dollars to round out the review. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to find old slides featuring what are now very old cars. I saved what I think is the best for last – the oldest slide I bought, undated but based on the style of the slide mount from no later than 1952, of this woman showing off her 1950 Pontiac Silver Streak convertible. My smile would be a mile wide, too, if I owned such a gorgeous car.

I posted a version of this on the old-car site Curbside Classic, too.

Old cars, Photography

Car parts on Kodak T-Max 400

I love both of Kodak’s ISO 400 black-and-white films, Tri-X and T-Max, but for different reasons: Tri-X when I want that grainy look, and T-Max when I don’t. I didn’t when I photographed the cars at May’s Mecum auction.


As happy as I was to shoot Plus-X at the auction (see photos here), I was a little happier when I finished that roll and could load the roll of T-Max I had in my pocket. I knew that the relatively low-speed Plus-X (ISO 125) and my 50mm f/2 lens, which because of piddling available light I was shooting at or near f/2, were giving me very little margin for focusing error. Even then, bumping the ISO up to 400 improved the situation only slightly.


I tried to use that narrow focus range to my best advantage. Thank heavens my Nikon F2AS has depth-of-field preview so I had some idea of whether I hit the sweet spot or not.

Lady Ornament

Perhaps I need to buy a 50mm f/1.4 lens to give me an extra stop of exposure. But I might trade that stop for shooting the lens one stop shy of wide open, to see if I could get a little better sharpness.

Falcon Corner

But then, perhaps that wouldn’t be needed, as Nikon’s prime lenses are heralded for good sharpness corner to corner even when wide open. Given that used Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lenses usually go for north of $100, however, I’m not likely to find out any time soon. My money has other things to do right now.

Inside the Bus

And the f/2 lens is plenty sweet, anyway. 50mm f/2 lenses are almost always the unsung heroes of any system’s prime lenses. They can usually be picked up for a song, because most people would rather have a sub-f/2 lens.

Country Squire

The shot above shows just how narrow of an in-focus patch I was working with.