Which Bridge to Cross

You would be hard pressed to find any structure more metaphorical than a bridge: building bridges unites people, burning them creates division. There’s a bridge over troubled water, and water under the bridge. The same bridge that links a city to its homeland today may also cut it off tomorrow. Time is the bridge between now and then. And so it goes.

Naturally, there are many types of bridges in existence, some created by geography, others constructed by people. The appeal of accessing an island or any remote area otherwise cut off by water seems to be universal. Bridges also serve to mend great tears in the landscape, spanning canyons, valleys, and existing roadways.

I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.

Artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi 1720-1778

The history of bridge building in the world has always been characterized by the quest for better design and strength. The oldest surviving bridge, on the road between Epidavros and Nafplio in Greece, has stood for well over three thousand years. It is, of course, built of stone, a material that, along with iron and steel, has ensured the longevity of many bridges since. Roads in Britain still follow much of the map established by the Roman Empire, but their bridges were mainly constructed of timber and have long since disappeared, as ephemeral as the rivers that flowed beneath them.

Medieval bridges leading into towns also served as fortifications. The location of many of these bridges can be known by tracing the funds required to build and maintain them, which were generally put up by boroughs (via taxes), wealthy lords or the church. It was not uncommon to find a chapel built on a bridge or on the bank at either end; before Georgian times in England, one could see shops crowded along bridges, especially in larger cities, such as York, Bristol, and London.

The Industrial Revolution inspired major advances in bridge technology in Europe and in America. In the US, engineers experimented with different models, beginning in the 1850s and leading to established standards by the 1890s. Early bridge designs, often prototypes for later projects, capture specific moments in history.

Historic bridges in the United States are defined by their eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, established in 1966. Near Frederick, Maryland, you can visit three charming covered bridges, all built around the same time (1846-1856), and all registered since 1978.

Indeed, the design and construction of a specific bridge is both a snapshot of a moment in architectural history and a view into the preoccupations and priorities of the society that built it. The need for a bridge and the will to erect, maintain, and repair it over time often mobilized entire communities. Utica Mills began life as a two span bridge over one river, but after the Johnstown Flood washed it away in 1889, it was resurrected as a single span bridge over Fishing Creek. Loys Station was almost completely destroyed when someone set a pickup truck on fire on its deck as part of an insurance fraud scheme.

Any old bridge will generally tell a story about our past.

Nathan Holth

Throughout its lifetime, every bridge becomes a stage on which a cast of thousands act out their individual scenes. It is likely, for instance, that Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry crossed Roddy Road Covered Bridge in 1863 during the Gettysburg campaign of the Civil War. Since that time, the bridge has suffered damage and been repaired on many occasions, always as a result of citizens’ efforts. In 1992, a truck jammed into the bridge’s roof and truss. With the help of many volunteers and a local company, Heavy Timber Construction, the bridge was restored to its original condition in 1993.

The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, opened in 1883, was the first suspension bridge to use steel wire cables instead of iron. Sailors accustomed to high rigging were hired to string the 1,500 suspenders for the deck.

The risk above the bridge was matched by the danger below. To build the two giant stone towers, timber caissons were sunk deep into the riverbed and filled with concrete by crews of men in air-locked dungeons. Digging until they reached bedrock, some of the workers (dubbed “sand hogs”) were ultimately afflicted by decompression sickness, the same hazard risked by deep-water divers when rising to the surface too quickly. The condition disabled Brooklyn’s engineer, Washington A. Roebling, resulting in the completion of the work by proxy through his wife Emily, also a trained engineer. All told, at least 20 people lost their lives in the 14 years it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge.

Capturing the moment is the photographer’s interest also, but mainstream photography has usually focussed on the subject and its treatment. Film isn’t the most tactile or flexible medium. Processing requires planning and the results depend largely on a rather distant manipulation of the elements, literally fumbling around in the dark with tongs and hypersensitive chemicals.

With the emergence of digital photography, the potential for image altering and editing becomes infinite. In some ways, this plethora of options could be interpreted as freedom from the limitations imposed by more archaic methods, but it also adds such complexity that a single vision becomes difficult to achieve. Push against this medium and it doesn’t push back – it adapts and expands. Only the artist can decide which moment out of a million is worth preserving.

In her work, photographer Jane Linders revisits the relationship between subject, medium, and process. A cyanotype of the Brooklyn Bridge is printed on a page torn from a 1939 Sheet Metal Handbook. Cyanotype prints are a crude photographic process during which an absorbent surface is soaked in a solution of water, potassium ferricyanide, and ferric ammonium citrate to render it photosensitive. Objects or negatives are placed on this surface and exposed to light (traditionally sunlight) and then the material is rinsed with water. The result is a white print on a blue background. The process was widely used for copying architectural plans, the origin of the term blue print, and adds an additional layer of interest to Linders’ series of architecturally themed images.

Polaroid image transfers are created by migrating the dyes in the emulsion of a peel apart print to a receptor surface such as watercolour paper. The resulting one-of-a-kind image looks like a combination of photography and painting.

Beginning a study of historic bridges is to embark on a journey that can literally take the traveller all over the world. Many fascinating adventures can be planned by researching and mapping the location of bridges you might wish to explore. When you find one, there is much to be discovered about the bridge itself, from background information about its construction, to its purpose and all of the details that make up its structure.

Unfortunately, bridges that aren’t protected by public institutions such as the National Register of Historic Places risk falling into disrepair, leading generally to demolition. Historic bridges are an endangered resource that require protection and funding for upkeep. Nevertheless, they constitute a surprisingly rich and interesting collection with a mystique that appeals to all generations. Best of all, they are accessible. You don’t need a ticket to see a bridge, although you may sometimes have to pay a toll to get to the other side.


Abutment: Part of the substructure of a bridge that holds up each end

Pier: A support between the abutments

Caisson: A filled metal tube that acts as a pier

Span: A section of the bridge between the piers and abutments

Skew: An angled bridge

Deck: Bridge surface that carries traffic

Truss: Triangular framework often constructed of metal

Plaque: A decorative label placed on a bridge to identify the bridge builder and often including officials, contractors, and engineers.