Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Retired bridge becomes retro art

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GREAT BARRINGTON — I'm a "pontist," to use Eric DeLony's word. The late chief, Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, used the term in his marvelous book, "Landmark American Bridges." It means "to be very interested in bridges." DeLony sent me an inscribed copy of his book in 1993, praising my research and writings about Berkshire bridges. Local history is part of national history.

Metal highway bridges were one of my early local history passions. In the late 1970s my wife, Donna, and I scoured the county's back roads and catalogued surviving small truss bridges. We made a trip to the Smithsonian Institution where then curator of mechanical and civil engineering, Museum of American History, Robert Vogel gave us entry to his inner sanctum and some of his files. He was a fellow pontist.

There were a dozen active metal bridges in the 1970s. Today my count is five, two in original position and none carrying motor vehicle traffic.

The bridges earned deserved retirement for a century or more of public service. Sometimes retirement was a quick trip to the scrapyard. Great Barrington officials however mothballed the 1888 Berlin Iron Bridge Co. lenticular pony truss on Pumpkin Hollow Road in the 1990s and replaced it with a new timber pony truss bridge made by Laminated Concept of New York.

All six Housatonic River crossings in Great Barrington were once distinctive Berlin "pumpkinseed" bridges, also nicknamed "fish-belly," "ellipical" and "double bowstring" bridges. The spans in Great Barrington were one by one replaced due to flood damage or general disrepair. This was the last surviving 19th century metal bridge in town. Aware of its historical merits — some imparted in news stories by this then-reporter for The Berkshire Courier — town officials mentioned possibly relocating the old span elsewhere in town.

The Berlin bridge in its original purpose replaced another on Pumpkin Hollow Road that had washed out in a spring freshet. According to The Berkshire Courier for April 25, 1888, Berlin's was the lowest bid submitted, $1,172. "The bridge is to be one span of 55 feet and a 12-foot roadway," the newspaper said.

PRAISE FOR BUILDER

The selectmen in 1888 were pleased with the new bridge. The chairman, lawyer Abel Chalkley Collins, gushed in a letter reprinted in a Berlin Iron Bridge catalog: "Gentlemen — Your letter of some days since was duly received. We now have nine iron bridges in this town built by your company, and one a Pratt truss, built by another company. The fact that the contract for our new iron bridge in 1888 was awarded to your company, several others competing for it, shows that after years of trial, we still consider your bridges among the best."

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The design is from William O. Douglas's 1878 U.S Patent No. 202,526. I gleaned considerable history of the company from the late Victor C. Darnell, retired engineer with Berlin Construction Co. Berlin's fabrication methods relied on pin connections, he told me in 1978, with some secondary connections field riveted. This allowed for compact transportation to a site and rapid assembly. As the eye-bar lower chords could not be cantilevered out over a riverway, falsework was vital to the erection of the parabolic spans.

Robins Fleming, writing in Engineering News-Record in 1928, said "fabrication was simple" though "an objection to the parabolic bridge was its lack of stiffness." This tendency to "spring" when carrying traffic was often criticized and no doubt led to some early and unnecessary replacements over the years.

A quarter century since it was lifted from its abutments and stored at an old landfill, the Great Barrington bridge has returned to conditional service — as railings to an entry walkway for a commercial building on Main Street. The building, the decommissioned 1845 Methodist Church (enlarged in 1892), was sold by the diminished congregation in 2015. Developer Paul Joffe raised the structure eight feet and built a new basement — prompting its nickname, the "Flying Church" — and added onto two sides to create space for a restaurant and several retail and commercial tenants.

Watching its installation on June 13, Joffe acknowledged the bridge's pin-connected construction was a potential problem if riggers weren't careful in lifting the sides. Fortunately the town's highway engineer in 1994 had the foresight to secure it with timbers and bolts, making it temporarily rigid.

"I hope people notice it," he said.

No worry, given its very visible placement.

Joffe held an open house July 6. Brian Brenner, principal bridge engineer for Tighe & Bond civil engineers in Westwood, Mass, who had blogged about the bridge through Engineering News-Record, christened the old span in its new location. Pop, the champagne bottle smashed against a rock. He said the reuse serves a practical purpose but also creates a living museum exhibit for present and future generations unaware of our engineering history.

Brenner and I chatted a few minutes, exchanged a few bridge nuggets. He was so pleased, as a history buff as well as bridge engineer, to see the trusses on new public display. So was I. We're pontists.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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