A traveling covered-bridge show, and more
Readers of this column have been known to complain that it relies too heavily on bridges. But there are some things you just can’t get too much of, and bridges are one of them. Environmentalists often speak of “charismatic megafauna”—large, cute animals like pandas and dolphins that are indispensable in raising funds. When it comes to historic technology, bridges are charismatic megafauna, and the species with the greatest “Aaawwww!” factor is covered bridges.
In recognition of this, the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) have teamed up to develop an exhibit on covered bridges. It opened this spring in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is on view through October 15 at the Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, Vermont, and will travel to museums across America for the next three years. (For a schedule of future stops, see www.sites.si.edu .)
At last count some 800 covered bridges were left; Pennsylvania, with about a quarter of the total, has more than any other state. But they are disappearing at the rate of about five per year, as fire, natural processes, and the need for greater traffic capacity take their toll. Bridge lovers hope the SITES/ HAER exhibit will inspire more citizens to get involved in saving covered bridges in their communities.
Historians love just about any old bridge, but to the general public the case for preservation is weaker with ones that are less sexy. Consider the non-covered Zoarville Station Bridge in Dover, Ohio. In 1998 it was dismantled, stored, and moved in pieces to Camp Tuscazoar, a nearby youth camp.
For more than a decade Dave Tschantz, project manager for the restoration, has been sending updates to supporters of the project, filled with entries like “ODOT [Ohio Department of Transportation] advised that the costs of the abutment removal would be included in the TEA 21 grant” and “CTF [Camp Tuscazoar Foundation] was notified that the Ohio-Erie Trail would contribute $1,000 toward the approaches construction work.” Tschantz’s patient work has finally borne fruit, as contracts for restoration and reconstruction were awarded in June of this year, with work scheduled to be completed by the end of October. As Tschantz points out, saving the bridge has been a team effort from the start, with participation from “private and public organizations, groups and individuals, for-profit and not-for-profit, country folks and city slickers, blue collar and white collar, military and civilian, professors and students, and even conservatives and liberals.”
In Iowa, Rose Rohr, a member of the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission, has had a similar experience. Early in 2002 she received a call about a 296-foot bowstring truss bridge, dating from the 1870s, in the town of Hale that was scheduled for demolition. Could she help save it?
As Rohr writes in the Spring 2006 issue of the Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter , “I started this process with only one of five county supervisors in solid favor of preservation; it took four years of lobbying, raising grants, education, and constant effort to bring the other four into unanimous but cautious consent; some of their reservations were only set at ease when the bridge finally reached its new location and was no longer their problem. Meanwhile, we had a county engineer who could not see the value of this old bridge, and an auditor who did not see the cultural value, just the expense of it.”
After countless hearings, proposals, applications, and filings, as well as much persuasion, the necessary permits and approvals were secured, land was acquired, and materials and services were donated. At long last, the bridge was moved by helicopter to its new site in Wapsipinicon State Park this March. It is scheduled to reopen in September.
All these projects show that bureaucratic engineering can be just as difficult and complicated as structural engineering. Yet as slow and frustrating as it sometimes gets, the process of courting officials and patiently building support, if done properly, can be a learning experience in both directions—educating members of the public about the importance of what’s being preserved while at the same time helping officials learn about their needs and concerns. As this exchange occurs, preservationists often find new ways to make technological history interesting and relevant. Just as saving manatees may lead citizens to get involved in saving Florida’s entire ecosystem, so too may preserving a historic bridge lead them to a greater appreciation of the importance of saving all of technology’s rich history.
—Frederic D. Schwarz
Bang! Bang! You’re History!
It’s no surprise that after leaving the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, the exhibit “Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention” will travel to museums in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and eastern Washington. Colt, who made his fortune manufacturing pistols in Hartford, is a natural subject of interest in the West, where his rugged revolver was once known as the Peacemaker. In the Northeast, however, an exhibit about firearms is a much tougher sell; you might just as well set up a NASCAR souvenir stand in Harvard Square. Yet there was a lot more to Colt than guns. As Jack Kelly wrote in our Fall 2004 issue, he was instrumental in showing the world how to produce goods in large quantities using interchangeable parts.
The exhibit, which is scheduled to open at the Wadsworth Atheneum on September 20 and remain until March 2007, contains arms of all sorts, including counterfeits and infringements of Colt’s patents, as well as documents, paintings, photographs, busts, medallions, and ceremonial gifts. Among them is a flintlock fowling piece, probably built in the 1640s by a French or Flemish gunsmith, that has a revolving breech mechanism strikingly similar to that found in Colt’s revolver of two centuries later. Colt saw the musket on a visit to the Tower of London in 1851 and acquired it for his own collection.
Of particular interest is a set of 1850s paintings made by George Catlin, the famed chronicler in art and words of American Indian life and customs. Samuel Colt was a fan of his art, and after Catlin suffered a financial reverse in 1852, Colt (who was no stranger to financial reverses himself) commissioned a set of promotional paintings. Catlin revisited his old Western haunts and took a trip to South America, turning out along the way a series of 10 paintings showing Amazon scenes and American buffalo and deer hunts, always including in the image a Colt firearm being discharged.
A catalogue of the exhibit, written by Herbert G. Houze, is available from Yale University Press (260 pages, $65). Besides sumptuous photographs of the entire exhibit and many related items, it provides a detailed biography of Samuel Colt along with well-informed discussions of his technology and the world he lived in. For more information on the exhibit and its future itinerary, see www.wadsworthatheneum.org .
Inventors Of The Year
This is the year for halls of fame to play catch-up. This summer the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted 17 previously neglected figures from the Negro Leagues. And in May the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in Akron, Ohio, inducted a record 78 members, including 57 long-overlooked inventors, mostly from the nineteenth century.
The living inventors were Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, for the charge-coupled device, which makes digital cameras possible (and which they came up with in a brainstorming session lasting less than an hour); Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn, for the TCP/IP concept, which makes the Internet possible; Robert W. Gore, for the breathable, waterproof Teflon fabric known as Gore-Tex; Ali Javan, for the helium-neon laser, which is used in every store checkout scanner; Robert S. Langer, Jr., for numerous noninvasive methods of drug delivery; and Julio C. Palmaz, for the intravascular stent.
A special large-scale induction of long-dead inventors was held to fill gaps in the Hall of Fame’s recognition of the nation’s earliest innovators. Notable among those new inductees are Samuel Colt, of the six-shooter; Peter Cooper, locomotive builder, among other things; John Fitch and Robert Fulton, the steamboat men; Hiram Maxim, the machine gun; Gideon Sundback, the zipper; Linus Yale, Jr., locks; and Ferdinand von Zeppelin, for his namesake airships. There are now 313 inventors in the Hall of Fame.
—Frederick E. Allen