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In Appreciation of Bridges

Spend enough time on the road, and you'll see a lot of man-made things -  some lovely and some positively atrocious. Driving the New Jersey Turnpike near Newark,  I crossed under the splendid Pulaski Skyway and had an epiphany.  Of mankind's many achievements, few are as aesthetically and functionally pleasing as a bridge.

Pulaski Skyway - Between Newark, NJ and Jersey City, NJ

Growing up on the Massachusetts coastline, water was a constant presence.  A thing of great beauty, water is also a major nuisance when it stands between "here" and "there".  There was one muddy tidal creek halfway along the route to our buddy Bob's place.  Going around the creek added at least a mile to the trip on busy Route 28.  Not a great idea when you're 13 years old, unlicensed and driving an unregistered dirtbike.  That extra mile was hazardous indeed - and heavily patrolled by Wareham cops.  We ran that gauntlet for years until one summer weekend we finally decided to build a bridge.  With lumber scraps "rescued" from house construction sites, we built a rickety, narrow bridge over the creek. While up to no reasonable DOT safety code,  our bridge was a huge achievement - saving us both valuable time and future court appearances.  That bridge ultimately endured for nearly two decades, until finally swept away by a September hurricane so common to the region.


At the genesis of any bridge is inconvenience.  Ultimately a society (be it Romans or a gang of scrawny 13 year olds) grows weary of the defeatist "just go around it" mindset - and decides on a bold course of action to change nature's topography.  So,  bridges foremost reflect mankind's audacity to challenge the inconveniences of geography.  This alone does not lend nobility to a bridge, as the same motivation also applies to strip mines too - and there's positively nothing pleasing about a strip mine.  Great bridges share a unique blend of respect for nature, utility, symmetry, engineering prowess, and economy of line and material. It is this balance and harmony that makes bridges truly unique among mankind's creations.   


Over the centuries, bridges have evolved with advances in science, materials and construction technique.  Consider the Romans, arguably among the the finest engineers in history.  Their bridges were of durable stone and designed around the elegant and heroically strong arch design. Thousands of years later, many of these Roman bridges still stand and many remain in current use. Here in New England,  the granite arch bridge is a common and pleasing sight.

The industrial revolution introduced steel to bridge building,  and the 1922 "span through truss" Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey well represents the riveted iron design that typified bridge building in the early to mid-1900s. Massively strong,  yet open and wispy - few structures are as pleasing to the eye as an iron truss bridge spanning a powerful body of water.   A lasting childhood memory is driving over the original Jamestown, Rhode Island bridge in our 1965 Chevy Belair.  The metal trusses soared high overhead,  and the tires sang over the open mesh steel road deck which revealed the massive rolling waves of Narragansett Bay hundreds of feet below.  It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying - but always a highlight of the road trip.  The original Jamestown bridge is gone now, but it will never be forgotten.  


40 years later,  and I still feel that same rush of excitement and anticipation whenever approaching a major bridge,  whether it's the Tappan Zee in New York,  the French King in Gill, Massachusetts or the Bay Bridge in Maryland.  The bridge builders art has continued to evolve worldwide, and there have been some impressive accomplishments,  such as the Millau Viaduct over the Tarn Valley in France.  

A concrete cable stay design, its road deck soars over 1,000 feet above the valley floor.  It is both incredibly beautiful and beneficial to the region it serves - cutting hours from the previously congested route across the valley, and eliminating countless tons of greenhouse gasses.  Beauty, utility, design and societal benefit - Millau Viaduct represents achievement of the dream behind all great bridges.

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