The Automobile and the American Road Bridge – Part 2


1914 Leeper Bridge, South Bend, Indiana

(first posted 10/7/2015)    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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. (And there’s a bonus Roach of the Road™ Curbside Classic crossing it.) I’ll have to go back one day to capture it in its renewed glory.


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

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 1933. 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

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

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

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

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?