Introduction: How to Save a Piece of History

About: A jack of all trades and a master of many; After 60 years on this planet I can truly say 'been there, done that', but I can also admit I can never stop learning something new. An eternal optimist, I keep hopin…

This is a brief photo-essay & Instructable wrapped up in one. As you can tell from my other I’bles I am into all things mechanical and (like most engineers) I think ALL bridges are cool. This is a story about an article my wife came across on a soon-to-be homeless bridge, and our efforts to save this little piece of history.

Step 1: Stay Curious About Your Past

Back in ’03 a newspaper article caught my other half’s eye. (Right about now I should tell you that in college she majored in history & that she is into anything antique, especially if it’s historical; her favorite anniversary gift was a Civil war Cavalry sword that I gave her a while back). She showed me the article about this little bridge [that was about to be taken apart] and (according to the article) no state agency wanted it, so “we should save it from the scrap yard!” she proudly perked out. (Right about now I'm thinking she must have a mouse in her pocket; who is this "we"?) After we read the article, and after some debate about finances, we both agreed that the bridge needed a good home (and that it needed be but back in use too) so we found it on the map and that very afternoon the newly formed “Antique Bridge Appraisers Corp” went out to look at it.

It was a cute little bridge, about 15’ wide by 70’. Built in 1887, it was the last wooded deck bridge in Kentucky still in use. If you study the metallurgy of the time you learn that it was made of iron, not steel (steel is iron with additional carbon added for stiffness). This is important because iron doesn’t rust like steel does and (unless it is not allowed to dry out) iron only forms a light rust coating (a ‘patina’ if you will) and will stay strong throughout the years; whereas steel (if left outdoors unprotected) will eventually flake apart. (This little bridge was also designed for the horse and buggy so it was probably made from melted-down musket rifles from the Civil war :-).

According to the article the state wanted a bid proposal within two days (and the next day was a holiday); we were already behind the power curve. I wrote up a proposal and contacted the state agency (listed in the article) first thing in the morning; the same day the proposal was due. They agreed that if I could fax it in (by 4 pm) they would consider it. I got it in on time.

In our proposal we told them we would take the little bridge as is, clean it up, repair it as needed, put a fresh coat of paint on it, a fresh deck and then use it as an alternative driveway entrance to the main road. The next week they called me up and said that not only we could have the bridge, but that they would deliver it FOR FREE! Woo-hoo! Since it is a historic landmark (and it can be registered as one too) that we did not need to make it operational, only that we had to rebuild it with public access so historian could come look at it for years to come. Phbbbtt…as far as I was concerned it needed to be operational. So, Step One: find an antique bridge that somebody will give you; chances are they will deliver it for free just to get it out of their hands. Oddly enough, if you go to they will tell you how to get one!

Step 2: Build It a Home!

Hot damn , we had an antique bridge…now the fun part! The first thing on the list is to locate the site & build the abutments for it to sit on. (It makes life easier to have them in place before you get the bridge.) To do this (and this is my favorite part ) line up some rental equipment…you know, the really cool stuff you see along the highway and wish you had in your garage . After I told the local rental place what I was doing with the equipment they let me rent anything I needed at cost. Here I am with a Case 580, 4-wheel drive back-hoe digging the footers of the end abutments. How cool can that be!

I got the local lumber yard to donate all of the lumber for this project by just telling them what I wanted to do with it (except for the deck…more on that later). I was surprised at just how many old-timers at these places told me that they use to fish off that bridge as kids, and that they were jazzed we were saving it from the scrap heap. I even got the local cement company to pour the cement for free as long as they got to pour it when they wanted to; this way they could just give me the overage from another local project. After I got the forms up (it took about two days to build them) we only needed to wait another 10 days before I got the “Heads up, we’re on our way with your 4 yards!” call. Cool…I’m pouring concrete!

Step 3: Set Up Your Delivery

It wasn’t until November when the construction company called up and said “We’re gonna take you bridge apart real soon here. Where do you want it?”

So the next step is simple: Let them know where & how to deliver it. It’s your bridge now, so tell them in what condition you want it in. I asked that (if they could) they pick it up in one piece (deck and all) and drop it on my abutments, still intact, but they said “No can do”. As they explained, they could have done it that way but it needed to be taken out in two steps, as it was a bit too long and wide to make some of the sharp corners in one piece. So then I told them that the only stipulation that I had in accepting this bridge was that the moving crew could not take the trusses apart , as it was hot-riveted and they would not go back together again. They agreed, so they dropped them off intact.

I was like a kid in a candy store at Christmas time! I went down to watch them take it apart. Here is a picture of what the sight looked like after they took it out. While I was there the farmer from the house across the creek came down and spoke to me about it. He was really jazzed that it was going to a good home and then he told me the most incredible story about that little bridge I had ever heard. Here is the story he told [paraphrased]:

     About 20 years back he was building a dairy barn and needed about 7 yards of cement for the floor. When the cement guy said he was on his way he stepped out to watch him come down the road. Only he didn’t come down the road; the driver had taken the wrong route, and without knowing what lay ahead he drove that cement truck with 7 yards of cement [turning in the back] across that little bridge. Long about now [he said to himself] “Oh crap, this ain’t good …”. He fully expected to watch the whole rig drop 20 foot into the creek below and so he made ready to call the local hospital. Much to his surprise the bridge flexed and moaned a bit but let the truck on across.

Okay, for all you engineers out there, let’s crunch some numbers here: at 4,695lbs/cu yds he had about 32,875 lbs of load on the back of a cement truck that weighed somewhere between 30,000 lbs and 45,000 lbs empty. Since most cement trucks [that can carry 7 yards in one load] are rated at 9 yards total, he probably weighed closer to the 45,000 lbs. For the sake of being conservative let’s say he weighed about 40,000 lbs empty. This means he drove over 72,000 lbs (36 tons!) across a little bridge with a 3 ton weight limit unscathed. And, since it is at the bottom of a windy road, I can promise you he didn’t have much speed when his wheel hit that wooden deck. Pretty strong, huh…

I took a before and after picture of the original site after they took the bridge out. Wow…what a mess! Here (also) is the front page of the local paper showing the drop off. I now had my 15 minutes of fame, right alongside there with our own local version of the Uni-bomber's crew!…Cool!

Step 4: Gather Your Crew!

Get your crew together! Here we are the next weekend, crew at the ready! Once again, here’s the best part [again] , you get to rent some really cool equipment with your wife’s consent ! How fun is that?!

With the 4-wheel drive, telescoping forklift crane on site, the newly formed ‘Antique Bridge Reconstruction Corporation’ started picking up and putting down the first truss in place. Matt Hunt and my son, Wylie, formed the bulk of my construction crew while the wife-unit ran the roach-coach (an ATV with a cooler on the back) for nutritional and moral support.

I’ll say this now just to give you an idea of how simple in design this bridge is: it only took us about 6 hours to ‘snap’ this bridge back together [sans deck], so from this point on (to the point where we were ready to put the deck back down) only took a Saturday…"Believe It Or Not!" - Ripley

Step 5: Set Up the Trusses

Here we have our expert, professional crew setting the first truss in place. Since there was no wind a couple of 16’ 2x8’s held it up-right real well until we got the second one in place. BTW, that’s my son & I setting a truss brace in place. It was of great help that [at the time] he was a defensive lineman on the high school varsity football team! He’s also the one you see driving tractor later on (I knew teaching him to drive tractor at 10-years old would pay off some day!).

For all you 'family types' I can tell you this: after I am long gone, and he’s telling war-stories about growing up on a farm, he will tell his grand kids about his crazy old man and the 115 year old bridge we put up together! And you know what; it will still be there to show them when he take them back to the farm. But I digress…

Step 6: Put the First Cross Beam in Place

After you get the trusses up it’s time to bolt the first cross beam in place. Here my fellow engineer (Matt) & I are putting them up under the trusses (son driving crane). They are held in place with hot-forged long U-bolts and a pair of the biggest hand-made nuts you’ve ever laid hand on.

Step 7: Put the Deck Back Down

It took about 3 years before we could budget for the deck. While the small stuff was easy to pry out of the local vendors, nobody (and I mean nobody ) wanted to donate $2,000 worth of lumber and paint. (Can’t says I blame them :) Here you see the trailer full of wood it took to deck it and the crew putting it down. The boy is driving tractor and using the bucket to lift the steel under-beams in place.

Once the I-beams were down [across the cross beams] we laid the runners down and then nailed down the 14’ boards across them to hold them in place.

Editor’s note: the original deck didn’t have steel I-beams under the deck (next to the wooded runners), but these I-beams had probably been put under the deck when buggies gave way to pickups so I decided to use them as well. During the rebuild I also observed how badly they damaged the hand-made [soft iron] cross I-beams they rested on, so when I put them down I put some cut-up conveyor belt material that I had picked up at the local swap meet (a lot of farmers use them in animal stalls as flooring above the hard concrete floor) between them and the cross beams. This would stop any further destruction of the original bridge parts.

Step 8: Paint Your Bridge

After the deck was down I picked off some of the silver paint (that the state maintenance crew kept it in) and noticed that the original color was close to an International Harvester Red so I painted it back in its original colors. Here’s a picture of my farm truck running across it one sunny day.

As stated earlier, the bridge is eligible to be registered as a historic landmark, so I could get the state to put up one of those cool cast-metal plaques next to it. But seeing how the state quite paying for those cool plaques some time ago, and seeing how they cost $1,700 to have one made (to their specifications no less) I elected to put an acrylic one on the end of one of the trusses. This is what it said:

Day Branch Bridge
     Built in 1887 by the Mt. Vernon Bridge and Truss Company of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, this bridge was originally located on Lowell Road (CR 1230), just north of Sardis, Kentucky, and crossed over Shannon Creek. Scheduled for replacement in March of 2002, it was in continuous use for 116 years until November of 2003 when it was disassembled and moved here.
     This style of Pratt-type Pony Truss Bridge was common in Kentucky through the turn of the 20th century, however they have all disappeared from the landscape as this type of bridge became too costly to maintain. The only other know example is at the National Road Museum at Zanesville, OH. Interestingly enough, it was due to the cost of replacing the wooden deck, and not maintaining the trusses that made this style of bridge obsolete. The metal portions of the bridge are still at (or near) their original design capabilities.
     In July of 2003 Michael Brace (a mechanical engineer) and his wife Vicki (an amateur historian) submitted a proposal to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to save this bridge and have it re-erected on their property for all to see and enjoy. Delivered to this site in November 2003, Michael, his son Wylie and [fellow engineer] Matt Hunt re-assembled this bridge over the course of a single weekend attesting to the simplistic, yet highly engineered structure.

Step 9: Epilogue

Over the course of the last 6 years (or so) we have had several bridge historians hunt this bridge down (it is listed on several historical bridge web sites) and they all took pictures of it for their records. One of them told me that I should visit the only other Pratt Pony Truss bridge [of this kind left] in Zanesville, Ohio (I make mention of this in my plaque). He said I would be pleasingly surprised if I did. I did, and I was; it was painted in the same color as the one I painted my bridge in.

Slightly beefier and a bit squatter, it was also built by the Mt. Vernon Bridge and Truss Company in the early 1900's where it was used on Rt 40, the first coast-to-coast federally funded highway. It was designed for the horseless carriage traffic that had made the horse and buggy obsolete. It is the center piece of the Zane Gray Road Museum on Rt 40 in Zanesville, Ohio. Here is a picture of my little car in front of it.