Building Bridges, Building Collections

Last fall my family trekked across two historic bridges—the Poughkeepsie Highland Railroad Bridge and the Mid Hudson Bridge. The Poughkeepsie Highland Railroad Bridge spans the Hudson River connecting Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York. Designed by John F. O’Rourke, it was built as a double track railroad bridge by the Union Bridge Company of Pennsylvania. Construction began in 1886 and the bridge operated from 1889, when it was completed, until 1974. At the time it was the only fixed railroad crossing of the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, providing freight a more direct route between New England and the Midwest. Today, the bridge is operated by the New York State Historic Park System and is open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic only. The Mid Hudson Bridge, also known as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge, opened in 1930. It is still fully operational and is open to foot, bicycle, and vehicular traffic.

Hudson River Bridge illustration

Illustration of Hudson River Bridge at Poughkeepsie, New York, “Keystone Bridge Album,” undated. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001444.

Bridges span all sorts of spaces and allow us to cross those spaces, by foot, bicycle, car, train, or bus. Made of a variety of materials—steel, wood, rope, cement, brick, and iron—bridges can also be fixed, moveable, or covered. Some of the most common types of bridges are beam, arch, suspension, and cable. Bridges are engineering marvels which require substantial planning from the very foundations to the spanning arches and connecting cables. Each bridge tells a story—its successes and failures. In all honesty I hadn’t thought much about bridges—they just were there to help me get from one place to another—until the day I walked those two bridges. As it turns out, I am surrounded by a wealth of information about the history of bridge design, building, and construction right here at the Archives Center. Our civil engineering collections tell some of the stories of design, construction, use, damage, reconstruction, rebirth, and celebration.

Specs for iron truss bridge.

Specification for iron truss bridge of the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio, undated. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001446.

The Archives Center’s vast civil engineering collections are expansive and rich in content. From 1958 to 1988, the Division of Mechanical and Civil Engineering (now the Division of Work and Industry) amassed a critical body of archival material documenting bridges, most of which is available for research through the Archives Center. Consisting of a total of approximately 313 cubic feet (more than fifty collections), the materials document bridge design, construction, and the civil engineers who made it happen in the United States and Canada from the 1860s to the 1950s. The collections contain a wide range of documentation from engineering company records to the personal papers of civil engineers to bridge ephemera such as postcards, trade cards, advertisements, business cards, and placemats acquired by hobbyist collectors.

Ad for Berlin Construction Company.

Berlin Construction Company advertising card, undated. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001442.

Photographs, specifications, ephemera, advertisements, blueprints, reports, maps, invoices, stock certificates, diaries, sketches, patents, correspondence, and artifacts help tell the story of bridge building. The numerous collections intersect and complement each other. For example, the Quebec Bridge Photograph Collection, 1905-1986 (bulk 1905-1916), is an example of a collection that “bridges” other archival collections. Photographic documentation chronicling the bridges construction in 1907, along with artifacts—a sheared-off rivet head and half of a nut—from the first Quebec Bridge (1907) and subsequent enquiry drawings (1908) to the bridges collapse form part of the Division of Work & Industry’s holdings. The Records of Modjeski and Masters Company document engineer Ralph Modjeski who worked on the Quebec Bridge. Modjeski later worked with George S. Morison (1842-1903) in a variety of capacities. The George S. Morison Collection, 1861-1903, John A. Roebling’s Sons, well known builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission Records, 1848-1946 (bulk 1890-1929)Berlin Construction Company Records, circa 1904-1957, and the Bollman Truss Bridge Collection, 1852-1986 are just some of the collection highlights. Other collections with strong ties to bridge building and civil engineering are the Foundation Company Records, circa 1887-1962, documenting a New York subaqueous concrete construction firm and the Cummings Structural Concrete Company Records 1884-1952, documenting Robert Cummings, an early advocate of reinforced concrete construction.

Quebec Bridge Board of Engineers, circa 1910s.

Photograph of Quebec Bridge Board of Engineers standing in bridge cantilever, left to right: Ralph Modjeski, Charles Monsarrat and C.C. Schneider, circa 1910s. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0976-0000004.

Smaller archival collections, primarily comprised of ephemera, also provide insight into civil engineering through a different lens, that of the bridge enthusiast or hobbyist. Many bridge enthusiasts traveled extensively throughout the United States, documenting their passion for bridges through photographs and postcards. An example of this is the Lucinda Rudell Covered Bridges Collection, 1942-1979, which contains ephemera, such as this placemat documenting covered bridges throughout the United States.

Placemat featuring covered bridges.

Placemat depicting views of covered bridges, circa 1960s. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC1028-0000001.

The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana contains a wealth of ephemera documenting bridges such as this novelty mechanical postcard “The Bridge Girl” (Queensboro Bridge). The moveable bridge part allows the display of the postcard to change and “The Bridge Girl” appears. A cantilevered bridge designed by Leffert L. Buck (1837-1909) and Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961), the Queensboro Bridge was finished in 1909 and today is known as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. Caricatures of civil engineers Elmer L. Corthell and Charles Sooysmith and the Ralph Modjeski image with fellow engineers provide the human face to bridge technology—a reminder that humans designed, built, and ultimately used the bridges. The Warshaw Collection also contains business records, such as this 1896 receipt for ribbon wire from John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, and a published illustration of Colin Shakespear’s Portable Rope Bridge. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection also contains a rich resource of trade catalogs about bridge manufacturers, with detailed information such as specifications, costs, illustrations, and photographs. Many of the catalogs contain company histories with crucial information about bridge projects.

Postcard titled "The Bridge Girl"

Postcard titled “The Bridge Girl,” Queensboro Bridge, [1909?]. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001451-01.

Postcard titled "The Bridge Girl"

“The Bridge Girl” appears. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001451-02.

Caricature of Charles Sooysmith.

Caricature of Charles Sooysmith (1855-1916), civil engineer and bridge builder. Sooysmith designed the Central Bridge over the Harlem River. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001449.

Caricature of Elmer L. Corthell.

Caricature of Elmer L. Corthell (1840-1916), civil engineer and bridge builder. Corthell designed the Cairo Bridge (1887-1889) over the Ohio River, the longest metal bridge in the world at that time. Modjeski and Masters were awarded the construction contract for the Cairo Bridge. And, Corthell was the associate chief engineer for the project under George S. Morison, a civil engineer who specialized in large bridges. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001450.

Artifacts related to bridge building—bolts, cable wires, wire samples, plates, expansion joints, beam sections, trunnels (wooden pegs used to fasten timbers) struts, patent models, gauges, surveying instruments, and drafting tools—also provide insight into the work of civil engineers. These small, but significant artifacts, along with the paper and photographic documentation allow us to document and preserve large objects.

Portable Rope Bridge.

Colin Shakespear’s Portable Rope Bridge, “Mechanics,” Vol. XLIII, circa 1823. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001448.

Whether you’re looking for technical data on how bridges were designed and constructed or for ephemera depicting idyllic scenes of covered bridges in New England, visit the National Museum of American History and explore our civil engineering collections.