Friday, September 03, 2010

Bridges to the Past

Public infrastructure is an important feature in understanding the basic mechanics of how a society operates. Think about the Romans, for instance, and their grandiose infrastructure will almost surely come to mind. The aqueducts and bridges that still remain scattered across urban and rural European landscapes are surely marvelous. But at least to me, they represent more than the technological achievements of an ancient culture, they demonstrate a certain attention to monumentality and cultural craftsmanship.

I don't make the mistake of imagining that every Roman bridge was precisely hand-cut from the finest granites, or inlaid with fountains and marble relief sculpture, but I do see a gulf that stands between what Romans seemed to value in their public infrastructure and what 21st century Americans value.

Up above I have an image of an old covered bridge, Campbell's Bridge in Greenville County. Bridges like that once crossed a lot of the smaller creeks and rivers throughout the county, especially in the mid- and late-19th century. Like anything, they fell into disrepair, and when the roads were widened, and the vehicles got heavier, it became the reasonable thing to replace them. Below is another beautiful Greenville County bridge, the 1820s Poinsett Bridge:

Later generations were swept up in the steel craze that funded Gilded Age mega-corporations and eagerly utilized steel to solve engineering problems too daunting for wood. The bridges and trestles that were made in this era exhibited a kind of raw Beaux Arts strength that welded structure with beauty through rivets, planks, and crossbeams. The best known example of such a bridge is at Glendale, but bridges like these were very common in the city and in villages and rural areas all throughout the county. This example was where Heywood Ave. crosses Lawson's Fork near White's Mill:

Bridges of stone and wood were constructed too, of course, some humble, others spectacular. Even reinforced concrete, the medium of nearly every modern Spartanburg County bridge, was used with taste and a sense of craftsmanship. The bridge where US-29 crosses the Pacolet is a wonderful mid-1920s example:

Somewhere along the way, though, an aesthetic of simplicity paved the way for minimalistic, bottom-dollar construction without any sense of local pride or monumentality. Even in highly visible areas, very few modern bridges attempt to do anything more than span a distance with the least possible cost, to the detriment of the communities that see and use them. Bridges now are nothing to be proud of, and it seems that more often than not, they're an outright eyesore. You don't need to look far to find an example. Below is the view at Van Patton Shoals, on the Enoree River, with a 1990s bridge in the near background and the remains of an older iron bridge in the far background.
Clearly, public dollars need to be spent with an appropriate sense of priority. The tremendous needs of a community with the size and demographics of Spartanburg can mean that less money is earmarked for public infrastructure. But with the recent waves of stimulus-funded highway projects and the emphasis placed on infrastructural improvements as a means of job creation, surely the decision-makers that give the go-ahead to these projects can budget the extra expense to give these projects a worthwhile design that will make our community proud for the decades (or centuries?) they will see these structures.

As a final image, I'll show a photo of the widening project on the Pacolet River bridge on US-29 in the mid-1970s. Rather than carry on the decorative elements from the original bridge, the widened portion features the unadorned reinforced concrete typical of all modern bridge construction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting post. I really like that photo of the pointed arch made of stone. And the others are wonderfully illustrative of your points.