I felt a twinge of sadness, two years ago, when I saw reports of the closing of the original East Span of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. Of course, time marches on, and things wear out. Still, it seemed like the integrity of the Bay Bridge was being breached. There was also the tug of nostalgia, because I had driven across the Bay Bridge so many times in years past. Certainly, the replacement span is a stunning, ultra-modern work of civil engineering. We fans of the old span have to accept the new with the passing of the old.
Bridges are fascinating objects to many of us. We marvel at the great suspension bridges like the West Span of the Bay Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Brooklyn Bridge, the Humber Bridge near Hull, England, The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge of New York.
There are bridges that bespeak the history of a city like Tower Bridge in London. We see pictures of Sydney, Australia that often include the Sidney Harbour Bridge. Maybe we think of a much older bridge, such as the Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltaya River in Prague, Czech Republic. Construction of that bridge began in 1357.
During Historic Bridges Awareness Month, I think about my father’s interest in bridge structures. Highway bridges in all their manifestations captured his attention. They might be the famous spans, viaducts, or skyways; it didn’t matter, because he liked to analyze them. This analysis was natural, because dad had helped design and build so many highway bridges during his career with the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Even the most nondescript highway bridge is a wonder of civil engineering. We drive down the road each day and barely notice all the bridges we cross over or under. On a typical freeway, there are bridges that cross water, viaducts that cross over dry land, and overpasses that cross over the freeway, itself. The next time you drive or ride down a road, keep a count of all the bridges you see.
Since dad was involved in so many highway and bridge projects in the area, he enjoyed telling us thumbnail histories of the various bridges we crossed during road trips. When I was a young boy, summer days sometimes meant dad taking me to worksites that included bridge construction. The huge, earthshaking piledrivers are lodged in my memories.
Dad’s interest and knowledge of Nebraska bridges extended beyond the structures he worked on. He often told us the background information about larger bridges in parts of the state outside of his own district. Most of the major bridges were important to the local history of the vicinity in which they were constructed.
That interest in historic bridges rubbed off on me. It doesn’t matter whether I walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, or stroll over a decrepit county road bridge in Madison County, Nebraska. I like to think of the people who built the bridge. Who designed it? Why was it built, when was it built? I wonder about the lives of the motorists who pass over it. Bridges can tell us a lot about ourselves, and our technology through time.