By Mark G. McLaughlin
There are more than 607,000 bridges in the United States. About 10 percent of those are badly in need of repair, but the rest are still standing and do the job for which they were built. A number of these road and rail crossings that span rivers, lakes, ravines and gorges are not only utilitarian but are also beautiful. They are a testament to the imagination and soul of their designers – architects who knew how they could turn something as mundane as a bridge into a work of art. Here are just five of America’s coolest bridges and the architects behind them.
The Royal Gorge Bridge
Standing 955 feet above Colorado’s Arkansas River, from its completion in 1929 until 2001, Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge held the distinction of being the highest bridge on the planet. (It lost that title to a Chinese bridge but remains the highest in the United States.) It’s also one of the very few bridges that was built primarily for tourists, rather than travelers. It was initially funded by the Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company to link two parks and is still the centerpiece of a tourist area that includes skycoaster and zipline rides, parks and playgrounds. Charles E. Cole designed the suspension bridge and most of the work was done by his own construction company, which completed the project in a mere six months.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge
In 1952, the engineering firm of Sverdrup and Parcel completed the design and construction of the massive cantilever structure known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Leif Sverdrup was a Norwegian immigrant who studied engineering under Professor John Parcel at the University of Minnesota. They formed a civil engineering firm in 1928. During World War II Sverdrup was chief engineer to General Douglas MacArthur, for whom he built many bridges. After the war, he and Parcel resumed building bridges all over the United States, but the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is considered their masterpiece. More than 60,000 people a day cross the bay on their bridge, a five-lane wonder that stretches an astonishing 6.9 miles, making it the longest over-water steel structure in the world.
The Benson Foot Bridge
To be a member of the “coolest bridge in America” club, size doesn’t matter. Nowhere is that more evident than at Oregon’s Multnomah Falls. The pedestrian bridge designed and built there in 1914 is meant to blend in rather than stand out against the natural beauty of the falls and the Columbia River into which its water flows. Designing engineer K. P. Biller of the Oregon State Highway Department showed a special appreciation for the place that resonated with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the bridge and is responsible for the falls, which was noted by Lewis and Clark in their explorations.
The Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge is such a breathtaking work of art that upon its completion in 1883 it was dubbed by many as the “eighth wonder of the world.” The 1,600-foot long bridge spans New York City’s East River to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. Its beauty and durability are a testament to the engineering and artistic genius of John Augustus Roebling, who designed it; his son, Washington Roebling, who began its construction; and Washington’s wife, Emily Roebling, who oversaw its completion. The elder Roebling was a German immigrant who made great strides in perfecting suspension-bridge technology, as he demonstrated by building just such a web truss crossing over the Niagara Gorge.
The Brooklyn Bridge was to be Roebling’s masterpiece, but in 1869 on the eve of its construction, he died of tetanus, the result of an accident that occurred while he was surveying the site. As his son Washington had worked with his father on a number of bridges, he was chosen to take up the task. It took 14 years to build the granite caissons that supported the massive fortress-like towers from which the steel cables are suspended. It was a dangerous job that cost many workers their lives or their health, Washington Roebling among them, who was left partially paralyzed by what became known as “caisson disease” – a severe form of “the bends.”
For a time the tallest structure on earth, the Brooklyn Bridge has long been and still remains a tourist attraction and an iconic wonder. In 1884 the great showman P.T. Barnum took 21 elephants across to demonstrate its stability – and, of course, to forever cement the steel structure in the minds of Americans.
The Golden Gate Bridge
On the opposite side of the country from The Brooklyn Bridge stands The Golden Gate Bridge – a structure of such art and inspiration that Frommer’s Guide tour book claims it is “the most photographed bridge in the world.” This is due not only to its astounding length (4,200 feet) and monumental height (746 feet), but also because of its orange vermilion paint scheme. That artistic touch was the contribution made by architect Irving Morrow. The initial design by architect, engineer (and poet) Joseph Strauss was rejected. It was the artistic Morrow who suggested to him that painting it that unique, bright color would pick up the light and make the bridge stand out in the fog that often obscures the narrow strait at the end of San Francisco Bay. That change won Strauss the contract the second time around, and he turned to Morrow, with his acute sense of Art Deco, to contribute to the design of the towers and lighting. From its start in 1933 until its completion in 1937, several structural engineers oversaw most of the work. These included Leon Moisseiff and Charles Alton Ellis, who was not only a famed mathematician and professor of engineering but also a Greek scholar. With this model of how well the arts and sciences work together to inspire them, it is no wonder that California’s educators have included the artistic “A” in their STEAM program.
The architects who designed America’s five coolest bridges were more than just scientific, engineering and technological geniuses – they were also artists. California’s incorporation of the Arts into the highly successful STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) initiative is not only inspired by such people, but also seeks to help inspire students to think creatively and to express themselves through these disciplines. Which is exactly what the architects behind America’s five coolest bridges have in common.