Preservation & Engineering

How many preservationists out there have an engineering background? How many engineers have a preservation background? Not many, to my knowledge.

These fields seem so opposite, yet how can we rehabilitate structures without a sense of engineering? Ideas can only do so much before they need to be implemented. When preservationists and engineers understand each other – at least a bit – projects have a greater rate of success for all.

Pin truss bridge in West Woodstock, Vermont.

Although I am unassumingly capable of calculus, and I have taken physics, I have never taken an engineering course. Lately I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea. But there are so many fields within engineering. Something that would benefit me in the transportation world would be my best bet. It is amazing what engineers can do and just how involved they are in every project. From road reconstruction to bridge building to historic bridge rehabilitation, it is fascinating.

Are any of you readers engineers? Where should I start? I don’t foresee earning a degree in engineering, but I’d like to take a class or two. Is there an engineering 101 class? What about classes geared towards building lovers like myself? Maybe something from UVM’s Civil Engineering program? Any advice?


HAER Trusses

Historic American Engineering Record study on trusses.

Download here (originally from the National Park Service). If that link doesn’t work, try copying and pasting this link:

I love this poster. I think I should print it in large format and hang it over my desk at work. Does anyone know if the NPS still distributes these in hard copy?

Preservation Photos #52

The HAER documented single chair ski lift at Mad River Glen Ski Area in Waitsfield, Vermont. A beautiful view, whether hiking or skiing.

Preservation Photos #52!?! Woohoo, happy birthday to the photos series.  Readers, you are more than welcome to contribute!

Lecture Notes: Canals

Quite often throughout the day I find myself thrilled by a new bit of information that I am learning in class, whether facts in American history, lessons in architectural conservation, or understanding more of how the law operates. One professor always names places that he recommends as a must see: historic sites, engineering feats, villages, factories – he never stops exploring. Sometimes I want to share my notes with anyone who does not have the opportunity to sit in on my classes and hear the lectures that my classmates and I hear. Since I cannot send around my notebooks or recite the lectures, I’ll just share bits here and there. For today: canals.

One of the most fascinating lectures recently was about the canal system in the United States. Did you know that canals preceded railroads as the major successful transportation? Cities were built facing the canals (which sometimes makes the buildings appear backwards to those of us on the road). People lived on canal boats. People traveled on canal boats as a way to experience the scenery at a serene pace. Beginning around the 1820s, the canals opened the United States to western settlement. Canal locks were major engineering innovations. Around the canal locks, towns developed in a linear form. The canal era began to decline around 1860 because they were expensive to build and maintain and the routes were slow, and the railroads were lurking in the background. But canal evidence is still visible on the land today, particularly in our street patterns. Cities filled in the canals to create streets.

Maybe I’m one of the few who has never heard about the extent of and the influence of canals, but I am intrigued by this mode of transportation and the evidence remaining on the land. Looks like I’ve got to go exploring. Here are few links to historic sites about canals:

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park

History of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

The Erie Canal (see traces of the Erie Canal)

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Does anyone else love (or have a newfound love for) canals?

Lake Champlain Bridge

The Lake Champlain Bridge is a continuous steel truss bridge that opened in 1929, linking Chimney Point, VT and Crown Point, NY, serving as the gateway to New England or to the Adirondacks. The engineers Fay, Spofford, and Thorndike set the location in an especially scenic and historic pass over the water and the land. For the past 80 years the bridge has connected the livelihoods of many New Yorkers and Vermonters, has served tourism, and has provided a beautiful, landmark example of engineering.

In July 2009 the bridge was shut down to one lane of traffic at a time as repairs were conducted on the other side. On October 16, 2009 the bridge was closed indefinitely. On November 9, 2009, the engineering report suggested the bridge be demolished.  Why? In a nutshell, the engineers found the deterioration of concrete piers to be unpredictable and potentially disastrous. Rehabilitation would be more expensive than replacement. For the long version of this see the news and reports from NYSDOT’s Lake Champlain Bridge webpage.


Ground level view of the bridge from Chimney Point, VT. November 8, 2009.

However, ethically and legally there is more to the issue than just an engineering report. This bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a National Historic Landmark nomination on the table. Take in the federal laws of Section 106, 110, and 4(f) and all options must be analyzed and exhausted; because a historic resource is involved a bridge cannot just be slapped in place. This gives the pro-rehabilitation candidates more weight than just passion. (I won’t get into the preservation laws at this point, but this issue is a topic for my preservation policy class, so I will at a later date.)


The bridge is impressive and immense - note the gentleman in the photograph. November 8, 2009.

What is the fate of the bridge? We don’t know yet. It is more complicated than other bridges because it is jointly owned by New York and Vermont. The communities on either side have had to rely on ferry service across the lake, which will last only as long as the unusually warm weather remains. Lives are inconvenienced and businesses are shutting down as a result of the loss of this main thoroughfare. This has been in the Vermont/upstate New York news for months now, and there is no shortage of articles and opinions.

Stay tuned for more information and discussion. Any if you’re familiar with the old General Sullivan Bridge in New Hampshire, it is the twin of this bridge. It has been closed since the mid 1980s. That itself adds additional levels pf conversation, huh?


Bridge closed. November 8, 2009.