“De railroad bridges’s A sad song in de air…”
In 1801 James Finley, a justice of the peace in Pennsylvania, connected towers on both sides of a creek with cables, hung a platform between them, and thereby invented the modern suspension bridge. It seems more than coincidence that this vital structural form had its genesis in Yankee ingenuity, for America, more than any other country, benefited from the engineering conquest of its natural barriers. During the half century after our Revolution men came to realize both how incredibly rich in resources their new-won country was and how worthless these resources were without the means to move about freely. Settlers moving west had to cross the rivers they came to only once. But for these settlers to prosper, their produce had to have sturdy and permanent access to the centers of civilization. So they built bridges. Their works carried water for the early canals and, later, the rails for the trains that were to bind a patchwork of scattered provinces into a unified nation. In Europe bridges were built to serve existing societies; in America they helped to create the society. Many have been torn down, including the graceful 1897 suspension bridge at East Liverpool, Ohio, shown on these pages. Nevertheless, a good number have survived, and photographer David Plowden has devoted several years to finding and photographing them for his book Bridges: The Spans of North America , to be published by Viking early next year. We are proud to present the following portfolio of his evocative pictures of the gaunt and wistful structures on whose weathered surfaces can be read so much of our history.