By Mary Jo

Bridges are essential elements in transportation systems, but as a kid I took them for granted. My family couldn’t have driven to the nearest town if not for a modest bridge over the modest Genesee River, but there was no drama in that fact.

Over time I’ve come to appreciate bridges more because they are so essential to travel.  Rivers are pretty, but if you want to get to the other side, you need a boat or a bridge and bridges are much steadier and can take more traffic. There are bridges in Europe that are centuries old: the Stone Bridge over the Danube in Regensberg, Bavaria, was built in the 12th century and it was the city’s only bridge until the 20th century.

Because we like cruising, I’ve seen many grand bridges up close and personal and some of my pictures are on this blog. (The Bosphorous Bridge over the Dardanelles literally connects two continents, while the slat bridge with people walking warily was in the Amazon jungle.)

But I never thought much about how vulnerable bridges are until the Mayhem Consultant and I watch a Great Courses series called Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach taught by Stephen Ressler, who has advanced degrees in Civil Engineering and is a professor emeritus from the West Point Military academy.  (West Point started out as an engineering college for future army officers.)

Ressler is a good lecturer and he had neat little models to explain engineering principles. As we watched the different episodes, I realized that the majority of his case studies were bridge disasters.  That makes sense since bridges are up in the air and vulnerable, with no ground below to stabilize them.  And it turns out a LOT can go wrong even with a well designed bridge!  As the course title suggests, in engineering as in other areas things are fine–until they aren’t.  It was very educational.

That principle was really brought home to me on March 26 this year when a major Baltimore area bridge was destroyed when a massive container ship, the Dali, lost power as it was leaving the Port of Baltimore and crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Luckily it happened at 1:28 am when traffic was fairly light, plus the ship’s pilot called a last minute warning to port police that the Dali was out of control.  This gave about 90 seconds for the police to stop traffic across the bridge which saved lives, but it wasn’t enough time to clear the bridge of repair workers.  Six men tragically died.

The repercussions were devastating.  The Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest on the east coast. There’s a famous local saying that it’s the port that built the city that built the state, and it’s true: shipping and railroad connections turned Baltimore into a major industrial hub.

With the collapsed bridge blocking the channel into the port, shipping was paralyzed and many, many workers were affected. The state has done an amazing job of cleaning up the tons and tons of collapsed steel to reopen the channel, but building a new bridge will take years and staggering amounts of money. Traffic up and down the East Coast is affected because trucks carrying hazardous materials are forbidden to use the two tunnels that go under the harbor; such trucks must take the long way around the Baltimore Beltway.

The Key Bridge was state of the art when it was built as the last link in the Baltimore Beltway, but that was almost 50 years ago.  Shipping conditions and the increasingly massive size of container ships have changed the game because larger ships mean lower shipping costs, and international trade is a huge part of the world economy.

So the new bridge will almost certainly be built higher so larger ships can pass under it, and redundant support structures will be included to reduce the chance of another such devastating accident.  .

This may be more than you ever wanted to know about bridges, but the next time you see a bridge, you can think about the history of bridges and how essential they have been to the development of trade and civilization.  And give thanks to the good engineers who build them!

Mary Jo

9 thoughts on “Bridges”

  1. Bridges really are ubiquitous, Mary Jo, and I’m definitely guilty of taking them for granted.

    I’m trying now to recall books in which bridges play a role. One that comes to mind is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

    • Kareni, I loved the Goblin Emperor–except for all the long complicated names! There’s an important bridge scene near the end of my Shattered Rainbows also. There are bound to be other bridge scenes but I can’t remember them off hand.

    • Kareni, I loved the Goblin Emperor–except for all the long complicated names! There’s an important bridge scene near the end of my Shattered Rainbows also. There are bound to be other bridge scenes but I can’t remember them off hand.

  2. Fascinating post, Mary Jo! I love old bridges – the kind built of stone that look like a troll might live underneath. Yes, I know – read too many fairy tales when I was little! But I do always marvel at how they stay up, it’s an amazing feet of engineering. Whenever I go from London to my home in Herefordshire I cross the Prince of Wales Bridge over the Severn estuary. It feels a bit like entering Mordor! And when I go to Sweden I fly into Copenhagen and take the train across the Oresund Bridge which is one of the longest (if not THE longest?) in the world – it’s awe-inspiring!

    • Great bridges, Christina! The Prince of Wales bridge is might but the Oresund Bridge is AMAZING! 5 miles (8 km) long, second longest bridge in Europe, and rare for carrying both train traffic and cars. I would love to go over that. ( have been to the Stone Bridge in Regensberg. Awesome.)

  3. Thanks for the post. I think the Baltimore incident brought it home to all of us. We need to care for infrastructure and not take anything for granted.

    • Annette, also true is that something that worked fine for a long time may fail as conditions change. Often we learn that the hard way.

  4. I love bridges but some of them give me vertigo, like the Mackinac Bridge that connects the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan, and the old Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River(I haven’t been over the new one yet).
    For anyone who can get to the Hudson Valley of New York, I highly recommend the Walkway Over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie. It’s an old railroad bridge that was converted and it’s the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge. It’s hard to enjoy the views while driving over a bridge, but here you can linger and take photos. The views up and down the river are just incredible!

  5. Karin, the Walkway Over the Hudson sound AMAZING! I’m sorry that I missed it. The bridge picture at the top of the blog is actually the (new) Tappan Zee bridge, but they confused me by officially naming the bridge after Governor Mario Cuomo. He was a good guy but I like the old name better!


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