Discovering and Preserving Hoosier Heritage
Dr. James L. Cooper
Indiana’s under-stated beauty of gently rolling hills, patch-work fields, and timber stands broken by ambling creeks and modest rivers nourishes a quiet, down-home, rural lifestyle long associated with “Hoosiers.” For a century and a half, however, rural Indiana has been increasingly complemented by urban development. From the holler to the farmstead, to the small town, and to the city center, a wealth of diverse spans has enriched Indiana’s natural and man-made landscapes. Much remains wonderfully available for discovery and exploration.The bites and images on this site offer snapshots that arise from considerable rummaging through records and wandering in a pickup truck across Indiana for nearly three decades. You will find a pronounced passion for the stories we have found – a passion which reaches beyond Indiana’s historic bridges understood as nostalgic Linus blankets or as easy avenues into an imagined, simpler rural past. Instead, we will explore the varied and extensive inventiveness of our designer and artisan forbears with the various materials available when, in ages unlike our own, risk-taking and efficient use of materials were practiced and honored.Today’s covered bridge festivals and coffee-table picture books undervalue the rich heritage of design and construction represented by the timber spans which once graced our roadways. Inventive elements are under the covers, if the visitor is troubled enough to look inside. The trusses speak to the great skill of the bridge-building carpenters and blacksmiths once prominent in Indiana. In the world of preservation, surviving Hoosier spans are akin to the preserved houses of notable White Men. The unroofed, low, and often unsided smaller timber trusses and the trestle spans that provided the majority of the bridges in any Indiana county before 1880 are now, like worker housing, all gone.
The Iron Horse that knit together the increasingly industrial workshops of the eastern United States following the Civil War gradually changed Hoosier bridge trusses from timber to iron and, from about 1890 onward, to steel. The earliest iron bridges erected in Indiana were typically designed and fabricated in Ohio, sent by rail to the train station closest to the erection site, and then raised on foundations which local masons prepared for the imported metal superstructure. Hoosier designer-engineers soon invented some or their own truss formats and iron workers developed a home-grown metal fabricating industry which came to serve both Indiana and, in time, many sites to the south and west. Buried in the under-maintained, often-rusting metal bridges that may look like scrap heaps sitting on the back 40 are stories of creative genius worth uncovering and recounting.
To claim any considerable innovative design for the local masons who laid up hundreds of stone arches, clams, and clappers in the Indiana countryside or city would be to undervalue invention as old as the Romans. But the craftsmanship of many local Hoosier stone-cutters and masons whose work is still exhibited in extant stone structures on our highways is in league with that of the Romans. Indiana stands second to none in the quarrying and working of dimension Oolitic limestone used widely to face monumental buildings across the United States. The bridge-builders, however, rather largely relied on the harder, blue, Laurel, or Niagara limestone quarried mostly in the southeastern part of the state.
Concrete bridges worked especially well in Twentieth Century cities anxious to soften their gritty industrial image and to emphasize civic space. In the world of concrete bridge design and construction Indiana has national significance. Its own Daniel B. Luten held more patents on design and construction methods early in the Twentieth Century than all other Americans combined. Luten-design could be found not only across Indiana, but in tens of thousands of spans across the U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico.
To honor the Hoosier spanned heritage discovered and explored, we should strive to preserve as much of it as is possible and practical. We are enriched by its beauty, rewarded with the diverse community identities it bestows, and nurtured against cultural amnesia through active connection with our roots. Preservation means much more than keeping historic bridges in the service for which they were designed as long as possible. It also includes resistance to remodeling and transforming that heritage into something else by replacement one bridge member at a time. We need not live in a world of heritage mirage and Disneyland make believe when in-kind repairs can retain the original design and respect the original craftsmanship, often at a fraction of the cost of replacing it.