West Virginia, like many states in the U.S., has a rich history that is reflected in its infrastructure. Over the years, the state has developed a collection of historically significant structures, including its truss and concrete arch bridges. These constructions not only served the practical purpose of facilitating transportation but also represented the engineering and architectural techniques of their respective eras. They carry with them stories of the communities they’ve served, the eras in which they were built, and the craftsmanship of the period.
As time progresses, engineering practices evolve to reflect our enhanced understanding of materials, forces, and design techniques. The shift from truss and concrete arch bridges to girder structures, as example, is a manifestation of this evolution. Girder bridges, for instance, are simpler in design, quicker to build, require less maintenance, and can be more cost-effective in the long run. These factors make them an appealing choice for modern infrastructural development.
However, this shift is not without its costs. When older bridges are demolished and replaced, a tangible part of history is lost. Every time a truss or concrete arch bridge is replaced, we lose not just a piece of infrastructure, but a piece of West Virginia’s identity. These historic structures serve as markers of the state’s past, offering insights into its architectural, cultural, and economic history. While newer bridges may embody advancements in technology and efficiency, they might lack the character, intricacy, and story of their predecessors. This creates a challenging dilemma: how to balance the need for modern, efficient infrastructure with the desire to preserve cultural and historical landmarks.
Built in 1922, the endangered Harpold Bridge is a Pratt through truss structure that crosses Mill Creek south of Ripley. It was constructed during a major upgrade of US Route 21 between Charleston and Parkersburg, which involved expanding the road to include two eight-foot-wide concrete lanes and adding new bridges over streams. In 1949, when US Route 21 was rerouted to Fairplain, the bridge was re-designated as County Route 25.
The Log Cabin Bridge, an aging Pratt through truss, spans the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River in Randolph County, supporting CR 33/8. It was erected in 1933 by the Vincennes Bridge Company from Vincennes, Indiana, and originally facilitated a new alignment of US Route 33 around Faulkner and Bowden. However, in 1975, US Route 33 was redirected onto a four-lane bypass as part of the building of Corridor H development, leading to the bridge’s roadway being redesignated as CR 33/8. Although its design is relatively simple without notable architectural features, bridges of this kind have become increasingly rare in the last twenty years.
The Dry Fork Bridge, a pin-connected Pratt through truss built in 1903 by the Brackett Bridge Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, stands preserved yet unrecognized for its significance. Originally serving the Red Creek Turnpike between Parsons and Davis, this bridge became part of what is now WV Route 32. A new alignment in 1934 bypassed it. Repairs were made to the bridge in 1972, 1978, 1982, and 1985. However, by 1992, the Dry Fork Bridge was closed to traffic and remains unused.
In Valley Bend, Randolph County, there’s a pin-connected Pratt through truss bridge constructed in 1900 by the Canton Bridge Company. This bridge spans the Tygart Valley River, supporting CR 37, and underwent rehabilitation in 1993.
In Cheat Bridge, there’s a circa 1912 pinned Pratt through truss bridge from the Canton Bridge Company that once served the historic Staunton & Parkersburg Pike, stretching from Staunton, Virginia to Parkersburg, West Virginia. At Cheat Bridge, this route was integrated into US Route 250. In 1934, a new route bypassing White Top Mountain was established, featuring a two-lane pony truss bridge over Shavers Fork. However, the original bridge remained in use, providing access to nearby strip mines and connecting Cabin Fork Road to a section of the old Staunton & Parkersburg Pike route.
Similar in design is a circa 1910 pinned Pratt through truss over Deer Creek in Green Bank. It may have also been erected by the Canton Bridge Company. Initially intended for a local route to Cass, it later became part of CR 7. In 1965, a new alignment for CR 7, which eventually became WV Route 66, was constructed, bypassing the Cass Bridge. The bridge closed to vehicular traffic around 1990.
While the number of traditional truss bridges may be declining in the state, it doesn’t mean new bridges are devoid of design or aesthetic appeal. Modern designs, like cable-stayed suspension and timber spans, offer both cost-effective construction and reduced maintenance.
Take the 2004 replacement of the West Buckeye Bridge in Monongalia County as an example. The old bridge was succeeded by a timber arch bridge which, upon completion, became the world’s longest three-hinge timber arch bridge. This innovative design was the creation of Alpha Associates, in collaboration with West Virginia University, with the project receiving funding from the Federal Highway Administration to encourage the use of pioneering technology.
Inevitably, the lifecycle of most bridges will culminate in their replacement. Departments of transportation bear the dual responsibility of designing bridges that cater to contemporary needs, while also ensuring prudent use of taxpayer funds. Just as covered bridges symbolized a significant advancement in 19th-century bridge design and construction, iron and steel trusses heralded a new era. They epitomized the capacity to build with enhanced strength, concurrently reducing both construction and maintenance expenses. As we reflect on West Virginia’s truss bridges, it’s vital to appreciate the architectural lineage they represent and the innovation they represent. Their evolving replacements not only serve practical transportation purposes but also continue the legacy of blending functionality with a bit of flair.