September 3, 2013

How to Preserve Historic Bridges

Historic bridges give us physical examples of the progress and the development of engineering, architecture, art and technology. And unlike written texts or photographs, historic bridges are living history -- direct, tangible links to different periods in time.

Saving significant and illustrative samples of historic bridges allow us to look back in time, appreciate where we have come from, and plan where we want to go. Here are 10 tips for protecting and preserving historic bridges in your community.

1. Get to know the bridges in your area. Learn where they are located; when they were built and by whom; what type of bridges they are; and what’s unique about their designs. Also research when and how often the bridges have been repaired; whether they have been moved; and whether they are scheduled for replacement.

2. Find out if a bridge is listed on (or eligible for) the National Register of Historic Places. To be considered historic, a bridge must be at least 50 years of age and either listed or eligible for the National Register. Visit with the National Register office at your state preservation office for help with this information.

Historic bridge in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey
Historic bridge in Cedarburg, Wisc.

3. Determine who owns the bridge. Most likely your town, county, or state department of transportation owns the bridge. Make an appointment with the owner and learn about current or future plans for the bridge, such as replacement projects or studies to determine next steps. Work with local, county, and state officials to develop a management plan for existing bridges before they are scheduled for replacement.

4. Understand what procedures a bridge project must follow. The primary preservation law applicable to historic bridge projects that use federal funds is Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). NHPA requires federal agencies to take into account how their proposed actions will affect historic properties. For your bridge project, check if Section 106 will take place or is already in progress. If you cannot get a clear answer at the local level, check with your state department of transportation for assistance.

5. School yourself in the federal process. Section 106 allows citizens to participate in any of the opportunities for public input and comment. Citizens can also request to become a consulting party to play a larger role in the process. Check out the National Trust's Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act: Back to Basics book, as well as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's Citizen's Guide to Section 106 Review.

6. Work directly with the owner. In the rare event that a bridge project is not using federal funds, connect with the owner to work out a solution. Sometimes a historic bridge can be saved simply by raising funds to supplement its rehabilitation or maintenance.

Royal Gorge Bridge, Colorado. Credit: Larry D. Moore, Flickr
Royal Gorge Bridge, Colo.

7. Seek out and organize community support. Saving a bridge requires the support of more than one person, so start a friend's group or a "Save Our Bridge" committee. Make sure you have people with a variety of backgrounds in the group -- historians, architects, engineers, as well as those who love the bridge and are willing to work hard. Many times it is not just a lack of maintenance that seals a historic bridge's fate -- it's public apathy. So use any and all appropriate means to gather support and inform local residents that the bridge is in danger.

8. Support appropriate preservation solutions. As you move through the process, find out what preservation solutions might be appropriate for the bridge, such as rehabilitation for vehicular or pedestrian use, bypass with a new bridge on a different alignment, or relocation for pedestrian use. On-site visits to the bridge, communication with interested community members, and communication with involved agencies may help shed light on the best option. Don’t waste time and effort fighting for a particular preservation solution that has little support or is not feasible when you might be able to achieve other alternatives more easily.

9. Seek a new bridge owner if needed. Some solutions may require a new owner for the bridge. Be prepared to seek out organizations such as historical societies, museums, rails-to-trails organizations, and other nonprofits to find a preservation-friendly owner who will save the bridge either in place or at a new location.

10. Develop a fundraising strategy. A owner might be more willing to preserve a historic bridge or consider alternatives to demolition if additional funds are brought to the table to help rehabilitate or maintain the structure. Be prepared to organize a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that can accept donations or develop grants to raise funds.

Adapted from "How to Save a Bridge," Historic Bridge Foundation


The Historic Bridge Foundation (HBF) is the national advocacy organization for the preservation of historic bridges in the United States. Founded in 1998, HBF provides technical assistance to local groups working to preserve their historic bridges. In addition to serving as a consulting party on bridge projects, HBF also conducts workshops on bridge preservation and historically sensitive restoration methods.

By: Kitty Henderson, Executive Director of the Historic Bridge Foundation

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