Coincidentally: A Bridge to the Future

The promise to “build a bridge to the future” has become a mantra in recent politics. It is less cogent than Longfellow’s maxim in The Golden Legend about not crossing a bridge until you come to it. The future needs no bridge. One cannot go out to it the way you can go from the Bronx to the New Jersey Palisades.

Commonly, a bridge is a structure built to cross a body of water. An exception to this rule was the former London Bridge rebuilt in 1831 by John Rennie. His bridge did span the Thames, but it was purchased by an American land developer who removed it to an Arizona desert as a tourist attraction in 1973, the bridge being erected first and water placed under it later. The developer thought the London Bridge was the Tower Bridge. It became a public relations success nonetheless, showing that the man made up in commercial shrewdness what he may have lacked in general culture.

The Pons Aemilius, the first masonry arch across the Tiber, begun in 179 B.C., was no less a technical marvel than what was the longest reinforced concrete bridge when it was completed in 1911: the Risorgimento, which spanned the same watery vein. Two years later in Missouri, the St. Louis Municipal Bridge was dedicated concurrently with the appointment of England’s poet laureate, Robert Bridges. The numerical sum of the year of his birth, 1844, multiplied by 10, is identical to the length in feet of the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware River. The precursor of the simple truss St. Louis Municipal Bridge was a steel arch structure completed in 1871 and designed by James Buchanan Eads, who planned the bridge over the isthmus of Tehuantepec. He died in the Bahamas on March 6, 1887, as Henry Ward Beecher died in Brooklyn. And Brooklyn’s phenomenal suspension bridge was completed simultaneously with the cantilevered railway bridge at Niagara Falls.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, having lyricized “the rude bridge that arched the flood,” published Representative Men in 1850 as the tubular girder Britannia Bridge was dedicated over the Menai Strait in Wales, whose inhabitants in moral darkness had worshipped the water. The cost of the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River was $20 million, identical to the estimated damages of the great New York City fire of 1835 and the price paid for the Philippine Islands. The Hell Gate Bridge over the East River in New York, the Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington, the Manhattan State Bridge in Chattanooga, the Ohio River Bridge at Metropolis in Illinois, the Quebec Bridge, and the Sciotoville (Ohio) Bridge were built in 1917. And the Outerbridge Crossing Bridge at Staten Island really is the outer bridge crossing although its name honors the Outerbridge family of New Jersey.

The Pecos Viaduct in Texas, built on Euclidean principles, is 323 feet high, and Euclid was born in 323 B.C. The fifth proposition of Euclid’s first book is so difficult to “get over,” for students not mathematically inclined, that it has been known since the Middle Ages as the pons asinorum, or “bridge of asses.”

The longest suspension span of any bridge is that of the Humber Estuary Bridge in England stretching 1,410 meters, which, if converted to years, is the year in which the Pisan cardinals pretended that the pirate Baldassare Cossa was Pope John XXIII, Pontifex Maximus. That title of greatest bridge builder may have been a pun on an Osco-Umbrian term for a sacrificial offering. Satirized by Tertullian, it became a papal laurel around the fifth Christian century. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge changed papal history in 313, which when converted to feet equals the span of the concrete arch Grafton Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand.

In 1840, the year England took formal possession of New Zealand, Macaulay wrote in his essay on von Ranke: “She [the Roman Catholic Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Macaulay was working from Sarah Taylor Austin’s translation of von Ranke’s Die Romischen Papste. She also translated Guizot’s Discours sur l’Histoire de la Revolution d’Angleterre, which was published ten years later at the time of the dedication of the Menai Straight bridge. Exactly 100 years after Macaulay penned his essay, a 42-mile-per-hour storm sent the four-month-old Tacoma Narrows Bridge crashing into Puget Sound, a result of aerodynamic flaws. Macaulay did not expect that before the end of the 20th century, the broken arch he lyricized would be in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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