Machine Beauty

The picture above is the Kinzua Viaduct, a bridge built by the Erie Railroad in rural Pennsylvania. It collapsed, after years of little maintenance, during a storm in 2003. Depending on your taste, it’s either an example of the power and beauty inherent in the mechine, or of the banality of mechanical reproduction. Personally, I feel that the engineering and construction portion of construction history and preservation are poorer without it.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Kinzua, despite how much I like it. I was recently reminded of it by the 2020 World Monuments Watch. It’s a list of worthy historic sites that are threatened in various ways. The presence of Notre Dame on the list is both unsurprising and depressing, for example.

As usual, I know some of the sites but am learning for the first time about most of them. One of the sites that I had not heard of before is the Bennerley Viaduct in England. It was, frankly, love at first sight. Bennerley is about the same size that Kinzua was; it crosses a less jagged valley and so looks less like a bridge and more like what it is: a railroad elevated on spidery truss work. The US in the nineteenth century had a history of high, metal-framed viaducts, following in the tradition of the kind of high timber-framed viaducts that inspired Lincoln to say “That man Haupt has built a bridge four hundred feet long and eighty feet high, across Potomac Creek, on which loaded trains are passing every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but cornstalks and beanpoles.” The UK, on the other hand, had more of a tradition then of masonry-arch viaducts, which are beautiful and impressive engineering in their own right, but in a different way.

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