Two Transportation Technologies

That picture is the steamer Falls City passing High Bridge, Kentucky, circa 1907. The bridge carries trains on the line between Lexington and Danville through a fairly rural area; the nearest town is named High Bridge. The Kentucky River is in a deep gorge here – the bridge, at some 300 feet above the river, was the highest in the country when completed – on its way north to merge into the Ohio River.

Steamers that looked very much like the Falls City had been on the Mississippi and its vast system of tributaries since the early 1800s, although I suspect that one in use after 1900 was better built than most of its predecessors. There are a lot of fake paddlewheel steamers around today – nostalgia, I guess – and the wheels tend to turn quite slowly and are equipped with flimsy paddle boards. Paddlewheels are badly inefficient, and moving a boat with one is a lot of work: you get a sense of how fast the wheel is turning and the amount of water being pushed by the boards in the cloud of mist behind the Falls City.

The high bridge is a double-intersection Pratt truss, continuous across three spans and completed in 1877. Both towers are founded on dry land at the bottom of the gorge, which led to its erection method: the towers were built first, then the side spans with falsework as needed, and the the center (river) span was built by cantilevering the permanent trusses from the side spans to the center. No falsework was required over the river span, which was obviously a big deal, given the height. Unfortunately, the growth in size and weight of locomotives and freight cars doomed the bridge as built. Only a few years after this photo, the old deck was used as a platform to construct an entirely new cantilever-truss superstructure. The original engineer was Charles Shaler Smith; the redesign engineer was the more famous Gustav Lindenthal.

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