Construction History: Fast and Quotable

The American Civil War was not the first to use railroads, but it used them far more extensively than any other war until World War I. Railroads were responsible for logistical support for the vast distances of the western campaigns, and for the seemingly endless battles in the 100 miles separating Washington and Richmond. The one major Union effort to use the many navigable rivers of Virginia, the Peninsular Campaign, ended badly.

The bridge in the photo above was a temporary replacement for a bridge across the Potomac Creek* on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad destroyed by confederate soldiers in early 1862. This temporary bridge lasted about a year, before being replaced by a more permanent temporary bridge, but it became famous when Abraham Lincoln visited it shortly after its completion. Lincoln was quoted as saying “That man Haupt has built a bridge five hundred feet long and one hundred 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.” That may not be the most accurate statement about a bridge, but it’s my favorite.

A fanciful drawing of the piers of the old bridge after it was destroyed.

“That man Haupt” was Herman Haupt, an engineer who was a graduate of West Point, and had worked as an engineering professor and a railroad engineer.** He returned to the army in 1862 in charge of the United States Military Railroad; the Potomac Creek bridge was one of his first projects. The temporary bridge was built using trees cut down nearby and with soldiers as the laborers. The actual construction took nine days.

During or immediately after construction.

I feel that Haupt has been neglected in American engineering history. He wrote the first usable book on truss design by an American, but it’s not as well known as Squire Whipple’s earlier book. Whipple got there first, but if you didn’t already understand truss design, perhaps from reading an imported European text, you’d have a hard time learning it from him. Haupt’s claim to fame as “second but much better” isn’t emotionally compelling. Haupt also performed well in private work for railroads, in the Army, and as a teacher; the combination of being able to teach theory clearly and perform real design work successfully is rare in engineering, then and now. He obviously was proud of the Potomac Creek bridge, as it is the first plate in his memoirs. Its 1863 replacement was also worthwhile:

Note the abandoned cribbing, from the first bridge, in the creek bed.

Many of the veterans of the USMRR went on to build railroad bridges and other structures in the last third of the nineteenth century. The emphasis on speed and lightness that the wartime designs had seems to have carried on for some time.

* The creek is a small tributary of the much larger Potomac River.

** He worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Horseshoe Curve and the Hoosac Tunnel of the Troy and Greenfield Railroad, two of the most ambitious US engineering projects of the mid-1800s.

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