May 16, 2016. Posted Saturday, May 21.
A Whipple Cast and Wrought Iron Bowstring Truss Bridge crossing a section of the old Erie Canal Vischer Ferry, New York. Monday morning. May 16, 2016.
Picking up from my post from earlier, another odd thing about what I remember about that passage from Player Piano that isn’t actually there for me to remember. Beside the fact that it isn’t there for me to remember. I remember it as containing a detailed enough description of local geography that I could tell right off that Vonnegut had reversed the map and put General Forge and Foundry on the opposite side of the river from where General Electric’s located and that his line of commuters were crossing the bridge from the east instead of the west, which of course is what the line of cars I passed on my drive out to Alplaus were doing.
Funny how mind and memory work. Like I said in that post, even though I now know that passage is a work of my own imagination and not Vonnegut’s, I still remember it. Not only do I remember it, I can see it. I can picture the words on the page and the page in the book and the book in my hands. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to write any more about that now.
I’m going to write about how the rest of my morning drive across the river went.
As I mentioned, my high school girlfriend’s house isn’t my destination on these drives. It’s my turning around point. But I don’t head straight back to Mom and Pop Mannion’s, just as I don’t drive straight out there. I take the scenic route both ways. I’m never sure what the scenic route is until I’m on it. I make myself go find it, more or less deciding where to go looking for it with mental coin flips. This morning it was heads north, tails east. Came up tails. I drove east from Alplaus, following the Mohawk on the same side, and found my way to Vischer Ferry, six miles down the river, a self-advertised “Greek Revival Erie Canal Village” that actually dates from about ninety-years before Clinton started digging his ditch. Pretty little town but I continued on through until I came to the A.C. Stevens Nature and Historic Preserve a couple miles down the road, six-hundred acres of woods and wetlands mostly spread out along the banks of the Mohawk but separated from the preserve’s main entrance by a section of what remains of the original Erie Canal.
I didn’t venture far into the preserve. I couldn’t. I'm still that gimpy. But I did manage to hobble a couple hundred yards out and back. Probably the longest walk I’ve taken in two years.
The Audubon Society of the Capital Region’s website has a checklist of the types animals and birds that make the preserve their home or a stopping-off point on their migrations. I wouldn’t have been able to add many check marks if I’d had the list with me. Saw some robins and blue jays. Red-winged blackbirds. Pair of cowbirds on a telephone wire. What could have been a belted kingfisher skimmed the tops of the cattails and reeds out in the canal but it was far out and flew fast and I couldn't be sure. Might have been just another blue jay. Several families of Canada Geese waddled their separate ways through the tall grass along the canal bank and back out by the road. The goslings were in that awkward adolescent phase, still cute but cute in being adorably ugly. They were downy, scrawny, long-necked, stubby-winged. Regularly they’d give their featherless wings a furious flapping, not looking as if they expected to take flight but as if they were mad at the slowness of their development and saying to themselves, “Grow, dammit!” On the underside of their wings I could see actual gooseflesh. The morning was chilly---forty-five degrees---and blustery with thick, low gray clouds. I kept one hand in my pocket but my bare camera hand froze.
To get from the small parking lot into the preserve you have to walk across a short iron truss bridge that a bronze plaque at the foot of the path leading up to it identified as Whipple Bridge. The plaque said it was built by Squire Whipple and I assumed the bridge was named after him. And it was. But not in the sense of Whipple Bridge being a proper name. It’s a product name. It’s not Whipple Bridge. It’s “a” Whipple bridge. Squire Whipple---who was not a squire. Squire was his proper name.---designed and engineered this type of bridge in 1841 specifically to be laid across the canal which was in the process of being enlarged, a project that required the building of hundreds of new bridges. Squire Whipple has a claim to being the first professional bridge builder in the United States. He wrote what would eventually become the book on bridge building. His Cast and Wrought Iron Bowstring Truss Bridges were sturdy, dependable, durable, and relatively cheap and quick to build. Whipple built his first one, paying for its construction out of his own pocket, in Utica, about ninety miles west of here. The plaque says the one in Vischer Ferry was built in 1869 by Whipple himself. Which is not a given. Many Whipple Bridges were not Whipple’s bridges.
Whipple patented his design but that didn’t stop others from copying it. For decades after he built his first bridge, he had to spend a lot of time in court defending his design against patent infringements. He didn’t win every case. Imitators had only to make a few refinements or vary their designs slightly to make a Whipple Bridge into their bridge in the eyes of the courts. Eventually, Whipple gave up. The last straw might have been when the state of New York officially adopted his bridge design as the standard for bridges over the canal, but then stiffed Whipple on the royalties by declaring that since the bridges were being built for “the public good” and not for private profit, the public didn’t owe him any royalties.
I’ve been cribbing from Wikipedia and Wikipedia doesn’t seem to know how many Whipple Bridges were finally built by him and his imitators. Only two are still in use as bridges for vehicular traffic. This isn’t one of them. But apparently none of them, including the two still open to cars and trucks, are in their original location. Another useful feature of Whipple Bridges was that they were portable. The parts were manufactured in pieces small enough that they could be shipped easily to any point they were needed and assembled on the spot without much fuss or bother. Basically, Whipple sold them in kits. Wikipedia doesn’t say if the kits traveled by boat along the canal but I’d guess that would have been the cheapest and most efficient way, not to mention the most appropriate and poetic. This bridge originally stood out in the hamlet of Sprakers in Montgomery County, forty-four miles west of here. In 1919, after forty years of service there, it was taken apart, packed up, moved, and reassembled on a spot ten miles east on Cayudatta Creek in the village of Fonda. In the 1990s, Montgomery County gave it to the town of Clifton Park, which oversees the preserve, and some engineering students from Union College restored it and rebuilt it here.
And that’s about all I have to tell you about Whipple Bridges.
I can tell you a little more about Fonda, New York. Originally it was called by the Iroquois name Caughnawaga. It was renamed shortly after the Revolutionary War in honor of one of the original Dutch settlers, Douw Fonda. Henry, Jane, Peter, Bridget, and all the acting Fondas are descended from Douw Fonda. In 1780 an army of Loyalist troops and their Mohawk allies led by Joseph Brant raided the village. Douw, an old man at the time, was scalped and killed.
So it goes.
(See what I did there?)
Here’s that earlier post, Listen: Lance Mannion has come unstuck in time.