When the Present Meets the Past
Sometimes history and engineering come face to face.
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
ivil War battlefields, Native American burial grounds, African American settlements, Pratt truss bridges, national parks, and farmsteads are just some of the historic places and structures that engineers and historians alike seek to preserve while ensuring US communities continue to progress into the future.
Architectural historians and archaeologists are playing an essential role in helping engineering firms and transportation departments balance the demands of current transportation and engineering projects while protecting important parts of American history and culture.
Matthew Dana, P.E., a design engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Staunton District, is responsible for project management in the northwest part of the commonwealth. The area is home to Civil War battlefields and other sites and structures of great cultural and historic value. Since roads are built where people are located, says Dana, many historic sites and resources are often close to these roads, bridges, and highways.
Historical resources and the impact that a transportation project may have on these resources are assessed early on. The goal is to mitigate any negative impacts to these areas and resources and to preserve pieces of history, says Dana.
Virginia DOT engineers rely on professional expertise in the DOT’s Cultural Resources Program, which is a part of the agency’s larger environmental review department. The archaeologists and architectural historians review plans for new construction and highway and bridge maintenance to ensure that effects on property of cultural and historical significance are avoided or minimized when possible. The agency does this work to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and state laws and regulations.
From time to time, there may be other resources that are found during the review process, says Dana. “A few years ago, we found a slave cemetery near a project site,” he recalls. “There were old plans that identified the approximate location of the graves. We had to handle this cemetery as a historical resource and mitigate the impact to this area.”
Antony Opperman, a Virginia DOT preservation program manager, believes that the public has a better grasp of historic preservation issues when they can see a historic building or historic bridge. “These things are tangible and touchable,” he says. “Archaeology takes an additional level of abstraction because it can’t be seen except by investigating.”
Once a project has been defined, the cultural resources department determines if there are historic properties and resources that will be affected by it. In addition to determining the location of both above and below ground resources through investigation, the department works with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, regulatory agencies, and other partners to access data and records on historic sites, structures, and properties.
If there is a site that will be greatly impacted during construction, Opperman’s department asks project engineers if they can shift a project’s path to avoid the resources while at the same time satisfying the requirements of the project. “If they can’t, then we might excavate and remove resources,” says Opperman, who has a master’s degree in anthropology with a specialty in archaeology.
Mitigating the Impacts
Virginia DOT owns and maintains numerous historic bridges, which is common for DOTs throughout the country. The Cultural Resources Program in coordination with the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research implements plans for managing the DOT’s 55 historic bridges. These structures, some of which were built prior to the Civil War, qualify to be listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
Dealing with the long-term preservation of historical bridges, says Opperman, if possible, is a mutual challenge from an environmental and engineering standpoint. “It’s even more of a challenge for our bridge engineers because they are the ones that have a significant responsibility for mobility and safety,” he says.
A project to replace a low-water bridge located over the Shenandoah River in Warren County is a prime example of how Dana and Opperman’s department will work together to preserve a piece of history while addressing a community’s current activities and safety concerns. The 321-foot-long, 11-foot-wide bridge, built in 1925, has a bridge sufficiency rating of two out of 100, which is one of the lowest in the state. The Morgan Ford Road bridge replacement project must also address increasing safety since the narrow bridge experiences flooding and has been the location of several fatal accidents. Next year, construction will begin on a new two-lane bridge that will be 480 feet long and 22 feet wide.
The project will be similar to the department’s Hawthorne Street Bridge rehabilitation project completed in 2006. The 75-foot-long steel-truss structure, built in the late 1800s in Covington, was in need of replacement due to corrosion and infrastructure damage and was limited to a seven-ton load rating. With funding from the Federal Highway Administration’s Innovative Bridge Research and Funding Program, the DOT was able to increase the maximum loading to 20 tons by using a fiber-reinforced polymer deck.
The Morgan Ford Road Bridge is located in an area once home to a pre-Civil War settlement of free African Americans, says Dana, and is also in an area for recreational, fishing, and hunting activities. “In order to limit the impact, we have to make the new bridge as narrow as possible and stay as close to the existing road as possible,” says Dana. “We also sent out archaeologists to conduct shovel tests to see if there are any artifacts in the area.”
The Lone Star Rail District project, which will serve routes between Austin and San Antonio, is being regulated by the Texas Department of Transportation. John Fulmer, cultural resources department manager at Burns & McDonnell, is leading a team to identify the cultural resources along the routes and find innovative ways to mitigate or avoid them.
Public meetings and extensive background research are essential to the environmental permitting process. This is the time when Fulmer’s team will learn the cultural and historical resources that may be along any proposed rail route. “Someone might let us know that there is a Native American site or that the farm house that they live in is 200 years old and very important to the area,” says Fulmer, who has a master’s degree in anthropology.
He adds, “Hopefully in our background research, we’ll identify where we think most of the constraints are going to be, and this helps us to be more efficient in the field. But the reality is that once you get out in the field, there’s no telling what you’re going to find.”
Fulmer’s team will work with project engineers to determine how to avoid cultural resources. “They will take into account all of the constraints that we identify as they consider the best route for the freight rail portion,” he says. “They will also take into consideration other environmental constraints like threatened and endangered species habitats and wetlands.”
The greatest challenge will come with assessing and documenting the historical resources on the passenger rail line, which is necessary to gain project approval. The team will assess the project’s potential impact on objects, structures, districts, and any above ground resource that could qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, says Brandy Harris, a Burns & McDonnell architectural historian. The 117-mile-long project will go through the downtown areas of communities that have significant historic districts and historic buildings. “They want to build new station locations, so that could impact significant buildings,” she says. “In addition to direct impacts, we have to consider construction vibration impacts, impacts on the setting, and document everything that is over 50 years old.”
More Than Buildings
Cultural preservation isn’t just about historic buildings, says Emily Pettis, who has served as a historian in Mead & Hunt’s cultural resources department for 14 years. “We also look at road corridors, railroads, bridges, and park landscapes,” she says. “We also have a very strong historic bridge knowledge base within our staff to conduct statewide surveys as well as management plans to assist DOTs with bridge preservation efforts.”
The architecture, engineering, and planning firm has offered in-house cultural resources services for more than 20 years to assist its project engineers. The 14 staff members, located in four of the firm’s more than 30 offices, also work with other engineering firms, private clients, and state DOTs.
Much of Pettis’ work involves researching historical records and documents. “As historians, a lot of what we look at is research materials,” says Pettis, who has a master’s degree in public history. “Everything is being digitized now and it’s easier for us to get our hands on.”
The firm is also taking advantage of the latest technologies to enhance preservation projects. GIS technology is used to analyze historic maps and to help clients and stakeholders understand the evolution of road networks and landscape changes. Scanning technology is used to document historical structures and bridges for Historic American Engineering Record documentation. Visualization technology is also used to help stakeholders gain a better understanding of how a project will appear upon completion.
A combination of technology and best practices played a critical role in how the firm and stakeholders worked together on a Wisconsin Department of Transportation project. The DOT contracted with Mead & Hunt to assist with stakeholder engagement and project planning for a safety enhancement project on a highway corridor that runs through Taliesin, a National Historic Landmark in Spring Green. Taliesin is also the location of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. The project involved pavement replacement, and replacing end treatments at three bridges within the historic area. “This is a major transportation route for people who live and work in the county and also gets people to Taliesin,” says Pettis. “The property includes a rolling, rural landscape that inspired Wright.”
One of the greatest challenges of the project, says Pettis, was getting everyone involved to understand that Taliesin is more than just the house and studio set back from the roadway. Creating this understanding involved using visualizations so that the stakeholders could understand what the new end treatments would look like once the project was completed.
“We had to identify the best solution for adding beam guards next to the bridges to create a safe transportation system, but in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the experience within the Taliesin landscape,” she says.
A Balancing Act
There is a delicate balancing act that also involves dealing with the desires and concerns of citizens and constituent groups. Some projects involving historic areas may present some controversy during the planning and review process. A historic preservation group may feel strongly about its heritage and historic properties in a neighborhood, or not want to see anything change. Communities may also feel strongly about a historic bridge that might have to be replaced because it’s failing or a project that may introduce more traffic into their neighborhoods. “While we may end up disagreeing with some of the facts that get introduced in a controversy over a project, we have to respect that people have a right to their opinion,” says Opperman. “As an agency, we have a responsibility to try to balance transportation needs with legitimate concerns.”
More than 90% of highway projects have absolutely no impact on historic properties or historic preservation—a statistic that Opperman believes may surprise most people. This isn’t by accident, but is a deliberate effort by agencies and the industry over the last 30 to 40 years. “The scope of our projects have gotten smaller and there has really been embedded an ethic in transportation agencies to avoid or minimize impacts when we can,” he says. “That takes a concerted effort and an exchange of expertise between environmental disciplines and our engineers who are challenged with carrying out these projects.”
Dana adds, “It’s about striking the right balance between the needs of the traveling public, safety, and the environmental and historical resources in the area.”