A Work of Art & Engineering
Tom Ryan '63, artist and engineer, immortalizes rare bridge
Bow Bridge

The Bow Bridge—Early 1900s, 22" x 30" watercolor

 
By Meg Gallien

On Dec. 23, 1999, Tom Ryan ’63 was awarded an artist grant that would focus his own paintings and the work of others on the historic Bow Bridge in Hadley, N.Y. Two days earlier the county had slated the bridge for demolition.

The Bow Bridge was constructed in 1885 over the Sacandaga River in Hadley, located at the confluence of the Hudson and Sacandaga rivers in Saratoga County. Its setting over the Sacandaga is as dramatic as its design is unique. The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and has been closed to all traffic, including pedestrians, since 1983.

Ryan, who founded Ryan-Biggs Associates, P.C., in Troy, N.Y., in 1973, retired as an engineer in 1997 to pursue a second career in art. Since 1984 he has worked almost exclusively in watercolors. His work has been recognized with awards and is in many corporate and private collections. He also teaches classes and workshops.

Ryan’s New York State Council on the Arts grant, which was administered by the Saratoga County Arts Council, included several watercolors painted by him, workshops on location at the bridge, and a juried art competition including paintings, drawings, poems, photographs, and sculpture.

The project culminated in the publication of a book, The Art and History of the Bow Bridge, which includes more than 90 works of original art by 65 artists, including children. In many cases, statements by the artists accompany their works. The book also features a history of the bridge and its manufacturer, and brief histories of a nearby railroad trestle and an old paper mill near the bridge.

Ryan was drawn to the Bow Bridge for many reasons, including a local and personal interest—he lives three miles from the structure and shares family memories of passing under the Bow Bridge to the finish line in white-water racing events.

In addition, his background as a structural engineer sparked his appreciation for the design of the bridge, functionally as well as aesthetically. Also, an interest in historic preservation prompts him to promote the preservation of significant treasures of the past.

“Most importantly,” he says, “I thought it was an outstanding work of art. You see how beautiful it is; stunning, just magnificent.”

The Bow Bridge was designed in 1885 by the Berlin Iron Bridge Co. of East Berlin, Conn. It is a parabolic truss made of wrought iron. The use of steel in bridge construction was not common until the late 1890s, according to Eric DeLony, chief of Historic American Engineering Record for the National Park Service. DeLony’s comments are included in the book.

“From a national perspective, the Bow Bridge is an exceptional example of American bridge-building art,” says DeLony.

The parabolic style for the trusses was patented and used exclusively by the company, which built more than 600 bridges. However, the Bow Bridge was one of only three in which the deck was placed in the middle of the bows.

“The Bow Bridge may be the only one still existing in the world; it it incredibly rare,” says Ryan.

The bridge reflects an era of innovation in iron bridge design and engineering, according to Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, who wrote about the bridge’s significance for Ryan’s book. “By the turn of the century, steel bridge design had become much more standardized,” says Engelhart.

Ryan created paintings of the bridge that reflect different moods and different seasons. He also created a historical painting based on a circa 1900 photograph (pictured at top).

Ryan chooses to portray the bridge at all times in use, positioning fishermen or bicyclists in his paintings, for example. His portrayals of the bridge being used by pedestrians and bicyclists reflect his hope for the bridge’s future, which as of this writing remains uncertain.

The county initially called for demolition in early 2000, but a reprieve has been granted until the spring of 2001. It is currently undergoing an engineering study to determine the cost of preserving it, according to Ryan.

“A lot of people think this is pretty important,” says Ryan, noting the historian’s views and the increased efforts to preserve the bridge.

Ryan’s grant project can claim a significant role in raising awareness of the uncertain fate of this unique structure.

“Hopefully the bridge will be saved, but it’s pretty iffy right now,” he says.

If not the bridge itself, its story will be preserved for future generations through the artistry and initiative of Tom Ryan.

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