AIA Spring Tour 2012 - Indiana, Ohio, Michigan - May 2012

Our trip began in Indiana, on the north bank of the Ohio river, inspecting some of the earliest iron truss bridges - the examples being from 1878 and 1887. Here we learnt to distinguish between double and triple intersection Pratt through truss designs – built by local companies and still in good shape today.

At the Markland Locks, we witnessed a push-tow of 15 empty coal barges going down – a tight fit, needing expert navigation. Around 40 million tons of coal is shipped through the locks every year for the power stations upstream.

We were welcomed in Madison by John Staicer and were taken first to the Schroeder Saddletree factory. Many of us not knowing what a saddletree was, we soon discovered that it is the wooden frame on which a saddle is built.

From 1878 this small factory, packed with belt powered machinery was run by a single family and produced about 500,000 frames until it was abandoned in 1972. A conservation project was started in 2002 which involved dismantling the whole building, as many of the floor and structural members were rotten. The project has won national and state preservation awards.

We stopped by the steepest stretch of standard gauge track in the U.S. The track was installed in a cutting through the 400 foot high bluffs on the west of Madison in the late 1830s. The grade is 7,012 feet long over a 413 foot rise - 5.89%.

We were welcomed too at the restored Medora bridge, which at 431ft is the longest covered bridge in the US, built in 1875 as a triple span, multiple king post truss design with Burr Arch.

The Medora shale brick company began manufacturing in 1904 with six kilns growing to twelve by 1955. Struggling against competition from automated plants this largely manual site ceased operation in 1992.

The kilns are almost the only remaining feature, the mechanical aparatus having been scrapped. On a warm afternoon, wandering around and inside the red brick kilns amongst the invading scrub, we were entertained by the stories of the last production manager who worked on the site.

Still in Indiana, Seymour Manufacturing has been making handtools since 1872 and continues in production today. We were able to see the mostly manual processes involved in making post hole diggers (to my eyes, unhindered by the kind of health and safety rules prevalent in Europe) and we learnt a new word: Snath - being the curved handle for a scythe.

In complete contrast, at Cummins diesels, we saw how a modern diesel engine assembly plant works. We had to wear safety gear but we were allowed to get up close to the operations and saw the 6.7 litre straight-six diesel engines for the Dodge Ram pick-up being made.

Lunch was at the Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor, serving ice cream and soda since 1900 and we enjoyed our meal listening to music from a 1908 Welte Orchestrion or the nickelodeon, if you dropped a quarter in the slot.

Thence to Cincinnati to be welcomed by the SIA at their annual conference. We were fortunate to be able to join a trip to the Cincinnati Water Works, Old River station. There our breath was taken by the sheer scale of the engineering. Four vast, inverted, vertical triple expansion engines drove twelve pumps located 85 feet below ground which from 1906 until 1963 supplied the city with 30 million US gallons per day from the Ohio river.

Later at Verdin Bell we were first shown the most modern bells, which are entirely electronic but produce a very realistic sound in single, multiple or carillon arrangements at the touch of a button. But then we were all relieved to be told that they did also produce bells in the traditional fashion as well.

And so to the foundry, with its heat and the principal operative encased in an aluminium suit. Soon the crucible was manoeuvred into position, the wheel wound and a stream of molten bronze flowed into the moulds – one of the great highlights of the trip!

A day of paper presentations followed – all fascinating but topped off, for me, by a talk by Dan Trepal about his work in Alaska preserving and recording abandoned mines and making them safe in the National Parks. He told us of a mine halfway up a mountain, only reached with climbing skills. After making an adit secure, there followed a discussion about some abandoned oil drums left from the 1920s. Should they be removed? No, they’re an historic feature of the site. But they contain oil which is dangerous but yet may be of historic interest in itself. What to do? Obviously you get a helicopter to lift the drums out to where the oil can be preserved and the drums cleaned and then returned!

From there to Dayton, Ohio and the USAF museum – the largest aviation museum in the world. There’s everything from a Wright Flyer to a Stealth Bomber but, for me, standing under a B52 was overwhelming!

Our final destination was Detroit. Our tour took in industrial buildings on the riverfront (with views of Canada) and the first steel framed factory building. We visited the Ford Piquette Plant, now a museum, where Henry Ford built his early cars and the first Model T.

We saw the Highland Park plant where the first production line was created and the empty devastation of the Packard plant, the Fisher plant and many residential properties which now characterise a large part of Detroit. The latter two factories and the magnificent General Motors and Fisher office buildings in the town centre were the work of the renowned architect Albert Kahn.

Our last two days were spent in the excellent Ford museum and Greenfield Village where we saw many of the artefacts collected by Henry Ford, including a Newcomen engine of 1760 and Edison’s workshop where we saw an early phonograph demonstrated.

Huge thanks are due to Bill McNeice for the guiding in Indiana, Charlie Hyde in Detroit and Ron Petrie of the SIA for overall help.