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THE ARTISTRY OF THE BOW BRIDGE:
TOM RYAN FIGHTS TO SAVE A HISTORIC BRIDGE
ONE BRUSH STROKE AT A TIME
On a misty morning in early October, Tom Ryan sets
up his artist’s easel on the tangled shore of the Sacandaga River.
He clamps a clean piece of watercolor paper to the wooden backing, and
looks around him, assessing the colors of the morning. He carefully squeezes
pigments onto a plastic palette, removes his brushes, fills a small plastic
container with water, and begins.
Tom Ryan has painted this scene many times. He has canoed and kayaked
with his family in the whitewater of this river, just a few miles from
his boyhood home on the edge of the Adirondacks. He has carried his painting
supplies down a drainage ditch, onto a railroad trestle, and across slippery
river rock to document a unique and beautiful scene that can only be painted
here, in Hadley, N.Y.
The Sacandaga River flows into the Hudson River at Hadley,
and its raging water physically divides the community of 1,800 people.
In 1885, the Berlin Iron and Bridge Company of East Berlin, Conn., was
hired to build a bridge over the Sacandaga, near the confluence of the
rivers, to connect the town’s two segments. But the result was more
than a thoroughfare across the water. It was a bridge that, according
to the National Park Service, is considered extraordinarily rare and significant
in American bridge-building art.
Officially named the Old Corinth Road Bridge, the steel structure is known
locally as simply the Bow Bridge. For years a part of the dramatic setting
of the Sacandaga River, the Bow Bridge design is unique among metal truss
bridges. Of the approximately 600 bridges designed and built by the Berlin
Iron and Bridge Company, only three were built with the unusual curved
“bow” above and below the deck. The Bow Bridge at Hadley is
the only one that still remains today.
For many years, the Bow Bridge served its purpose: transporting people
and goods across the Sacandaga River. Its wooden deck clattered from the
sound of horses and buggies, and in later years, automobiles. More recently,
the bridge provided a spectacular vantage point to watch whitewater kayaking,
rafting, tubing, and canoeing on the river. But over the years, the bridge
fell into disrepair. In 1977, the Bow Bridge was placed on the National
Register of Historic Places,
but in 1983 it was closed to all traffic, including pedestrian. For 20
years, the town of Hadley has been without its roadway across the river.
Tom Ryan grew up in Schuylerville, a small town in scenic upstate New
York, not far from the Hadley Bow Bridge. He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute in nearby Troy, N.Y., graduating with a bachelor’s degree
in building construction in 1963. He and his wife, Bobbi, then enrolled
at Iowa State, graduating in 1965, Tom with a master’s in architectural
engineering and Bobbi with a B.S. in botany. The Ryans lived in Pammel
Court and started a family in Ames before returning home to upstate New
Ryan pursued an engineering career for 32 years but always had an interest
in art. Originally an oil painter, Ryan switched his medium to watercolor
in the mid-’80s when his wife gave him a watercolor set for his
birthday. He retired from engineering in 1997 to pursue his art and to
teach watercolor painting. Ryan’s paintings depict the natural beauty
of the Adirondacks, and his work is displayed in galleries throughout
The Bow Bridge that Ryan first glimpsed as he passed beneath it in a canoe
in the 1970s began to draw his interest again – this time as a painter,
engineer, and historic preservationist. As an artist, Ryan captured on
his canvas the visual impact of the bridge in the
scenic gorge of the Sacandaga River. As an engineer, he had a technical
interest in the art and design of the structure. And as a historic preservationist,
Ryan believed it was important to preserve this significant treasure for
Not everyone in Hadley, N.Y., agreed with Ryan’s viewpoint. Although
his paintings depicted the Bow Bridge as a delicate, airy work of art,
Ryan said most of the townspeople viewed it as a “decrepit piece
of rusted steel,” and they wanted it torn down and replaced with
a “real” bridge. After being closed to traffic for nearly
20 years, the bridge was slated for demolition in 2000.
That year, Ryan applied for and received an artist grant from the Saratoga
County Arts Council from which he produced a 96-page book on the history
and significance of the Bow Bridge. The book contains more than a dozen
reproductions of his watercolor paintings and hand- tinted photographs
as well as historic
photos and illustrations, current photos, drawings, paintings by other
regional artists, and watercolor paintings by local schoolchildren.
Since the book was published, several public hearings have been held on
the future of the Bow Bridge. The debate: practicality and function vs.
historical significance and aesthetic beauty. The result: a compromise.
“The river divides the town of Hadley into two parts, and that bridge
is the link,” Ryan said. “The residents really want a bridge
they can drive across. The community is very small, and there aren’t
sufficient funds to rehabilitate the Bow Bridge as a pedestrian bridge
and build a new bridge as well, which would be the ideal solution. So
the compromise is that they will restore the Bow Bridge to traffic, which
will solve the local needs of the town and hopefully solve the issue of
saving this wonderful, historic bridge.”
Admittedly, Ryan isn’t completely happy with the compromise. Reconstructing
the bridge to make it accessible to logging trucks, school buses, and
fire trucks will render the delicate bridge “clunky” and heavy,
with steel reinforcements and a railing system.
“My real wish is that they would close the bridge to traffic permanently
and use it only for pedestrians and bicycles,” Ryan said. But he’s
pleased that the bridge will continue to exist in some form, and he thinks
his book had an impact on that decision.
“The book certainly raised public awareness in this bridge, and
it had a positive impact. I think that the book certainly helped preserve
the bridge from that point of view.”
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