BRIDGE PLATES–THE BUILDER’S SIGNATURE

By Allan King Sloan—August, 2005

In the competitive arena of 19th century bridge building, the builders of these iron and steel structures were most anxious to let people know who they were. Just as an artist signs a painting, the builders would create and attach plates to the structure with the company name, date and sometimes the names of the clients. Zenas King was no exception. Over its six decades of operation, the King Bridge Company attached a variety of different styles of plates to their bridges often reflecting the concerns of the period. In the early years of operation, Zenas was concerned with his patents. As a result the bridge plates were designed to feature his patent situation, particularly with the bowstring bridges. As the company moved to building standard trusses, patents were not the issue but a distinctive signature was. The design of the plates became more ornamental, particularly for those through trusses that carried a cross beam where the plate could be prominently displayed. Still later, in the era of heavier bridges, the plate designs became simpler and more functional with square and rectangular plates often placed on an end post or beam girder. These standard offers were also accompanied with special plaques designed to reward the road commissioners or others who had made the wise decision to choose the King Bridge Company to build their bridge.

Examples of the various sizes, shapes, and styles of King Bridge Company builders plates are shown in the three sections below.

  • The earliest plates from the bowstring era
  • The standard plates
  • The special plates

If any visitors to this web site have seen or have access to any King bridge plates, please let us know. We continue to add these plates to our family collection and are also interested in pictures of these plates, particularly when attached to existing bridges.

PLATES FROM THE EARLY BOWSTRINGS

Zenas King was most anxious to have the name of his company and patent prominently displayed on his first bowstring bridges. Before his patent for his bowstring design was finally approved, he apparently included “E. & F. & Z. King Patent” on the plates, two of which are shown below from two of his earliest bowstrings from the early 1870’s which are still standing today,

PLATE FROM THE SMITH ROAD BRIDGE, CRAWFORD COUNTY, OHIO

CA 1870 (NOW LOCATED AT THE OHIO HISTORICAL SOCIETY, COLUMBUS)

ORIGINAL PLATE FROM THE BEECH ROAD BRIDGE, NEWFIELD NEW YORK

(RECENTLY RESTORED)

Later on the plates read ”Z.King Patent July 31, 1867” as appears on the Fort Laramie Army Bridge built in 1875. The reason for the change in the patent reference in not entirely clear, nor is the reference to “E & F” on the earlier plates. Perhaps Zenas was sharing credit with other collaborators or designers on bridges that did not strictly follow the designs in his patent application.


RUBBING FROM THE FORT LARAMIE ARMY BRIDGE PLATE BUILT 1875


PLATE FROM THE FORT LARAMIE ARMY BRIDGE, 1875

When the three span Hale Bridge was built over the Wapsipinicon River in Jones County, Iowa in 1878, two different style plates were attached to the different spans; a plate with the patent citation to one of the shorter spans and a plate of a completely different design attached to the larger span as shown below.

When the three span Hale Bridge was built over the Wapsipinicon River in Jones County, Iowa in 1878, two different style plates were attached to the different spans; a plate with the patent citation to one of the shorter spans and a plate of a completely different design attached to the larger span as shown below.


PLATE #1 FROM THE HALE BRIDGE, JONES COUNTY, IOWA


PLATE # 2 FROM THE HALE BRIDGE, JONES COUNTY,IOWA

THE KINGLY CROWN ERA

In the late 1870s a variation on the rectangular plate with a crest like the one pictured above appeared in the form of what looked to be a kingly crown replacing the crest like the one pictured below on the right. It is now owned by a collector in Amherst, Massachusetts. Apparently this design was very fragile, for the plate we were able to obtain from this era and shown below on the left had lost its kingly crown but kept the little knobs.

OUR PLATE WITH CROWN BASE ONLY

ANOTHER OWNER’S PLATE WITH FULL CROWN

By the time the 1880s rolled around, the bowstrings were replaced by the stronger and more durable American standard (Pratt/Warren) trusses as the bridge favored by both the highway authorities and the railroad companies. Featuring the patent data on the bridge plates became less important, but giving a plug to the owner of the bridge was sometimes the mode. The tombstone design shown below was used most commonly on the end posts of pony trusses of the era.

TOMBSTONE PLATES

These three plates are from our family collection, middle plate of which is from a pony truss originally installed across Black Creek in Byron, New York. Mr. Sands, the County Commissioner of the time, was obviously pleased to have his name attached to this locally important public work. This bridge, with an identical plate, now resides on land on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, New York donated by our family to the Woodstock Land Conservancy.


COUDERSPORT, PA.


NEW BRIDGE, NOVA SCOTIA

THE STANDARD PLATES OF THE 1880s AND 1890s

After twenty or so years in the business, the King Bridge Company’s bridges became more numerous and standardized and so did the bridge plates they offered to their clients. For the standard through (Pratt or Warren) trusses that were the main product of the era, the company adopted a distinctive design featuring sculpted crest at center top with or without brackets at either end of rectangular plates. These were attached to the cross beams of the through trusses as shown below for two bridges still standing, Happy’s Bridge in Marion, Virginia and the Piano Bridge in Texas .


PLATE ON THE RECENTLY RESTORED HAPPY’S BRIDGE IN MARION, VIRGINIA


PLATE ON THE PIANO BRIDGE IN DUBINA, TEXAS


FROM A BRIDGE IN WESTERN NEW YORK STATE


FROM A BRIDGE IN TENNESSEE


FROM THE SUMMER STREET RETRACTILE BRIDGE IN SOUTH BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

Our family has five of this style of plate in our current collection which were called number fours or number fives in the Standards Catalogue the company produced in the 1890s to display its wares as shown below.

PLATE ON THE FAUST STREET BRIDGE, NEW BRAUNFELs, TEXAS

It is interesting to note that the number 5 plate the company installed on the recently restored Faust Street bridge in New Banunfels Texas included the names only of the County officials who had commissioned the bridge. There was apparently no room left for the name of the company, but such was the price of doing business in the competitive environment of 19th century bridge building.

THE NO FRILLS FUNCTIONAL PLATES

At the turn of the century, there were a number of heavier bridges being built by the company and more functional and thicker builder’s plate was being attached. These were either square or rectangular with no additional adornments. The two plates below from our collection are examples of number one and number two plates described in the company’s standards catalogue.


FROM THE APPROACH RAMP TO THE EADS BRIDGE
IN ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

FROM A RAILROAD BRIDGE IN MICHIGAN

So far we have been unable to add any plates of the number three design above to our collection, The picture on the right is from a bridge located in Doane, Pennsylvania. If any visitor to this web site knows of any plate of this design, or any other plates of any design, please let us know.

SPECIAL PLATES

In a very competitive environment, the independent bridge builders were often required to massage the egos of their clients in the normal course of doing business. One of the most popular methods was to include the names of the clients on the bridge plates as a permanent tribute to their wisdom in selecting the company for the contract. Special decorative plates were often created for this purpose like the plate on the Broadway Street Bridge (now relocated to Merriam Street) in Minneapolis shown below.


THE MERRIAM STREET BRIDGE IN MINNEAPOLIS (ORIGINALLY THE BROADWAY STREET BRIDGE)

The plate below in the form of the façade of a Greek temple with the names of the Commissioners was designed for the Grand River Bridge in Painesville, Ohio.

The names of the Park Commissioners who gave the contract for the Central Bridge on Belle Isle Park in Detroit were included on the fancy shield shown below while the King Bridge name appears discreetly on the foot post.

For the Second Street Bridge in Allegan, Michigan, the company made three separate plates; a standard number four plate with just the date, an ornate plaque for a cross beam with the company name, and a tombstone with the names of the commissioners.

When the Veteran’s Memorial (Detroit-Superior) Bridge was rehabilitated in 1996, the engineers placed new plates at the ends of the steel arch to denote the fabricator of the original structure, a nice touch for the last remaining of the great bridges built by the King Bridge Company. This is the plate shown on the left below. On the right below is a plate that Harry W. King, the last president of the King Bridge Company, placed on a beam girder bridge donated to the village of Granville, Zenas King’s birthplace as a tribute to his father.

A “COMPETITOR’S “ PLATE

George E. King was Zenas King’s nephew who started his career as a King Bridge Company agent in the west. As was the case with a number of the company’s agents, George decided in the 1880s to set up his own company in partnership with his cousin, George Wheelock, operating out of DeMoines, Iowa. George in turn hired a number of his own agents, including George and Frank Austin who came to Texas first as George King’s agents and then went on to set up their own firm, The Austin Bridge Company which was one of the major builders of suspension bridges in Texas during the first quarter of the 20th century (it operates today as Austin Engineering, a leading international engineering firm). Meanwhile, in the era of the mergers of the independent bridge companies during the last decade of the 19th century, George King decided to merge with independent bridge builders Horace Horton of Rochester, Minnesota, and the Kansas City Bridge and Iron Company of Rosedale, Kansas to form the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company. Chicago Bridge and Iron was a major competitor of the King Bridge Company during the later years of its operation.

The plate below appears on a bridge in the Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia and was sent to us by Suzanne Bennett (qzsnood@gmail.com) who is working on a history of this bridge. The design of the bridge plate appears to have taken some inspiration from the number four plates of his uncle’s company, but with some unique embellishments.

 

King Bridge Manufacturing Company, News