Upstate New York is one of those regions where the natural and built environments blend together while the old and new may stand side by side. History and heritage can be found not only in beloved churches and courthouses but in barns and gristmills, even those that may be collapsing. Sometimes the landmark or scenic spot will find friends and protectors — Vestal has preserved an old coal house, Norwich still has its DL&W railroad observation tower — but it always takes concentrated effort to keep something whose original use has faded.
Saving the Zenas King Iron Bowstring Bridge that crosses the West Branch of Cayuga Inlet in Newfield, NY was in some ways more difficult than preserving a superannuated City Hall (Binghamton) or even an old county jail (Owego). For one thing, the bridge itself had become something of an eyesore and thus one of those things that people could stop noticing. It was old — the ribbon was snipped in 1873 — and not very large — 54 feet long and barely wide enough for a Model-T. It has been obsolete since the advent of the automobile and closed to all but foot traffic since 1972. What’s more there is an 1853 wooden covered bridge just downstream from the bowstring bridge, serving both quaintness and convenience.
But the iron bridge had value in itself, and as Newfield and its bridge entered the 21st century stabilization and preservation found a champion in Karen Van Etten. She grew up in Maryland, served in the U.S. Air Force as an emergency room technician, married and came to Newfield to raise a family. She took a keen interest in her adopted community, where an uncle was Town Supervisor. In 2000 Newfield’s covered bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places and Karen’s concern grew for the iron bridge. She ran for town board as an independent, losing twice but winning election in 2001 (by four votes). She could now work from inside the system, and it’s from that perspective that she tells the story of saving the Zenas King Bowstring Bridge.
“King Bridge over Troubled Waters” is a work of local history but also includes a detailed history of the King Iron Bridge and Manufacturing Company and a biography of its founder Zenas King. Bridge construction was important to the industrialization of the United State in the nineteenth century, and by the end of that century King Bridge had built around 10,000 bridges of various designs. The bowstring bridge was an engineering masterpiece and the description makes one think of a musical instrument:
Two curved spans were placed approximately 12 feet across from each other. The top chord and the bottom chord were connected horizontally and set in place with cast iron members. Once the chords were symmetrical, wood planks could be attached. Each end of the arch was set in cast iron bearing shoes resting on the abutments. The bearing shoe connects the arch to the bottom tension chord. The bottom chords are rectangular punched eye bars, wrought from large rods of iron. The roadway is hung directly from the top chords of the arches.
There are now only five Zenas King bowstring bridges still standing in New York State. Unlike the bridge’s short and straight crosswalk the project of its preservation is long and twisted. There was conflict between the Town of Newfield and Tompkins County over exactly who owned the bridge, and it was only with the involvement of the New York State Historic Preservation Office that evaluations were made and funding was found. The support by descendants of Zenas King also helped restore the bridge.
In addition to her political and preservational activities, Karen Van Etten is a school bus driver for the Newfield schools.