Bridge builder

Oil painting of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos, circa 1791

TOM PAINE’S IRON BRIDGE: Building a United States. By Edward C. Gray. Norton. 235 pages. $26.95.

While there is a large number of people who know of Thomas Paine’s spirited support of the American Revolution and his Common Sense pamphlet, only a few know of his fierce attack on organized Christianity in the Age of Reason, and fewer still know that he was an architect and builder of bridges. History knows him for the passionate, persuasive publication of ideas, not for his foresighted fascination with the development of iron overpasses.

In the late-1700s, the new republic was growing in place as well as expanding toward the west. Roads, other than local streets, were limited by river crossings. Fords and ferries were the favored form of crossing. Bridges of stone and wood were limited to a short span, or sequence of short spans. The Schuylkill River at Philadelphia was a problematic crossing that aroused Paine’s creative mind.

Wooden bridges, even when covered, had limited lifetimes. Linked short stone arches blocked the river to traffic during construction, and even when completed, the passage blocked masted vessels and only permitted barges. England was more advanced in ironworks and the industrial revolution than America, and by copying Paine’s models, preceded the U.S. in the use of iron for bridge construction.

Besides, America was one big forest. If it had easy use of any natural resource, it was lumber, so wooden bridges prevailed. Infrastructure enabled development then as it does today.

Edward C. Gray, a history professor at Florida State University, has created a short, extremely well-researched book recording Paine’s little-known role as a pioneer in the construction of iron bridges. He does not dwell on the philosophies of the opinionated firebrand except to point out that his pen cost him the support of key people and institutions when he most needed it. Gray’s book is an enjoyable, expeditious read that will fill in a facet of American history you didn’t even know existed.

Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer currently living in Hanahan.