“Whoa,” and “Wow” were the first things that came to mind when Wyoming Seminary Latin Professor Elizabeth Penland brought a van load of students up Route 11 on Saturday and they caught their first glimpse of the mammoth Tunkhannock Creek Viaduct or what is also known as the Nicholson Bridge.
“I’ve seen pictures, but they don’t do it justice,” Penland said.
It may be a fair question to ask as to what Latin has to do with bridge building but Penland said, “Why not?”
Wyoming Sem is looking at interdisciplinary approaches to bridge construction and the concrete industry as a way to get students to think about solving big problems with relatively simple solutions - albeit on such a grand scale as the Nicholson Bridge presents to the average observer.
What better place to start than the largest reinforced concrete bridge in the U.S., the Nicholson Bridge which was constructed between 1912 and 1915.
“It was built at a cost of $1.4 million,” Marion Sweet, chair of the Nicholson Heritage Association, shared with her visitors. “How much do you think that would be worth today?”
One of the visitors found a calculator on her smartphone and converted 1915 dollars to 2020.
“That would be $36 million in today’s dollars,” she said.
Warren Lewis, a land surveyor whose daughter Rhianna is part of the Sem class, told them that didn’t take into consideration today’s safety concerns.
But, as amazing as the 105-year-old bridge is today, perhaps more shocking is that its point of inspiration, according to the lead engineer on the project, A. Burton Cohen, was the famous Pont du Gard bridge near Nimes, in the south of France.
That bridge never served train traffic, however, but was similar in construction to the one in Nicholson although it had three tiers of arches with the top one serving as an aqueduct for moving water.
When Cohen’s grandson, Bob Wagner, was in Nicholson for the centennial celebration of that bridge in 2015, he noted that his grandpa admired the design’s durability as the Pont du Gard bridge was likely completed in the first century A.D.
It was a project allegedly done at the direction of Roman Emperor Augustus’ son-in-law Marcus Agrippa.
And, what the students were seeing in Nicholson was more than twice the Pont du Gard bridge’s width.
As Latin was important in the Roman Empire, Penland believes looking at a modern day monster project gives her students an understanding of the economies of scale, and also about how far the modern mind can be stretched to consider possibilities that transcend the ages.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) directed by John Eidam and the Classics at Wyoming Seminary have been working on a crossover project on Ancient and Modern Concrete Engineering. The purpose of the project is twofold, Penland said, to promote ancient material technology and to interest kids in engineering projects and industrial history.
In addition to the trip to Nicholson, Penland said that a student field trip was planned to the Coplay Cement Company Kilns, near Allentown.
“We also have a number of local construction projects close to campus that we’re hoping to have the students be able to visit (in person or virtually). And we are looking at the connections of Pennsylvania to the concrete industry in the U.S. and examples from local buildings and bridges. Our engineering club is planning to make forms, pour different concrete mixtures, and stress test them. We also have a 3-D printing club working on Roman construction examples starting with the Pantheon,” Penland said.
“The possibilities really are endless,” she said, noting the effort has drawn the attention of alumni who came forward with funding to purchase virtual reality technology so that students could view ancient Roman buildings and constructions in 3D.
And, the Sem students said they are likely to be back in Nicholson.
On their trip to the northeastern corner of Wyoming County, they also saw an 1849 railroad station that is in the process of becoming a Visitor Center.
Some students imagined community service projects helping to market the re-purposed train station, as well as helping the Nicholson Heritage Association catalog the train station’s historic records.
“It is a win-win for both institutions,” Sweet said.