The railroad bridges over Potomac Creek–bean poles and trusses

By Hennessy:

Made famous by Lincoln’s decision to cross it on foot during his May 23, 1862, visit to Fredericksburg (click here for a post on that), the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac RR bridge over Potomac Creek was oft-sketched, photographed, and written about. Without question it was one of the more remarkable building achievements in the Fredericksburg region–many times over. At least three iterations of the bridge were built by Union engineers during the various Union occupations–once in May 1862, in November 1862, and in May 1864. Images of at least three of them survive.

This image shows the bridge as it appeared in the spring of 1863.

Lincoln's train crosses the bridge, April 5, 1863.

Just a couple weeks later, a photographer took this shot.  Note that the long supports under the trusses have been removed.

Taken in mid-April 1863, after Lincoln's visit.

Here is a view of the bridge in May 1864–after it had been reconstructed in just 40 hours. More than 6,000 Union wounded from Wilderness and Spotsylvania travelled over this bridge between May 22 and May 26, 1864.

The May 1864 iteration of the bridge. It carried wounded to Aquia Landing.

And then there is this view.  It’s credited to A.J. Russell, either 1862 or 1863–though we know that Russell didn’t begin taking photographs until the spring of 1863.  While it bears resemblance to the 1864 bridge, above, close inspection reveals that it is not the same bridge. Is it the 1862 bridge that Lincoln crossed?  Or perhaps someone out there who knows more about Civil War photography than I do can clue us in.

This image is credited to A.J. Russell, "1862 or 1863."

While I know of no image that is definitively of the “beanpole and cornstalks” bridge described by Lincoln, this image certainly captures the essence (if not the fabric) of what Lincoln likely saw in May 1862–a rather haphazardly built structure, constructed not by engineers but by gangs of detached soldiers. Its designer, Herman Haupt, complained that he could not convince men to go out onto the bridge to complete the bracing. No wonder….

When I sat down to write this, I’d intended to do a full-blown piece in our traditional style. But there’s little need to do that.  The folks over at the Historical Marker Database have already put together a very nice post on this site, including modern images, and I urge you to take a look at it here.  In the meantime, any of you who can offer some illumination on this, we’d be grateful.

7 thoughts on “The railroad bridges over Potomac Creek–bean poles and trusses

  1. John,

    There was in fact four bridges at Potomac creek built by the US Military. The first was the bean pole bridge of fame and legend. The second was a relative twin of the first built in the fall of 1863 just prior to the Battle of Fredricksburg, I have verified this through the OR and Haupt’s Memoirs. I need to get my copy of Haupt’s memoirs back sometime this week and I can give some more details – I did a bit of research in order to build a scale model of the bridge for a model railroad.

    Anyway, the second trestle was replaced in the winter of 1863, because they had issues with the log cabin style “first story” Haupt used. He lamented using them the second time, because they were prone to damage from high flows. They were constructed the way there were because they used soldiers to build the bridge. Many of the men were from the Iron Brigade and other western units and were well versed in log cabins.

    The truss bridge of 1863 was fairly historical as well due to it being prefabricated. The fourth bridge is the one you pictured with the diagonal bracing and milled lumber.

    The picture of the fishbelly truss clearly shows the log cabin type first story of the 1863 trestle.

    I will argue that the picture that has been used as the 1862 bridge is in fact the 1862 bridge. I say this because I believe, based on topography and the dark shadow on the center supports that the train is heading north. What is interesting is that the trestle bents between the stone supports change construction methods. Under the house car the bents are “M” shaped with four slanted vertical members. Under the engines tender The bents have three vertical members, one truly vertical and the two outside ones are slanted. These have diagonal “x” bracing. Looking at the last photo on your site, the visible bents between the two stone supports have three verticals and “x” bracing. These also seem to be on the south half of the center span, so to my eye it is different construction than the bridge with the train on it. My one source of real doubt is that the bridge with the train on it has what looks like milled lumber. I do not recall any mention of milled lumber on the first bridge. That being said the last photo of your post and another photo I believe was taken the same day shows extensive camps and buildings right along the tracks, that to my knowledge were not there in Spring of 1862.
    I hope I did not ramble and was clear, so let me know if I can clarify anything. In my opinion if EC Smeed left papers – that would be an awesome source – he was Haupt’s construction supervisor and built bridges throughout the war. Wright and Devereaux’s papers or even Haupt’s unpublished papers may be worth a look as well. My last thought is the conundrum of what happened to the stone used in the two stone supports. As I discussed with DP Newton, no one in Stafford let such things go to waste, and there is a good chance that stone ended up under some barns or houses.

    • Hello Karl: Thanks very much for the excellent information. Very good stuff. Is it your belief that the last image is the beanpole bridge? How do we get around the fact that it’s attributed to Russell, which in turn commands that the picture post-dates March 1863? Maybe there are some photography folks out there willing to venture a theory on that. Thanks much. John H.

      • I think the the last photo is the second bridge. There is another photo available that I believe was taken at the same time, but from on top of either a train car or hill overlooking the western side of the bridge facing north, it shows lots of tents and the buildings/block houses right near the tracks. I also speculate those two photos were taken right before the truss was put in place. The photo I spoke about has timbers piled at each end of the bridge and some possible scaffolding on the west side of the bridge. Haupt said he would not interrupt traffic on the line. A fellow modeler believes that the scaffolding held a a shoo-fly track, but I suspect that each section of the truss was constructed on the scaffold, the corresponding trestle bents removed, once the truss was ready and then the truss slid over, track reconnected and then they started running trains while the second and third trusses were built. Unfortunately all I have is speculation and some almost helpful photographs. Let me know if you do not have the other photo of what I believe to be the 1863 trestle bridge. As far as who took the photograph, so much of what I have come across is mislabeled, that my non-historian mind has just disregarded. The 1864 bridge is frequently misrepresented as the beanpole bridge and it is clearly not.

      • John,

        After looking at the photo with the train that I had previously thought was the original beanpole bridge and rereading some of Haupt’s memoirs, I beleive I have changed my mind. I had forgotten that the bridge was built in May – not April. Therefore there should be leaves on the trees and there should be some evidence of green green vegetation. Zooming into the right side of the photograph shows several saplings – all with bare branches. I suppose all of the disturbance could have killed them, but it would more likely that it was winter/early spring. My new theory is that all of the photos of the trestle are the second bridge, except for the one that is labeled as the 1864 bridge (vegetation is evident in that photo. This would also explain the use of some milled lumber evident in the photos.

  2. Hello…i now own the original home where this “beans and cornstalk” railroad is located…it is the Daffan home. I am trying to do research on it. It was used as a hospital for both sides during the war. I am looking for any information you can give hopes of saving the structure soon. I must presume that Mr. Lincoln visited the troops in the hospital while being there for the railroad.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s