The Bridge of Flowers in western Massachusetts proves a creative case study for Tufts engineering students
Brian Brenner, a professor of the practice at the School of Engineering, sees the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, from multiple angles.
For nearly 100 years it has been a popular tourist attraction off the scenic Mohawk Trail, drawing thousands of visitors annually from around the world to walk its lush garden beds spanning the Deerfield River. Less well known is that under that celebrated status lies a more ‘pedestrian’ kind of bridge, said Brenner. “It also supports a water utility pipe that provides service for the communities in the valley.”
The well-tilled, 400-foot bridge is also a symbol of community pride, an example of the resilient arch (deployed even well before the Romans), and a vital part of the character of a town’s well-preserved character. Said Brenner: “The overall layout of Shelburne Falls is magnificent. It is a village that appears almost frozen in time. There's no McDonald's, there's no Kmart with giant parking lots. It's this 19th-century town, and it’s where the bridge fits perfectly.
“The Bridge of Flowers is representative of a structure that does more than just span the river and carry a key utility. It also expresses the symbolic function of bridges to connect people and ideas. In that sense, it serves as great subject for study.”
Last spring, Brenner introduced the bridge to his Tufts civil engineering students. He has taught bridge design and rehabilitation on alternating springs for 22 years. The course includes a class project where students may choose to focus individually or in groups on bridge analysis, design and research topics. In previous years, students contributed articles to the Journal of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, worked on studies of bridge aesthetics, evaluated aspects of bridge modeling, and helped to prepare an exhibit for the Worcester science museum, the EcoTarium.
In spring 2021, students participated in a class-wide project to develop educational resources for the Bridge of Flowers website. The project was also motivated, in part, by the pandemic. With the bridge closed to visitors, enhancing the website provided a way to encourage virtual trips to the bridge.
For their case studies, the students worked via Zoom with the Bridge of Flowers Committee, to enrich content under the website section, “About Us.” Now, educational resources span four content—and contextual—areas: STEM Resources for Teachers: All about Bridges, Introduction to Bridge Foundations, Iconic Bridges Across New England and Beyond, and 3D Digital Renderings of the Bridge of Flowers.
Annette Szpila, chair of the Bridge of Flowers Committee, said that the partnership with Tufts helps share the bridge, a “precious gem” tucked in the folding hills of Western Massachusetts, with a larger audience.
“Now we’re able to use the beauty of the bridge—not only the flowers, but also the type of bridge it is,” she said. “Those expanded viewpoints make it available to anybody, especially to teachers who might have an interest in STEM, and who want to pique the interest of young people.”
Carol Angus, committee co-chair, noted that the website was particularly useful during the COVID-19 lockdown; the committee had to close the bridge to the public in 2020 and 2021.
“I was so impressed with the students’ thoroughness and dedication. It was terrific that they geared the information in the section devoted to teachers and students at all levels,” she said. “You can use this if you are an elementary school teacher or even a high school teacher. “ (She was gratified to hear from a Maine high school librarian who wrote to say thank you; the new resources proved timely as the librarian put materials together for a “Future Engineers” workshop.) “All of us are proud to be able to put this up on our website,” said Angus.
A Spectacle of Flowers
Bridges have fascinated Brenner, who works as a principal engineer at Tighe & Bond, since the age of four. As bridges go, the Bridge of Flowers is one of his favorites, and it has long been a place to visit for sheer pleasure with his family. “Crossing the bridge is an exhilarating walk, with its colorful spectacle of flowers alongside the novelty of shade trees planted on a bridge, and the wide river surging below,” as he penned in an essay. “It also helps that, structurally, it is a really nice bridge.”
The bridge was constructed out of concrete in 1908 to support a trolley line carrying passengers and goods. Competition from trucking routes put the trolley company out of business 20 years later, leaving the town pondering the fate of a still-perfectly-stable bridge. The idea of the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club: transform the structure into a three-season garden--a sure-bet attraction for visitors on vacation or a Sunday drive. It has been blooming, and steadily fueling the local economy with tourist dollars, since 1929. And still going strong: the spirit of volunteerism. The bridge is almost entirely operated by volunteer effort, aside from two part-time gardeners.
In the summer of 2019, Tighe & Bond was brought in to conduct a structural assessment of the aging bridge. Brenner was delighted to help plan for its future. He worked closely with the committee and took part in the bridge’s 90th anniversary celebration, setting up an information table with his colleague and fellow bridge engineer, Andrea Lacasse.
“Andrea also had arranged a video with a flyby of the bridge from our company drone, and we both soaked in the festive proceedings and got to be a part of the town for a day,” he said. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
When Brenner said he was considering using the Bridge of Flowers as a case study in his next Tufts class, committee members wanted in. “We were casting about for ways to make the website more multidimensional,” said Szpila. “We thought, wow, this Tufts connection sounds exciting.” And it was also an opportunity to bolster the volunteer committee’s shoestring budget, which depends on donations and an annual plant sale. Fundraising will need to increase in the next few years to cover “major rehabilitation” for the bridge, Szpila said.
A Community Cornerstone
Most of Brenner’s students had not seen or heard of the Bridge of Flowers, and given pandemic travel constraints, a traditional field trip in a shared van was out of the question.
But Brenner’s description of the bridge’s unusual history inspired Travis Van Brewer, E21, EG22. “The simple and elegant arches provide the perfect foundation for the blooming flowers on top,” he said. “The bridge is more than a walkway and an attraction—it is an experience.”
Van Brewer would go on to contribute research to STEM Resources for Teachers, a section that also includes fun facts, interactive information, and an array of links to activities—like how to build bridge with straws.
“I focused on education because I have enjoyed math and science throughout my educational journey and I wanted to share my passion for bridges with others,” he said. “Writing for a general audience regarding education materials required thinking about how students and educators interact with the site. Our big priority was to make it easy for the committee to maintain and easy for students and educators to use.”
As for his own learning experience, working with the bridge’s community stakeholders, and tailoring the website to engage teachers and young students, made him realize what an impact civil engineers can have on communities, he said. And by working in phases—marked by meeting key milestones and incorporating feedback—“I realize the importance of getting buy-in from clients,” he added. “I will carry with me an appreciation for the many people involved in a project, from engineers and architects to the department of transportation and the public.”
Claire Wright, E21, EG22, researched the history of iconic New England bridges–starting in 1662 with the Great Bridge to Boston and including the Essex-Merrimac-Newburyport Bridge (1810), the Shelburne-Buckland Wrought Iron Bridge (1893), the Deer Isle Bridge in Maine (1948), and Zakim Bridge in Boston (1997).
The Bridge of Flowers "fits well into the history of bridge design in New England and around the United States,” she and her team wrote. “One can trace the development of construction materials from wood, stone, and iron to steel and concrete, and the development of engineering as a discipline... and one can trace the aesthetics of the Bridge of Flowers back to the Chicago World's Fair and the city's beautiful reformers.”
Wright, a native of Colorado, said seeing bridges in different landscape—one richly endowed with rivers—has opened her eyes to how bridges symbolize growth and vitality of a region. The Bridge of Flowers project expands that viewpoint to include their cultural and societal meaning.
“I've always kind of romanticized bridges,” she said. “In Shelburne Falls, I was able to study a bridge that is far more than just a bridge. It’s connecting people and resources and ideas, and I hadn’t ever seen a direct example of how powerful that is before.”
Andrew Kraunelis, E21, EG22, contributed to an understanding of how 3D digital renderings can create structural virtual models that can be used to visualize a structure or simulate bridge behavior, both critical to test for bridge safety prior to construction.
That project offered a welcome opportunity to widen his own perspective on how bridges work. “You can see how [in the Bridge of Flowers] the classic arch design forms an elegant flow of forces that just feels right for this historical setting—it complements its surroundings,” he said. “The bridge evokes a feeling of belonging, a feeling that Shelburne Falls would not be complete without.”
The community clearly feels the same, donating time, money, and expertise to the bridge year after year, he said. “Unique bridges often become landmarks in a community. The Bridge of Flowers seems to hold a similar position in the community of Shelburne Falls, perhaps even more so,” he said. “I will carry forward a deeper understanding of how much a well-designed and well-placed bridge can add to a community. I hope to take part in building and restoring such bridges throughout my career.”
In an ASCE 2009 column written with Merlin Kirschenman, Brenner said that just as bridges carry multiple purposes and meanings, the “practice” of civil engineering must integrate the classroom with community engagement. As they wrote: “We need to change the public’s perception of engineers from being just problem-solvers to being professionals who can lead the public discussions and identify what problems society should resolve.”
Brenner hopes these kinds of case studies and design projects will be bridges to successful futures for his students, many of whom send him bridge pictures even years after leaving his class.
“This kind of project allows the students to connect to that bigger idea in their own way, and I hope that informs their work going forward,” he said. “As engineers, they will be involved in an act of creation. When you start, there's no bridge. When you're done, there's a bridge. And that's important and meaningful in a way which goes above and beyond the process you go through to build it.”