“The obsession started in Marshall County, Tennessee in 1973.” Those are the first words written by Calvin Sneed in his new book, “Building Bridges: From Our Past to the Future.”
That’s when Calvin started photographing bridges, but they first got his attention a few years earlier, when he was ten. “My grandmother told me they were going to tear down a bridge in order to build Henry Horton State Park in Chapel Hill,” he said. “I liked that bridge, and I started asking questions to the guys who were going to tear it down. They couldn’t give me a satisfactory answer, and I wasn’t happy about that.”
Some of us are obsessed with sports, movies, bird-watching, gambling or any number of hobbies, healthy or otherwise. For Calvin, his love of bridges is a preoccupation that has long mystified his co-workers, “but they have never condemned it,” he says. He’s winding down a 45-year career in TV news later this year, including two stints at WTVC Channel 9 where he first worked as a young reporter in the early 1970s, and then returned as an anchor in 1992.
But when he gets up in the morning, he doesn’t rush out for the newspaper, or reach for the remote. “I wake up thinking about my next bridge trip,” he said. Every spare weekend, every vacation, includes a bridge trip, near or far.
Calvin understands those of us who merely see bridges as structures, but he’s not like that. You could call him a bridge whisperer. Yes, he talks to bridges. “I have gotten to know them personally. I have always felt that if a truss or concrete arch bridge is named, it has a personality. It has stories. These bridges breathe, they expand, they contract. They’ve weathered storms, blizzards, and droughts. They have my love and respect,” he said.
While many celebrate the demolition of an old bridge, in favor of a shiny, stronger new structure, Calvin sees it as the loss of an old friend. “It breaks my heart when that happens. I’m thankful for engineers who find a way to preserve them, and find new uses for them, like walking or fishing bridges for instance.”
You can see more than a hundred of Calvin’s friends documented and preserved in his book. He has personally taken fourteen thousand photographs of bridges in our region and beyond, and with retirement looming, he’s just getting started. “The hard part was narrowing my collection down to fit in the book,” he said. “There will be more books.”
Why do a photo book about bridges? “When you finish the book, I want you to share my appreciation for these structures. Sure, they provide a way to get from shore to shore, but they’re much more than that. They’ve brought people together, they’ve provided an economic boost for small towns, and they’ve given people easier access to stores and hospitals. Some of them are engineering marvels. In many cases, someone said they couldn’t be done. They’re often underappreciated and poorly maintained. I want to change that.”
Calvin’s passion and emotion comes to the surface when he talks about bridges that are doomed to extinction. “Not that many years from now, when Tennessee starts spending its highway improvement money, the Bonny Oaks Drive bridge over South Chickamauga Creek near the old Governors Lounge is supposed to be demolished. Don’t be surprised if you see me lying on the road in front of that bulldozer. I might be on the news for a different reason!” he said. I’m pretty sure he was serious.
His quest to photograph these bridges is not without risk. “I always wear an orange vest for safety, and that’s been helpful,” he said. He has battled steep banks, uncooperative weather, and various varmints from time to time. “No person has ever messed with me,” he said. “Most people think I’m a bridge inspector.”
In fact, he might as well be. While doing research on the construction dates, measurements and types of bridges, more than one builder told him, “You know more about this bridge than I do!”
At a recent book signing, he was face to face with a potential buyer, who started thumbing through the book, commenting on various bridges. “I started explaining to him how truss bridges breathe. I told him why they sway, about the expansion joints and the distribution of weight. It turns out he’d been designing bridges all his life, but he never understood why they were built that way. That made me feel good,” he said.
The book is close to Calvin’s heart. “It’s the beginning of a preservation effort,” he said. “If I can’t save all these bridges, at least I can save them in photographs. They’re part of our history, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.”
(Calvin’s book is available at Barnes and Noble, or you may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)