Follow the race to rebuild the Old Blenheim Bridge in New York State, an icon of 19th century American engineering, destroyed by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Watch a team of elite craftsmen faithfully reproduce the massive, intricate wooden structure under grueling time pressure as flooding threatens their worksite. In China, witness craftsmen restoring thousand-year-old covered bridges based on ingenious frameworks of woven timber beams. Discover how Chinese artisans are keeping traditional skills alive to ensure the survival of these stunning ancient structures.
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Operation Bridge Rescue
PBS Airdate: October 3, 2018
NARRATOR: The great North American covered bridge: an icon of early engineering ingenuity, thousands of these uniquely distinctive structures once knit this land together. But today the few that remain are under threat: abandoned, burned or destroyed by flashfloods and storms.
MISSY GRAHAM (Blenheim Bridge Recovery Team): The bridge is gone.
DON AIREY (Blenheim Bridge Recovery Team): The devastation was absolutely total.
NARRATOR: Now, a team of master craftsmen and elite engineers…
…battle torrential rain and blizzards…
STAN GRATON, II (Master Bridgewright): If this isn't out of the floodplain, Mother Nature is going to take it.
JERRY MATYIKO (Expert House Movers): Going ahead!
NARRATOR: …to rebuild one of the world's longest single-span covered bridges.
GABE MATYIKO: I don't think we've ever jacked anything this large and this heavy up this high.
Let down. Whoa.
NARRATOR: What are the engineering secrets that enable these huge spans? And what can we learn from the world's oldest covered bridges, in China, where engineers face the same challenge to save these historical wonders before they're lost forever.
PROFESSOR JACK LIU (Shanghai Jiao Tong University): (Translated from Chinese) We're losing more and more of our woven arch beam bridges.
DON AIREY: Concerned? Yeah, very concerned.
NARRATOR: Operation Bridge Rescue, right now on NOVA!
In the heart of upstate New York, 40 miles southwest of the capital, Albany, lies the small town of Blenheim. Fewer than 400 people live here, but the town once boasted a landmark that put it on the map: a covered bridge with one of the longest single spans in the world, the Old Blenheim Bridge.
This distinctive structure was also one of the last surviving twin-lane covered bridges.
DON AIREY: It is more than a symbol, it is more than a structure, it is an icon of our cultural identity.
NARRATOR: Covered bridges were once a common sight across much of North America, with single spans up to 360 feet. They connected communities and expanded the early road network. Where timber was abundant, craftsmen covered their bridges, making the structures last far longer.
PROFESSOR TERRY E. MILLER (Kent State University): You have to admire the bridges as workmanship of a different time. A wooden bridge left in the open would last nine or ten years, because when water gets in there, rot sets in and the bridge fails. But covered can last indefinitely.
NARRATOR: North America had an estimated 15,000 covered bridges, but today, over 90 percent are gone.
In 2011, Hurricane Irene smashes into the east coast of America. It slams North Carolina, then blasts the rural heart of New England. The storm reaches as far inland as Vermont, with flashfloods destroying two historic covered bridges here, including the hundred-and-forty-year-old Bartonsville Bridge.
ARCHIVE FOOTAGE: Listen to that. I don't like that at all. Oh, my god.
NARRATOR: This was the event that also wiped out Blenheim's cherished covered bridge, a National Historic Landmark.
MISSY GRAHAM: It was the heart of the town. It was our small claim to fame, the longest single-span wooden covered bridge in the world. It was always there. It was always something you could depend on.
DON AIREY: Hurricane Irene was almost a biblical flood event. The devastation was absolutely total. The area received some 15 inches of rainfall. Roads were washed out, infrastructure was destroyed, communications were virtually eliminated.
NARRATOR: The floodwater here rose so high, that it lifted the Old Blenheim Bridge, wholesale, up off its stone abutments, carrying it a short way downstream, before it was dragged underneath a roadway and smashed to smithereens.
MISSY GRAHAM: When we came down through, the morning after the flood, there was pieces of the bridge just scattered all over here. There was a big chunk of the roof that was laying up against the other side of the guardrail. Just the destruction…it was hard to believe it was even possible. And there was just this empty spot where the covered bridge used to be.
The bridge is gone. I felt like I'd lost a loved one. It felt like I had lost a friend that I'd known my whole life.
NARRATOR: After years of effort, the residents of Blenheim have secured 6.7-million dollars to rebuild their lost bridge, attract tourists and help kick-start the town's recovery.
DON AIREY: Thanks to everybody for taking the time out to come down to the town board meeting.
NARRATOR: Head of the Blenheim Recovery Committee is Don Airey.
DON AIREY: With that bridge, that historic landmark being rebuilt, we feel that we could almost close the door and find some permanent closure, although never forget the catastrophic day of August 28th, when Hurricane Irene struck.
NARRATOR: To take on the unique engineering challenge of rebuilding the old Blenheim covered bridge, the town has enlisted one of the last surviving covered bridge craftsmen, Stan Graton, the second.
DON AIREY: Stan's a true craftsman, a rare breed in terms of being able to have a skillset, the mindset and the drive to recreate these original icons of early America. Saving them, preserving them and, in this case, recreating them for future generations to appreciate.
NARRATOR: Stan is a third generation timber bridge builder. Today, he works with his cousin J.R.; his father, Stan, Senior; and his son, Garrett, passing down knowledge and tools.
STAN GRATON: I've been in the family business since 1976, and we build and restore covered bridges.
NARRATOR: But recreating the Old Blenheim Bridge will test even a builder of Stan's pedigree.
WORKER: Down. Beautiful.
STAN GRATON: It's a massive structure. It's going to be 36 feet high at the peak and 226 feet long. This is going to be right up there with the top projects that we've done.
NARRATOR: There are no original blueprints of the bridge. Luckily for Stan, government engineers surveyed the structure back in 1936, producing detailed plans.
ARNOLD "J.R." GRATON (Master Bridgewright): We're duplicating the exact design of the old bridge. We've changed the species of wood from spruce to Douglas fir, because you can't get a spruce that big and that quality anymore, and we're using galvanized steel instead of wrought iron. And it's the only the compromises we made.
NARRATOR: The Old Blenheim Bridge was built by Nicholas Montgomery Powers, in 1855. To construct it, he assembled the structure on land in Blenheim village, while masons built the stone abutments next to the creek. Between the abutments, they installed temporary scaffolding.
The team then dismantled the bridge and rebuilt it, piece by piece, on top of the scaffolding. Once in place, they removed the supports, allowing the bridge to settle onto its abutments.
But erecting bridges like this, over fast-flowing rivers, was risky. One worker was killed building the Old Blenheim Bridge.
STAN GRATON: It's more dangerous working over the water. Men were a lot hardier back then than they are today. I don't work as hard as my grandfather did, I know that.
NARRATOR: So, now they need to find a safer technique to build the new Blenheim Bridge. The solution: build the bridge's two outer walls, and one central wall, flat on land, next to the creek, then raise them, vertically.
Brand-new concrete abutments will elevate the bridge higher above the creek, protecting it from future floods. Once they've added the siding and rafters, they must move the hundred-ton structure, intact, up onto its new abutments, a daunting challenge…
STAN GRATON: Jerry!
JERRY MATYIKO: Hey, Stan!
STAN GRATON: How you doing, buddy?
NARRATOR: …but one that this man, Jerry Matyiko, relishes.
JERRY MATYIKO: Nice seeing you again.
STAN GRATON: Nice to see you.
He is a character. He is a character, yep. Known him for quite a while. He's a, he's a great guy, a wealth of knowledge.
JERRY MATYIKO: Twenty-four feet up, and how tall is it? Thirty feet?
STAN GRATON: Thirty feet.
NARRATOR: Jerry's been moving supersize structures for over 50 years.
JERRY MATYIKO: Go on ahead!
NARRATOR: He's moved over a thousand.
JERRY MATYIKO: We move everything from outhouses to lighthouses. We've moved airport terminals, smokestacks, theaters, gymnasiums, monuments. You name it, we've moved it.
NARRATOR: On the island of Martha's Vineyard, Jerry recently relocated the hundred-and-sixty-year-old Gay Head Lighthouse, in danger of toppling off the crumbling cliff.
CROWD: Woooh! Gay Head Light!
JERRY MATYIKO: The people were all glad to have us there to save the lighthouse. It's just something sacred to the people on Martha's Vineyard.
NARRATOR: But launching a 226-foot long, 100-ton bridge into thin air, over this creek, is an entirely new challenge for Jerry.
JERRY MATYIKO: This bridge is just so much bigger than the other covered bridges. This is the biggest and the tallest and the longest ever built. It's going to be really something.
NARRATOR: For this job, one option would be to use a giant crawler crane to pick up the bridge and move it over the creek. But this could be risky.
JERRY MATYIKO: It's got limits on what it can lift at what angles. There are cranes that tip over.
NARRATOR: A safer option would be to set the bridge on tracks and roll it up onto the abutments, but a tight turn could derail this scheme.
JERRY MATYIKO: Rolling on railroad rails is good for going straight, but we have to make a sharp turn. There's just no way you could have rolled it on rollers.
NARRATOR: So, this is Jerry's plan: first, they will build a temporary roadway across the creek. Then he'll install eight sets of powered hydraulic wheels under the bridge. These should help steer the bridge around the sharp turn and drive it onto the roadway.
Once in position, Jerry will use hydraulic jacks to raise the bridge 25 feet. He will then set rollers underneath the bridge and use hydraulic push rams to inch the massive structure onto the concrete abutments.
At least, that's the plan.
JERRY MATYIKO: There's a lot of problems that can happen. One of the hardest parts is going to be making the turn. It's going to be a hard time.
NARRATOR: But there's another dangerous threat to this ambitious plan.
STAN GRATON: This is definitely in the floodway. Any snowpack during the winter, that's going to end up melting and coming down. And if we do not get this out of this floodway before spring, it will end up in pieces, like the original bridge.
NARRATOR: That means Stan and Jerry have just nine months to build the new Blenheim Bridge and move it into place, before spring meltwater floods the worksite.
The first step of the build is to assemble the bridge's skeleton, from over 6,000 timber beams.
STAN GRATON: It is a massive jigsaw puzzle. All the members are numbered "I" for interior, "N" for north, "S" for south. And we really need to be careful not to use the wrong one in the wrong spot.
NARRATOR: Just like the old bridge, the secret to the new Blenheim Bridge's huge span is her three vertical walls, called "trusses." These will be built with a slight arch, or "camber," for increased strength.
Each truss will be made up of dozens of interconnecting triangles. These distribute the weight of traffic throughout the structure. The taller interior truss makes the bridge a rare two-lane crossing. Within this truss, a vast triple-laminated arch will add even more strength. Seventy-eight separate timbers will make up the base of the three trusses.
It's critical the joints between these timbers hold strong, so they will use an ingenious "saw tooth" joint to lock the beams together.
J.R. GRATON: Those saw tooth joints work like a ratchet. It's probably the strongest actual wood joint that you can come up with.
NARRATOR: The team uses power tools to cut the teeth of the saw tooth joint, but then they use traditional tools to finish the joint, just as Nicholas Powers did for the original bridge. They must cut each tooth with extreme precision. An ill-fitting joint could fail and cause the bridge to collapse.
MIKE EENIGENBURG (Timber Framer): We need a nice tight-fitting joint. This is where all the tension is in the bridge, so most of the structure of the bridge boils down to these joints here.
NARRATOR: They use 10 galvanized steel bolts to lock each saw tooth joint together. Two hundred years ago, when iron was more expensive, bridge builders would often use wooden dowels, known as "tree nails" or "trunnels" driven through the timbers to secure them.
After five months cutting and hauling more than 63 tons of timber, Stan completes the first two trusses of the new Blenheim Bridge: one exterior truss and the taller central truss that will form the peaked roof.
But the clock is ticking. It's now November, and the team has just four months until their worksite is likely to flood.
STAN GRATON: We're a month and a half behind where we wanted to be. We've got a critical path, because of the spring floods, the snowmelt. It's starting to worry me a little bit. We've got to have this out of this riverbed and up onto the abutments.
NARRATOR: To keep the build moving, their next challenge: use two cranes to raise each truss up vertically. But there's a problem. The trusses are so long that if each crane pulls at just a single point, the timber will flex and could snap.
To guard against this, Stan will rig each crane to pick up the truss at two separate points, and underneath, he'll add extra towers of wooden blocks, called "cribs." This spreads the load, supports the truss and reduces flexing as it rises.
At least, that's the theory.
STAN GRATON: Every bit of that needs to be supported. If it isn't supported correctly, it would snap it in half.
WOODY (Crane Supervisor): Okay. We're going to bring it up until we get movement. We're going to go slow, guys.
NARRATOR: A pair of slings connects the cranes to the central truss.
WOODY: Both cranes are going to boom up and hold their load.
NARRATOR: Crane supervisor Woody gears up for the first big lift.
WOODY: Okay, guys, here we go.
Crane Driver: Yep, coming up.
WOODY: Watch for movement.
J.R. GRATON: We have to watch that it doesn't slide towards us or away from us. So, we have to keep the crane so that they're picking straight up.
WOODY: Cable up. Looking good.
NARRATOR: But just as the truss approaches vertical…
STAN GRATON: Stop!
NARRATOR: …it starts to slide off its supports.
WOODY: Whoa, whoa! Stop!
NARRATOR: The wooden support towers shift, leaving the truss barely supported.
WILLIAM ADAMS (General Laborer): Just the weight of the bridge, it's trying to slide out as you're lifting up; could slide out entirely, if we don't fix it.
NARRATOR: Stan's team rushes to rebuild the towers.
STAN GRATON: Whoa, whoa! Stop!
NARRATOR: With the supports shored up, they restart the lift.
STAN GRATON: Woody!
WOODY: Okay, both cranes, cable up. Cable up easy.
NARRATOR: Disaster narrowly averted, the central truss is vertical.
STAN GRATON: Beautiful.
JERRY MATYIKO: What are we doing next, Stan? Better use this cheap labor while you've got it.
STAN GRATON: Jerry bought me a couple of cigars, actually. Doing a major pick like this, kind of relaxes you.
WOODY: Okay, both cranes, cable up.
NARRATOR: The team races to reset the cranes and lift the first outer truss.
WOODY: Okay, both cranes go.
STAN GRATON: Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.
Nothing's shifting at all.
WOODY: That looks good.
STAN GRATON: Good.
Let's get her plumbed up, buddy.
Getting these two stood up is a big milestone.
DON AIREY: It's been six years since I've seen these trusses. It's just coming back to life again. And it's a rebirth of what we lost.
NARRATOR: With two out of three trusses vertical, this distinctive bridge starts to reclaim its rightful place in the landscape.
Beginning in the 1800s, each region developed its own distinctive style of covered bridge.
TERRY MILLER: They evolved kind of independently in different areas. Oregon Bridges are distinctive, they look like bridges in Oregon, nowhere else. Iowa has the only flat-roofed bridges in the country. Pennsylvania bridges look different from Ohio bridges. The builders worked from intuition, from experience, because there was no science of engineering.
NARRATOR: But the North American covered bridge was not the first of its kind. Wooden covered bridges were also built in the medieval cities of central Europe. The Chapel Bridge, in Lucerne, Switzerland has stood since 1333 and is the oldest surviving wooden covered bridge in Europe.
But some of the oldest and most spectacular timber covered bridges in the world were built in the remote forests of sub-tropical China. In the south-east of the country, visionary engineers developed a completely unique building technique to link remote villages.
Professor Jack Liu has been researching these elaborate structures for 22 years.
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) We call this structural form the "woven arch beam" bridge.
A single log can't cross a 20- or 30-meter-wide river, so we combine them to form an architectural structure.
NARRATOR: Instead, they developed a very different system of interwoven beams to create an arch. Engineers wove one span of three beams with a second span of five beams. They used simple mortise and tenon joints to connect the beams together; they added extra cross supports and a bridge deck; finally, they built a timber structure on top, to protect the arch beams and provide shelter from the wind and rain.
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) The roof protects the timbers, but it also provides a place where villagers can meet and relax. Also, in some places, the bridges house markets and form the center of village life, or they provide space for people to worship. We see that there is a small shrine inside each covered bridge.
NARRATOR: But these bridges do have an engineering Achilles heel.
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) If the woven timber beams do not have a heavy building on top, the entire structure is at risk.
NARRATOR: Gravity alone holds the woven timbers in place. Forces pushing upwards from beneath the structure, such as wind and floodwater, can loosen the mortise and tenon joints, eventually tearing the beams apart.
To combat these forces, early bridge builders added ever more weight on top, to lock the beams down tighter.
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) It's critical that the weight compresses the arch structure. The building above is vital to the arch below. They work together in perfect harmony.
NARRATOR: The more heavily tiled, the more massive the stone flooring, the stronger the woven arch beam bridge became.
But today, these exquisite wonders are under threat, just like their American counterparts. In 2016, three historic Chinese covered bridges were washed away by Typhoon Meranti.
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) We're losing more and more of our woven arch beam bridges, so this is a major problem in this region.
NARRATOR: The battle is underway to repair and rebuild these iconic crossings, before their engineering secrets are lost for good, in both the East and the West. But time is the enemy.
In upstate New York, Stan races the clock to reconstruct the Blenheim covered bridge before spring meltwater floods the worksite. It's taken six months of arduous work to assemble and raise the bridge's three trusses.
STAN GRATON: Perfect.
NARRATOR: These will form the skeleton of its unusual two-lane crossing.
DON AIREY: It's exciting, watching it happen again. Words don't describe it.
STAN GRATON: Really excited to have this done. All three trusses are stood now.
NARRATOR: Their next task, before they attempt to raise the bridge to its final location, is to install its outer walls and rafters. The town hopes to incorporate part of the old bridge into the new, creating a link through time.
MISSY GRAHAM: It would be like taking a little bit of the bridge's soul and putting it into the new bridge.
NARRATOR: But this will not be easy.
DON AIREY: This is where we've got the stored material, the old covered bridge.
STAN GRATON: We'll do some digging and see what we can find.
DON AIREY: It's hard to look at, a little bit, a little hard to look at.
STAN GRATON: There's an old saw tooth joint.
DON AIREY: Oh, yeah! This probably speaks to the power of that water, being able to break it up like a toothpick.
STAN GRATON: That's a rafter.
DON AIREY: All right, so that's a candidate. Okay.
Four-and-a-half by three-and-seven-eighths.
STAN GRATON: We've found one rafter that was amazingly intact. So, this'll be the piece that we can put into the bridge, where it was in 1855. It'll be part of their closure, I think. It's like a phoenix, you know? It's destroyed, and then it's rebirthed now.
DON AIREY: Feels like a small part of the old bridge is back. It means a lot.
NARRATOR: Just a month remains to complete and move the bridge out of the floodway. But as they battle to fit the final rafters, winter bites. Three consecutive snowstorms pummel Blenheim.
DON AIREY: We received over 50 inches of new snowfall in the past two weeks. Concerned? Yeah, very concerned.
NARRATOR: The snow not only slows the build, but also increases the risk of a catastrophic spring flood.
DON AIREY: Trees trap the snow, in terms of shading; the terrain traps the snow. And we've got three, four feet of snowpack that has to get somewhere. And where it's going to go? To the Schoharie Creek.
NARRATOR: As temperatures rise and the snow melts, floodwater could soon consume the worksite and destroy all the team's hard work.
DON AIREY: That would be the worst-case scenario. The gun is loaded. We have no other choice but to accelerate the lifting of the bridge onto the abutments, as soon as possible.
NARRATOR: It's only when a covered bridge is high enough above the floodplain and carefully maintained, that it will last.
There's one in America that has survived everything nature has thrown at it. Just an hour northwest of Blenheim, stands the Hyde Hall Bridge. This is the oldest surviving covered bridge in America and has endured almost two centuries of wind, rain and snow.
TERRY MILLER: The first generations of bridges would have been replaced as traffic became heavier. Very few of that early layer are still in existence.
NARRATOR: Built in 1825, the Hyde Hall Bridge is still standing; her original trusses protected by her carefully maintained roof and siding.
In China, the oldest surviving woven beam covered bridge is hidden in the remote thousand-year-old village of Yueshan, the "Village of the Moon and Mountain." The Rulong Dragon Bridge is almost 400 years old. It's an engineering mystery how this exquisite structure has survived, not only four centuries of typhoons, but also devastating earthquakes.
Professor Liu investigates the bridge's secrets.
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) The bridge is asymmetrical, but also very beautiful. So, this is a very, very special bridge.
NARRATOR: How has the Rulong Bridge survived for so long? A clue lies hidden high up in the roof of the structure: hundreds of complex brackets, called "dougong."
JACK LIU: (Translated from Chinese) They're not just decoration, they're also a kind of shock absorber.
NARRATOR: This test simulates an earthquake and shows how the dougong absorb the forces and help stabilize the heavy tiled roof. The intricate brackets help legendary buildings like the Rulong Bridge roll with the punches.
WU FUYONG (Master Bridgewright): (Translated from Chinese) A dougong looks quite simple, but it's not easy to make. Only a few masters know how to make dougong.
NARRATOR: Today, Master Wu is putting the finishing touches to a brand new bridge. Once complete, the 143-foot long Tunfu Bridge will be China's longest single-span covered bridge. And just like its historic counterparts, it has an extraordinarily complex system of dougong to make it earthquake proof.
Master Wu assembles individual dougong to form sets of brackets. He uses bamboo nails to join them together.
WU FUYONG: (Translated from Chinese) In ancient times, there were no iron nails, only bamboo nails. The bamboo nail fits in here and will not rot for hundreds of years. They're very strong.
NARRATOR: The dougong are slightly loose, allowing the roof to absorb movement. This skilled craftsmanship should help Master Wu's new woven beam bridge survive nature's wrath for generations to come.
But back in upstate New York, the future of the new Blenheim Covered Bridge hangs precariously in the balance.
As the creek expands, water creeps ever closer to the bridge, just as the team faces the most complex stage of this operation. They must now move the new Blenheim Bridge off the flooding creek bank, up onto its abutments.
This move is a two-stage operation. Stage one involves steering the bridge on wheels around the sharp turn and onto a temporary roadway that the team has erected over the creek. It's taken nine weeks to build the temporary roadway from steel girders and heavy timber beams.
Everything is now set for heavy move maestro, Jerry Matyiko, to prepare the bridge for its journey. That's if he can get his equipment onto the site.
JERRY MATYIKO: Positioning these wheels is a little bit tricky. River's up, so that'll delay us even more.
NARRATOR: Jerry works with his son, Gabe.
GABE MATYIKO (Expert House Movers): Sweet!
This has been pretty much my dad's baby. I'm here for the move. It's pretty awesome.
NARRATOR: Finally, it's go time.
JERRY MATYIKO: We're ready.
GABE MATYIKO: All right, Dad. Come on ahead.
NARRATOR: The front and rear hydraulic wheels are powered by diesel engines, but it's elbow grease that powers the steering.
Chains run between the wheel sets. Cranking the chains pulls the wheels left or right.
GABE MATYIKO: P.J.! P.J.! Tighten it up?
NARRATOR: Twenty-four year-old P.J. is in charge of steering the massive structure.
GABE MATYIKO: All right, go to the next one. Go to the back.
NARRATOR: One wrong move could end in disaster.
PARRISH "P.J." HAILE (General Laborer): You've got to make sure everything is tight, everything is in perfect lined order. Nothing can be off, because one fraction of an inch could potentially kill somebody.
NARRATOR: Just as they get going, they hit a problem. The bridge is so heavy that it sinks into the waterlogged creek bank.
JERRY MATYIKO: That gravel is screwing me up. It's loose. I've got to get off of this soft gravel.
NARRATOR: Fortunately, Jerry's got a plan.
JERRY MATYIKO: Hold up. All stop. Dig out a little bit, Gabriel. Clean out a little bit.
NARRATOR: They lay down wooden boards to help the wheels grip and drive the bridge out of the hole.
JERRY MATYIKO: Don't need no more. All right, move ahead. Let's go.
NARRATOR: But they immediately hit the next obstacle. Somehow, they have to turn the bridge to line up with the roadway.
GABE MATYIKO: We've got to get into a really hard turn, a 90-degree turn, just about as hard as you can go. And the harder we get onto the turn, the more you've got to keep those dollies heading in the right direction and in with each other. So, you got the dollies in the front aiming straight towards the bridge, and the dollies in the back going at a 90-degree angle.
Stop. Stop. Everybody stop.
JERRY MATYIKO: You should be heading right, there.
GABE MATYIKO: Dad, I can't turn any more. We'll fall off the embankment.
NARRATOR: Gabe has run out of road to turn, and the clock is ticking. With creek levels rising rapidly, they scramble to widen the roadway, near the front wheels.
GABE MATYIKO: All right, everybody ahead. Go. Nice and slow, moving ahead. Right, let down.
NARRATOR: But the loose rubble underneath the roadway is close to collapsing…
…keep going, and the bridge could slide into the river.
GABE MATYIKO: I opened up the dollies. There's inches to spare here.
NARRATOR: At this angle, there's simply not enough space to get the front wheels onto the temporary roadway. They're stuck.
GABE MATYIKO: What we're doing is we're going to hold this end stationary, while the back comes around. It's just basically going to pivot, like that. Once we get to where we want to be, then we stop again, straighten everything up and continue across the bridge.
NARRATOR: But making space to swing the rear of the bridge around won't be easy. They need to shift tons of earth and fast.
STAN GRATON: We're limited with the real estate we have to work with, so it's going to be real tight.
JERRY MATYIKO: Go on ahead.
NARRATOR: They slowly swing the rear of the bridge around to line it up with the roadway across the creek. Finally, with inches to spare, everything lines up.
GABE MATYIKO: All right, we're going to move ahead on three: one, two, three, let's go.
STAN GRATON: We're on a roll now.
JERRY MATYIKO: We've got, maybe, about eight feet to go. We want to hit it on the button.
GABE MATYIKO: It's kind of a one-shot-deal scenario.
JERRY MATYIKO: Is that it?
GABE MATYIKO: Little bit…give me a touch.
P.J. HAILE: I think we're there.
GABE MATYIKO: Whoa. Chock it up.
NARRATOR: After an epic battle against the elements, stage one of the move is complete: the new Blenheim Bridge sits across the creek.
But the creek is still rising, and stage two of the move will expose the bridge to even more danger, as they raise it up 25 feet and slide it onto the abutments.
JERRY MATYIKO: Hi, kids! You got the pictures of the wheels.
NARRATOR: There's just time for Jerry to catch his breath and, hopefully, inspire the next generation to look after this landmark.
JERRY MATYIKO: It's the longest single-span covered bridge ever built.
MISSY GRAHAM: These kids went through something pretty traumatic, and I think them seeing this bridge rebuilt? It feels like home again.
JERRY MATYIKO: The new bridge is going to be higher than the old bridge. The flood won't take it away. So, hopefully, if you take care of it, it'll last longer than you kids will, or your grandkids.
NARRATOR: Without the next generation of craftsmen, the engineering knowledge needed to build these enigmatic structures could be lost to history, in America and in China. So, the Chinese are taking a highly proactive approach, building huge museums to the art and science of covered bridge construction, like this one in Qingyuan.
TOUR GUIDE (Qingyuan Covered Bridge Museum): These bridges are divided into two kinds, one kind in the south and one kind in the north.
NARRATOR: They're also teaching the woven arch technique in schools.
MR. HU (Grade 6 Schoolteacher): Slowly. Count down from ten.
MR. HU'S STUDENTS: Five, four, three, two, one.
MR. HU: Success. Slowly.
(Translated from Chinese) The kids really have fun in this class. They explore the structure of the bridge. This is the most important learning, but also the most exciting.
When you moved it, it collapses.
(Translated from Chinese) The number of masters who can build these bridges is decreasing. There are only a few left. If we don't pass on these skills, we will lose them, and this would be a great loss for our country. So we must give our children bridge-building knowledge, as early as possible.
FEMALE STUDENT: (Translated from Chinese) I look at the pictures and see the masters who built the covered bridge. I admire them. I think, when I grow up, I want to be a bridge builder.
NARRATOR: The future of Chinese woven beam bridges seems to be in good hands.
But in Blenheim, New York, the future of this covered bridge remains balanced on a knife-edge. The hundred-ton structure is finally over the creek, but not yet safely on its abutments. The team must race to complete the second stage of the move. Lifting the bridge up onto its supports will require 12 hydraulic jacks, to raise the structure 25 feet into the air.
Only when the bridge reaches its final height can they then slide it onto the new abutments, out of danger from the rising creek. The jacks can only raise the bridge 16 inches at a time, so the blocks support the bridge until the jacks are retracted and reset for the next big push.
JERRY MATYIKO: We've got 2,000 four-foot, six-by-six-foot oak blocks. It's just a nice big block party.
GABE MATYIKO: I don't think we've ever jacked anything this large and this heavy up this high.
P.J. HAILE: Eighteen to twenty feet doesn't seem that high just looking at it, but once you get up there and there's water over here… We're already about 10 foot up, so we're going to be about 35 foot up, and it's kind of creepy when you're up there.
GABE MATYIKO: Higher you go, the slower it goes.
P.J. HAILE: I think we're there.
NARRATOR: The team raises the bridge the full 25 feet, but it won't be safe until they slide it across onto the abutments, using steel beams, rollers and hydraulic push rams.
GABE MATYIKO: All right guys, watch her. I'm going to start pushing. Let me know if it does not move.
I'm ready when you are.
GABE MATYIKO: All right, pushing in three: one, two, three, go.
NARRATOR: Gabe extends the push rams.
GABE MATYIKO: We're moving. That sounds great.
NARRATOR: These inch the bridge towards the abutments.
GABE MATYIKO: Well, we only got about another, six, seven feet to go, and we'll be over the abutment.
P.J. HAILE: Final push…
NARRATOR: It takes three hours to push the bridge across to its footings.
STAN GRATON: Looking good. We've got to get that plumb bob right over that X. We're looking at 43 inches.
We don't need all them fancy stinking lasers and all that; we just got a plumb bob.
NARRATOR: The big question: will the bridge and the abutments line up?
STAN GRATON: This is one of the more nerve-wracking portions, because of how crucial the alignment is, whether the bridge and the abutment are all on the same page. 'Cause I know my bridge is right on. Just a matter of, if it doesn't fit, it's their fault.
Four, three, two…
JERRY MATYIKO: You want more?
STAN GRATON: Yes, yes.
STAN GRATON: I'm good. Spot on.
NARRATOR: Now, just to lower the bridge onto the abutments. Touchdown!
GABE MATYIKO: She made it!
NARRATOR: After almost seven years, the Old Blenheim Bridge is reborn, and the community can finally welcome back an old friend.
MISSY GRAHAM: It's beautiful. I can't believe it. It looks just like the old bridge.
You were, like, this big, the last time we went across the bridge.
Missy Graham's Daughter: It's crazy. Huge beams and all my family and friends here. It's just amazing.
NARRATOR: A walkway will link the crossing to the west bank. It's taken 6.7-million dollars, 176 tons of timber and some ingenious engineering, but one of the world's longest single-span covered bridges is back where it belongs.
BILL CHERRY (Schoharie County Flood Recovery Coordinator): Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for joining us at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
MISSY GRAHAM: It's kind of like a phoenix, a phoenix rising from the ashes, except for us it was water. I think it represents a new beginning. And I hope that someday I will be able to bring my grandkids here.
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY Joby Lubman EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Carlo Massarella EDITED BY Paul Shepard ANIMATION Fluid Pictures NARRATED BY Eric Meyers LOCATION DIRECTORS Tim Clarkson
Kelly Beaton ASSISTANT PRODUCER Liping Pan ADDITIONAL CAMERA Tom Fish
Rob Featherstone RESEARCHER Pete Devaney DRONE PHOTOGRAPHY Johnny Shipley
Thomas Houck /dd> JUNIOR PRODUCTION MANAGERS Sally Brown
Olivia Badnell PRODUCTION MANAGERS Eva Robins
Darapon Vongsa-Nga EDIT ASSISTANT Philip Michael ONLINE EDITOR Dicky Everton COLORIST Peter Lynch AUDIO MIX Rada Danilovic FOR CICC EXECUTIVES OF PRODUCTION Chen Lujun Jing Shuiqing EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Wang Yuanyuan SUPERVISING PRODUCER Kong Weina PRODUCER Summer Xu PRODUCTION MANAGER Gao Chang CAMERA ASSISTANT Zhang Lianfeng DRIVER Lin Zekai ARCHIVAL MATERIAL Airpictures Mallorca
Carle J. Kopecky
Derek Grant Digital
Douglas County Museum
Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Gross & Daley Photo
James M. Kolodziej
Lane County History Museum
Library of Congress
McKenzie River Drone Photography
Archive Nacional de Quebec
Schoharie County Historical Society
StormChasingVideo – Chris Collura
William Adams SPECIAL THANKS Economy Paving Co, Inc.
3G Construction & the Graton Family
Expert House Movers, Inc.
Lancaster County Timber Frames, Inc, PA
Schoharie County, NY
The Town of Blenheim, NY
Blenheim Long-Term Community Recovery Committee
Glimmerglass State Park, NY & Hyde Hall, Inc
Glenwood Valley Timber, WA
Breakabeen General Store
Gilboa-Conesville Central School
National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges
New York State Covered Bridge Society
Vermont Covered Bridge Society
Indiana Covered Bridge Society
History in Your Own Backyard
Historic American Engineering Record
Prof. Ronald G. Knapp
Prof. Dario Gasparini
Prof. Philip Caston
Edmund Snyder III
Center for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Taishun County
Information Office of Taishun County
Center for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Qingyuan County
Information Office of Qingyuan County
Jiangbin School, Qingyuan County, Zhejiang Province, China
Qingyuan Covered Bridge Museum, Qingyuan County, Zhejiang Province, China
The Village of Hutun
The Village of Yueshan FOR WINDFALL FILMS HEAD OF DEVELOPMENT Leesa Rumley HEAD OF PRODUCTION Birte Pedersen PRODUCTION ACCOUNTANT Elizabeth Richards NOVA SERIES GRAPHICS yU + co. NOVA THEME MUSIC Walter Werzowa
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Robin Kazmier POST PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Jay Colamaria SENIOR PROMOTIONS PRODUCER AND EDITOR Michael H. Amundson SUPERVISING PRODUCER Kevin Young BROADCAST MANAGER Nathan Gunner SCIENCE EDITOR Caitlin Saks DEVELOPMENT PRODUCER David Condon PROJECT DIRECTOR Pamela Rosenstein COORDINATING PRODUCER Elizabeth Benjes SENIOR SCIENCE EDITOR Evan Hadingham SENIOR PRODUCER Chris Schmidt SENIOR SERIES PRODUCER Melanie Wallace DIRECTOR, BUSINESS OPERATIONS & FINANCE Laurie Cahalane DEPUTY EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Julia Cort SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Paula S. Apsell
A Windfall Films Production for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with China Intercontinental Communication Center.
© 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation
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This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.
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IMAGE: Image credit: (Blenheim Bridge Move) © WGBH Educational Foundation
- William Adams, Don Airey, Mike Eenigenburg, Wu Fuyong, Missy Graham, Arnold 'J.R.' Graton, Stan Graton II, Mr. Hu, Jack Liu, Gabe Matyiko, Jerry Matyiko, Terry Miller