Preservationists use 3D to bring Thomas Viaduct to life

Video part of effort to increase interest in 175-year-old structure

  • John Slater (right) of Columbia and James Dilts of Baltimore, co-chairs of the Thomas Viaduct anniversary planning team for the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway Association, are pictured at the 175-year-old bridge.
John Slater (right) of Columbia and James Dilts of Baltimore,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 04, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

A 3-D animated video that reveals centuries-old construction secrets might hold the key to jump-starting local interest in restoring a beloved bridge to its original majesty.

The Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, self-appointed caretakers of the river valley that was first settled in the 1690s, hope so.

While the age of any historic structure is usually enough to whip up avid support for its preservation, the Thomas Viaduct has a lot more going for it than its impressive July 4, 1835, birthday.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridge, which spans the Patapsco River between Relay and Elkridge, is the oldest continuously operating railroad span in North America.

And there's the sheer magnificence of the curvilinear granite viaduct with its eight elliptical arches, a remarkable feat of engineering by 19th-century standards. In its heyday, it became a popular summer destination for travelers, who disembarked at the now-demolished Viaduct Hotel to dine and sleep after cooling off in the river below.

But perhaps the most astounding fact about the 704-foot-long viaduct is that it continues to serve its owner, CSX Transportation, carrying modern trains that are 100 times heavier than those it originally withstood, say local viaduct buffs.

If those aren't enough reasons to back the group's $2.8 million restoration and expansion effort, members are betting on the just-completed video to help launch a fundraising blitz when it debuts for the public following a talk Thursday by historian Ed Williams at the Benjamin Banneker Museum in Oella.

"We've spent 10 years discussing this, and we've not gotten very far," said John B. Slater, a Columbia landscape architect who is vice president of the nonprofit organization.

"But it's a mess, and we'd really like to get it cleaned up," Slater said.

Structurally, the span is safe and undergoes regular inspections, he said. The Patapsco Valley State Park treasure is also a National Historic Landmark and a Maryland Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

But missing railings and deteriorating stonework are in need of attention, while creating an overlook area in the park for visitors is the organization's other objective, he said.

While the Maryland Department of Natural Resources considers the nonprofit organization's request for $1.1 million to fund proposed park upgrades, local supporters are gearing up to solicit $1.7 million in private donations to help restore the viaduct to its original glory.

These goals were announced to the 560 people who attended the anniversary celebration July 5, he said, but now, FPVHG members are appealing to an even wider audience.

The 175th-anniversary video is the brainchild of James D. Dilts, an architectural and railroad historian who was Slater's anniversary celebration co-chair and is the author of "The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853," published in 1993.

"The bridge's stone arches represent a lost art that the Romans had perfected centuries ago," said Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter. "The Thomas Viaduct was the biggest project [of its kind] in the country when it opened."

It was named for the first president of the B&O, Philip E. Thomas, and built by John McCartney of Ohio.

"While designers talk about the style, history and influences [behind a project], they very rarely discuss how it was built, and that's an important part of it," Dilts said, adding that most people don't have "the faintest idea" how the Thomas Viaduct was constructed.

Since the only available descriptions of how the bridge was assembled were extracted by Dilts from the journals of the bridge's designer, Benjamin H. Latrobe Jr., "we had to do some imaginative reconstruction in order to fill in the gaps," he said.

FPVHG, which is dedicated to protecting the Patapsco Valley and telling its story, commissioned Baltimore-based PI.KL Studio to create the animation, which is set to synthesized music and contains neither narration nor captions.

The 51/2-minute video takes viewers on a near-magical journey, allowing them to watch the viaduct appear before their eyes. Starting with full-color views of the completed bridge, the film then switches to an empty river valley and uses black-and-white to convey a flashback mode.

Both land and aerial perspectives of the bridge under construction are shown, and even the Viaduct Hotel, a three-story Gothic Revival structure that wasn't built until 1872 and only operated for 14 years, makes a cameo appearance near the video's end.

"The beauty of the Thomas Viaduct speaks for itself," said Kuo Pao Lian, who owns PI.KL Studio with his wife, fellow architect and architecture professor Pavlina Ilieva.

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