1911 Story Connection 1

The Romans where among the first to utilise the truss arch bridge design, and bridges where not the only thing that they used the truss arch design for either. Once they found out about its strengths, they used it in aqueducts as well. So, after more than 2,000 years of architectural use, the truss arch bridge continues to feature prominently in bridge designs, and with good reason. The semicircular structure of these bridges elegantly distributes compression through its entire form, and diverts all weight onto its two abutments, which are the two components of the bridge that directly take on the pressure at each end of it.

The tensional force in these truss arch bridges is virtually negligible. The natural curve of the arch and its ability to dissipate the force outward greatly reduces the effects of tension on the underside of the arch.

Truss Arch bridges are very common over mountain valleys and steep gorges, particularly for railways. This type of railway bridge is mostly made of steel and they are particularly elegant, and very strong.

In the USA, the first of what would eventually be 3 bridges over the Crooked River was completed in 1911. The Crooked River railway bridge (98 meters high) was completed by the Oregon Trunk Railway. It crosses Oregon’s Crooked River Canyon in Southern Jefferson County. The bridge is 320 feet (98 m) above the river, and when it was completed in 1911, it was then, the second-highest railway bridge in the United States. It is painted black and has a steel arch truss, and a total length of 460 feet (140 m).

1911 Story Connection 2

Sometime ago, I bought this vintage bike from an antique dealer who had cleared out an old Swiss bicycle shop after the proprietor had died. The bike I bought was one of two bikes which had belonged to the proprietor. I didn’t know anything about the bike, but I knew it was special for a number of reasons. Firstly, it looked completely original, although showing the wear and tear of its age in its black paint and faded blue pin-striping. Secondly, the very distinctive frame was constructed in a way that was unusual. Under the crossbar, there was another frame tube that arched its way across the space in the middle of the frame, and it was attached to the headstock and seat tube at each end, and also in the middle of the arch, to the crossbar.

There was a brass, pressed plate on the front of the headstock that had the manufacturers name, ‘Labor’ on it, and it also had a picture of an arch truss railway bridge with a train going over it.

Some research revealed that this type of frame, aptly called the ‘arch truss beam frame’, was first patented by an American in 1900 called Iver Johnson. The Labor bicycle company that had made my bike was French, and the design was copied from the Iver Johnson design. I hadn’t realised that my French Labor bike was actually made famous by Major Taylor, the African-American and World cyclist champion.
Major Taylor came to Europe in the early 20th Century to escape the prejudices in America due to his skin colour. He was loved by the crowds, and was very successful. Major Taylor was elegant, good looking, a fashion icon, as was his equally good looking wife, and as well as being the fastest man on two wheels, he was a genuinely good man.

Labor produced their racing bikes using this arch truss bridge frame design from 1906 to 1920. Not a lot is known about the company apart from their great bikes and their striking advertisements, particularly those that had monkeys in the illustrations.

The frame on my bike has its 1911 serial number on it, and when stripped bare of its wheels and components is amazingly light for its time. The frame tubes are butted onto each other with super smooth welds, and to reduce the distance between the rear wheel and the chain-stay tubes, these thin, elegant tubes have flattened, inner sides. This bike has a lot of ‘soul’. The racing handlebars have turned, wooden grips, and the chainwheel has the words ‘Labor’ cast into it. What gives my bike a bit more soul, is the fact that it has its original Swiss registration plate. In the early days of Swiss cycling, and lets face it, 1911 is in the early days of cycling, bikes in Switzerland had to be registered and display a metal, numbered plate, just like a car or motorcycle would today.

Riding my 1911 Labor is interesting in comparison to a modern day bike. I’ve restored the bike mechanically, but not cosmetically. There wouldn’t have been much chrome on it. The wheels were painted and pin-striped, the handlebars were bare metal and only the chainwheel was nickel-chromed. The chrome on the chainwheel on my bike ‘left home’ some years ago. The rear wheel has two gears, one on each side of the wheel hub. One gear is fixed and the gear on the other side of the wheel hub, has a freewheel. As this is a racing bike, the fixed wheel gear was for riding up hills and when at the top, the rider would dismount, remove the wheel, flip it around and then put the chain onto the gear with the freewheel, so that the rider could then ride downhill safely. I use the term ‘safely’ with caution, because its components called brakes, don’t……

The icing on the cake of this bike is that fact that it has its original twin, wire bottle rack, which is clamped to the handlebars and holds two battered, alloy water bottles, complete with corks.

1911 Story Connection 3

Whilst a black truss bridge was being built in the US, and a black, American world champion cyclist was racing a black Labor French bike in Europe, a game-changer luthier called Orville Gibson was producing innovative and great sounding guitars in his US factory in Kalamazoo (great name for a town). He started making guitars and mandolins in 1896, and by 1911, he was producing a range of instruments which are very valuable today. A lot of his Gibson guitars of this era had a walnut back and sides, and strikingly, a carved spruce and black coloured top, with an elegant, oval sound hole. Unsurprisingly, these are part of the group of Gibson guitars known today as ‘Gibson Blacktops’.

As with all manufacturers, Gibson Guitars had a specific model range. The top of the range in 1911 was the Gibson Style U. Firstly, it had a black top to it. Secondly, it was a harp guitar. This guitar had an open, bass scale, with 10 strings, as you would find on a harp AND a normal guitar neck and scale with 6 strings. Playing it is an art. The body is massive, but when you run your hands over it, is very sensuous in a ‘wood stylee’ and with a fabulous carved scroll where the neck joins the body. As I’ve mentioned, playing it requires lost of things, which I don’t possess. For me, failure is very easy when it comes to getting a decent (or any..) tune out of it using all of the strings. Playing it is an art! One of our son’s has mastered it.

Tuning it takes two operations. The 10 bass strings are tuned with a key, just like you’d use on a harp. The 6 guitar strings are tuned using the usual guitar tuners. Some people can play it, and very well. The bass strings, which are above the normal guitar neck, are played using the thumb. The guitar strings are played ‘as usual’.

Before the electric guitar ‘landed on planet Earth’, the Gibson style U was the loudest guitar you could get, but it was still drowned out by the rest of the instruments in the band of the day.

1911 Story Connection 4

Bringing all of these 1911 connections to an inspirational conclusion, Planet Earth got hit by another lightening-bolt-legend. The African-American blues player, Robert Johnson was born. He could ride a bike, and he set the world on fire with his music. Fact!



All photos by Rodrigo Macip

2 thoughts on “1911 – Arch Truss Railway Bridges, French Labor racing bicycles, Major Taylor, American Gibson Guitars and the worlds greatest blues musician.”

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