James Barney Marsh


The second driving day, 20 May, was from Villisca, across a corner of Missouri and southwest across Kansas to Wichita. Our hotel, a Candelwood Inn, was located on the northeast side of Wichita, so it appeared almost immediately upon arrival. That was the last easy find while driving in Wichita. The hotel clerk handed me a local map which must have been compiled by a cartographer deeply in his cups. I didn’t want to get drunk to be able to read it, so we got soberly lost repeatedly until we found a store featuring readable maps and sobriety. Part of the problem was that directions including the words, “It’s right nearby” mean within a 20 mile radius in this flattest US state, whereas they mean within a 1000 yard radius in tiny Hawaii. I had the bad habit of turning back when we were only 17 miles from our goal.

Someone recently published a scientific paper in a top academic journal which established that Kansas is flatter than a pancake. It’s not hard to imagine how that is done. If you obtain the latitude, longitude and altitude at a large number of points within Kansas, and if they all fall on what is very close to the same plane (all have approximately the same altitude), the place is flat. Compare with similar measurements on a typical pancake, and voilà! In another stunning event in current literature, a man from the East Coast, or was it the West Coast, wrote a book spelling out what is “wrong” with Kansans. Kansans it seems vote differently than do East or West Coasters, a fact that is explainable only if we conclude that Kansans are victims of “false consciousness.” The concept originated as “unhappy” consciousness in 19th Century German philosophy; Marx politicized it to explain why so many people fail to understand what’s best for them as well as do their intellectual betters, Marx and others whose consciousness is not false. OK, an unseemly number of Kansans wish to impose peculiar ideas on their high school science curricula, but I can’t say that the designs of their “intellectual betters” are not equally absurd. Will Rogers remarked that ideas in Kansas tend to be either too broad or too narrow. Doctrine of the excluded middle.

A Stanford based scientific journal recently, after two & a half years of wishy-washy hemming & hawing refused to publish a paper I wrote with three colleagues from systems dynamics, oceanography & climate science on the grounds that our conclusions too often were “orthogonal” to received theory. Not that they were wrong, just orthogonal. The state of Colorado is not flat because so many points, such as those at the snowy peaks of the Continental Divide, are on lines orthogonal to some imaginary horizontal plane below. People who fall off cliffs are temporarily on a line orthogonal to some base plane below them with which they are about to have a painful encounter. Our paper concerned societal attempts to mitigate or adapt to climatic variations and natural disasters. Enchanted Realm pancakes in Kansas (below) proved delicious, almost as attractive as mitigating tornados with orthogonal methods. Tastes differ on the coasts.

There is nothing wrong with Kansas, or at least Wichita, that isn’t wrong elsewhere. The Old Town district is extremely attractive, with 19th & 20th Century brick buildings, converted factories with lofts crying out for artists.

City Hall is a grey stone building, but our favorite steak house/brewery is classic red brick. An old train station has been converted to a gourmet restaurant with outdoor tables on what once was the passenger platform.

An advertised event was the “Farmers’ Art Market,” which may mean, orthogonally speaking, that there are more artists out in converted barn lofts in the countryside than in lofts in the city. We learned that technology had made barns mostly obsolete, a fact that may help explain the woeful tale of two barns in Villisca. The restaurants, particularly the steak houses, serve Kansas grass-fed beef, about the best we had ever tasted. Two nights in a row of oversized (just the right size) steaks compare favorably with our daily intake when in Maine of at least two lobsters.

Perhaps what’s “wrong” with Kansans it is that there are not enough of them. The Old Town area, even on a weekend, was virtually deserted, as was a large riverfront park, developed at high cost. The restaurants were more than half full, but the streets were bare. Those who existed were friendly and helpful, only too happy to come to the aid of lonely travelers. Of course the scarcity of people on the streets might also be explained by the extremely hot temperatures. Noonday sun seems to last from about 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Only a pair of mad dogs from a distant planet like Hawaii would be willing to go out in it.

Our purpose for visiting Wichita was to inspect, photograph and sketch the John Mack Bridge, the longest (eight full arches) of the remaining Marsh Arch bridges, which is now on the National Registry of Historic Places.

I am named after my great-uncle, James Barney Marsh I, who was a prolific bridge builder throughout the Middle West in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

This is one of two Barney photos I have. I never met him, but I knew his two daughters, Marjorie and Dorothy who were legendary pioneers in the tourism industry through their firm, Marsh Tours, based in Rockefeller Center in New York. Marjorie’s husband, Max Chopnick was an international lawyer, good friend, and advisor on my work in international economics. He worked right up until a few moments before he died four years ago at age 101. I had always known about Barney’s bridges, but never saw them until this trip. The Internet re-ignited my interest. During a reunion with several old friends from my Berlin days, we did Google searches on each of us. My name revealed a strange double life as a builder of bridges and as a professor of Asian economic affairs. You can imagine the bad jokes: we are, after all, these Berlin buddies and I, retired secret agents. But how could I have designed all those bridges and died in 1936 at age 84 and still have reappeared as a young man in Berlin in 1962 – 64, and all kinds of other places in other years? Maybe it was high-tech espionage. More interesting though, was the fact that there were almost as many entries on JBM I as there were on JBM II. JBM I is a cult figure, so to speak, in many places where his bridges now or once existed. It is through the efforts of these “cults” (environmentalists & preservationists) that the surviving bridges survived. And, the cults have web pages with the usual means of communication.

The cults themselves are an interesting breed. One website concentrates on raising money to find the cure for Huntington’s disease. Why would they be interested in Barney’s bridges? Woody Guthrie who died of Huntington’s sang and made popular the theme song of Route 66: Get your kicks on Route 66. There once were 3 Marsh Arch bridges along Route 66 in Kansas; I believe only one remains today. Another cult, in South Dakota, had lost its Marsh Arch bridge to the wrecking ball, but wanted to raise enough to replace it with a replica. A cult surrounding an Iowa State University professor who had written a biography of Barney was searching for family descendents. Hardly anyone could be more qualified than I. Nevertheless, they pleaded business and other excuses once they had found me. I have not yet received a copy of that pamphlet. Another three bridges were along Lincoln Highway in Iowa. Betsy Patrick, introduced below, was looking for information on the life & times and engineering theories of Barney and the two Marsh Arch bridges in her town.

Uncle Barney designed and built the John Mack Bridge in 1931; it has narrowly escaped demolition on several occasions. Kansans have preserved more Marsh Arch bridges than has anyone, even though they dotted the countryside of several states in the early years of last century. They are obsolete (Hell! The Taj Mahal is obsolete!), having been designed for the old two-lane highways like the legendary Route 66, Lincoln Highway, and many Midwestern state routes. I made several sketches, some quick & dirty, others in pencil that I later will develop in ink. My many photographs will help in this endeavor. Although I much prefer making formal pen drawings while actually looking at the object, time was too constrained; besides, it was much too hot to sit out in the extended noonday sun covered as I was with hot, sun-block clothing. I am deeply grateful to Kansans, and to the people of neighboring states, who have preserved a small but significant number of these structures. Cheers for false consciousness! I only wish they would give Barney his share of credit, which the plaques on the bridge fail to do.

Another saga in Barney’s story takes us to the Pacific Coast of Oregon. Conde McCullough, a celebrated bridge designer (many websites) who was responsible for the bridges along the Oregon Coastal Highway was a graduate of Iowa State’s College of Engineering. His first job, briefly, was with Barney’s firm in Des Moines, followed by a stint at the Iowa Department of Transportation. In 1912, Barney was sued for alleged patent violations; the State of Iowa assigned McCullough to make a study of the engineering background of the dispute. McCullough was a very scholarly man. The study, which probably exists in the State Archives in Des Moines, takes the reader back to the classical arches of Rome, through succeeding centuries up to his own time. It goes on for 600 pages with 150 exhibits & 15 models. The court was convinced that Barney’s ideas were his own and in 1916 decided in his favor. McCullough’s next job, lasting over 30 years, was as State Bridge Engineer in Oregon, during which he designed a series of bridges for the coastal highway which, so go the blurbs, blend in so well with the spectacular natural beauty as to appear to belong there naturally. Barney’s influence in the following shots of Conde McCullough’s bridges is obvious. Judith Dupré in her book Bridges documents much of this history. As she points out, the Siuslaw River Bridge’s ornamentation (4th photo) contains motifs that are Art Deco, Egyptian & Gothic. The four pointed towers on the left contain control centers for the lift bridge, similar to the towers on Chicago’s famous river bridges. It is nice that Dupré documents McCullough’s debt to Barney; the websites don’t even mention that he worked for Barney, let alone the lawsuit study, so vital to McCullough’s education.

Barney’s eye for young talent must have been nothing short of phenomenal. I’ve written before about Archie Alexander whom Barney hired in 1912. Archie was the first African-American engineer to graduate from Iowa State. He was first in his class, but could not get a job anywhere, not until he applied at Barney’s firm. He rose quickly, subsequently formed his own company and prospered. In 1954, President Eisenhower appointed him Governor of the Virgin Islands; he returned an old favor and appointed my father to be his chief engineer to help develop those exotic but impoverished islands. This launched John and me on careers that became considerably more international than might otherwise have been the case. At least we experienced great scuba diving, learned extensive lessons about wine, and developed some great anecdotes. Upon arrival at the St. Thomas airport in 1955, Archie met us and introduced us to a young man who was also disembarking from the plane: Michael Paiewonsky. Michael subsequently became a life-long friend. Years later, at a New York dinner party, I introduced Michael to Max Chopnick. In the conversation, it developed that Max, with Dorothy & Marjorie, had once been guests of Michael’s parents at their home, the Big House, in St. Thomas. In addition, sorry to keep adding coincidences, Max’s second wife, whom he had married several years after the death of Marjorie, was a psychiatrist & colleague of Michael’s second wife. Sadly, Michael, not long after marrying his fourth wife, died, a year ago, in Puerto Rico.

I had a difficult time writing that last paragraph . I realize I am off on one of my tangents, flitting about in New York or the Virgin Islands and no longer in the Midwest looking at bridges. Still, I’ve come to realize that I owe to Barney far more than just the name. I’m thinking of his daughters and times I spent with them in New York and Berlin, of Max Chopnick, of Archie Alexander and the Virgin Islands, of Michael Paiewonsky in the Islands, at the University of Chicago, in Hawaii, Europe, New York and Japan. Since most of you reading this note do not know these people, I’ve attached two more photos. The one is of Michael taken in 2002 in the garden of his home in St. Thomas. The other is of Max and his second wife, Anita, taken in 1994 in their home in New York.