Idaho History: Charles A. Kyle was a designer of beautiful bridges

IDAHO HISTORY

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANJune 8, 2014 

In 1931, as America was sinking deeper into the Great Depression, one of Idaho's most graceful bridges was dedicated. Officially named the Oregon Trail Memorial Bridge, it honored Boise's place on that epic migration across the continent and its place in U.S. history. The bridge was the work of a great engineer who did much to add beauty to Idaho's highways.

When appointed state highway bridge engineer in 1919, Charles A. Kyle was 55 and already had a long and distinguished career. In Idaho he would go on to produce his finest work.

Kyle, who was born in Canada, grew up in Kansas City, where his father was superintendent of bridges for the Baltimore Bridge Co. He worked summers while still a schoolboy on various projects of his father's, primarily railroad and county bridges throughout the Midwest. At age 17 he went to work full time for another company specializing in the replacement of wooden railway bridges and trestles with steel ones. In 1889 his company was consolidated into the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., and he moved to Chicago, where a revolution in steel construction of skyscrapers was taking place.

In 1900 he joined the American Bridge Co., the largest designer and builder of bridges in the world, working his way up from designer and engineer to general manager of the Lafayette, Ind., shops of the company. When that plant was closed, Kyle moved back to Chicago, where he worked as a detailer and designer from 1907 until 1914. The American Smelting & Refining Co. was building huge plants in the West, requiring large amounts of steel construction, and this led to Kyle's transfer to Salt Lake City as chief designer for the American Bridge Co. He worked on smelters in Utah and Nevada.

Rather than return to Chicago in 1914 as planned, and with a new taste for life in the mountain states, Kyle decided to stay. In 1915 he was appointed Montana state bridge engineer and came to Idaho in that capacity four years later.

Described by those who knew him as a dreamer and idealist, Kyle thought of bridge building as a high and noble calling. He was conscious that his works would survive long after he was gone and labored to make each of them a work of art as well as a piece of engineering. Many of them are regarded that way today.

In addition to the Oregon Trail Memorial, which most of us speed across too fast to appreciate, one of Kyle's acknowledged masterpieces is the famed Rainbow Bridge over the Payette River north of Smiths Ferry. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2006 and 2007 was meticulously restored to its original beauty by re-creating its original concrete railings. Another Kyle work, altered by a much-needed widening, is the Fairview Avenue Bridge over the Boise River west of Downtown.

By 1933, when the Fairview and Rainbow bridges were completed, federal funding under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had made their construction possible through grants from the Public Works Administration. Between 1932 and 1934 the Idaho Bureau of Highways received nearly $8 million for highway projects. By 1933 Charles A. Kyle had supervised the design and construction of 10 spans across the Snake River, including the since-replaced I.B. Perrine Bridge at Twin Falls. Others are three across the Boise, three over the Salmon, two that span the Clearwater and nine across the Coeur d'Alene - to name only part of this man's solid achievement.

Next week, more on the history of Boise's bridges.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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