Architect of Information: Local webmaster creates largest historic bridge database in U.S.

James Baughn, founder of, poses for a portrait Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at a bridge near Gale, Illinois.
Jacob Wiegand ~ Southeast Missourian

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Missouri was a hotbed for engineering talent. The reason? The presence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which presented massive challenges to bridge builders. Engineers from all over the world came to Missouri to try to get contracts to design and build bridges that would allow a safe crossing.

Take, for instance, the Leeper Bridge in Wayne County, Missouri, which was built by List & Clark Construction Company over the Black River northwest of Leeper, Missouri, in 1933. At 988 feet in length, the bridge is among the longest of the bridges constructed during its era, with eight steel girder approach spans, two 120-foot Pratt through trusses and two 180-foot Parker through trusses. Its length and use of both Pratt and Parker trusses in the design, as well as the degree of the bridge's physical integrity, makes the bridge eligible for the National Register of Historic Places for local significance in engineering.

This information, along with photos of the bridge, is preserved on, the largest collection of historic bridges online in the world. It's a website designed and maintained by Cape Girardeau's very own James Baughn, webmaster at Rust Communications and historic preservation enthusiast in the Southeast Missouri community. On the website, users upload photos of historic bridges and information about them, including when it was built, which company built it and if it was a local or national company that constructed it. Using the National Bridge Inventory maintained by the Federal Highway Administration, they can also find the length, height and location of each bridge. Baughn notes that his friend's website,, also includes a vast collection of historic bridge photos and information that goes into more detail than what can be found on, although it does not include as many bridges since it does not cover as wide of a geographical area as Baughn's website.

Thus, Baughn is an architect of different sorts. He also designed and built the Southeast Missourian website, which functions as a user-friendly database containing all the stories printed in the newspaper each day. Additionally, he builds and maintains websites for rustmedia clients, as well as the newspaper websites of Rust Communications' 31 affiliates, where the staff members of each newspaper upload their photos and stories. In essence, he is an architect and historic preservationist of information, building technological structures to transport and preserve details, the day-to-day stories and photos of our communities.

Baughn says he has been interested in bridges since he was a child, but began to take the interest more seriously when he discovered an old iron bridge downstream from Wappapello Dam while driving near his parents' house.

"It was a bridge that creaked and groaned as you drove across and had the wooden plank floor and everything. I thought, 'Well, that's interesting that that's still carrying traffic even today,' and so I started looking around and discovered there were more like that, but then I also discovered they were being demolished," Baughn recalls. "So some of the ones that I looked at initially, I'd go back the next year and they'd be gone, so I thought, 'Someone needs to go out and get photos of these before they're replaced.'"

That's when he decided to create, with the knowledge he gained from studying computer science at Southeast Missouri State University, where he graduated from in 2002. It was a field he'd been interested in since he received his first computer as a child, and although he also considered studying civil engineering, he ultimately decided on computer programming because of the job outlook. Directly out of college, he was hired as the webmaster of Rust Communications. Baughn is also on the board at Missouri Preservation, a state organization that advocates for preserving historic architecture and landmarks in Missouri. Additionally, he's on the Cape Girardeau County Historical Society board and is an avid photographer of bridges and nature throughout the region. He writes a blog called "Pavement Ends" about the region's history, which is featured on the Southeast Missourian website. To write this blog, he often goes traveling and hiking throughout the region and also looks at bridges while on these ventures.

It's a career and passion that each lend insight into the other; as with getting a design for a bridge correct, Baughn says that after designing a structurally solid database for a website, everything else "falls into place." It's the basics Baughn sticks to when designing. He's designed to be as user-friendly as possible, ensuring everything is accessible in three clicks, through the hierarchy of categorizing bridges by state and county. He says it's all about keeping things simple, utilizing proven older technology that will continue to "be around for a while" and "not trying to do the latest, the greatest." As with a well-designed bridge, he says for him web designing is all about planning ahead of time to build something that won't require a lot of changes and will continue to be functional in the future.

The strategy is working: since its inception in 2004 with only a few photos posted by Baughn on the site, it has grown to include more than 70,000 bridges. There are also several hundred editors of the site from all across the U.S. who now upload photos and information, with many more users posting photos and information in forums on the site. Baughn's discovery of the Federal Highway Administration's list of every bridge in the country and their locations also helped streamline the process: instead of driving around hoping to randomly come to a historic bridge, he could purposefully go to them in order to document them.

The highway department, too, has benefitted from collaboration with Baughn, through reaching out for his expertise in determining which bridges to replace and which are eligible to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. Baughn has worked with them to develop the statewide bridge Section 106 Programmatic Agreements and has been a consulting party on two of these agreements, providing knowledge about what is atypical and common about bridge types. He also lends knowledge about Missouri and the significance of historical contexts such as the Little River Drainage District and the Centennial Road Law.

"The website has been very useful to MoDOT historic preservation in a number of ways: the photographic inventory of the bridges is wonderful, allowing us to get a national perspective on bridge types -- a specific example would be types of and just how common were post-World War II rigid-frame bridges -- and it provides one way for us to make historic bridges available for reuse by other parties," says Karen Daniels, senior historic preservation specialist with the Missouri Department of Transportation. "One photograph from the website was even used in the Route 66-themed rest area on I-44, with the permission of and credit given to the photographer."

These unforeseen benefits of the website make the project even more worth it for Baughn. Although he says the design and the way a website looks is less important than the structure behind it, he is working to make, which he describes as "fairly old-fashioned," to be more mobile-friendly. He also plans to expand the site to include international bridges, as well.

"Since a lot of these bridges are being replaced, it's kind of inevitable [that they will no longer exist]. We can kind of advocate to save some of them, but for the rest of them, the best we can hope for is what we call 'preserving on paper,' where at least we're taking photos and getting measurements and at least having a record of it before it's gone," Baughn says. "There's so many bridges that have been replaced earlier in the '70s and '80s that there's just not much record of anymore. Somebody might stumble across an old photo of it or something, but it would be better to have a more detailed record. So the main goal [of the website] is to have a record of these things."

It's also to encourage developers to reimagine what historic bridges could be. One link on the website directs users to a page titled "Available for Reuse," which lists historic bridges across America that are scheduled to be demolished and replaced by new bridges. If using federal money to replace an old bridge, a reasonable effort has to be made to find a home for the bridge by law; thus, the historic bridges are available to third parties, free for the taking. There is also a forum in which users can post questions about how to relocate and restore old bridges; some have been repurposed for walking/biking trails, as multi-floor apartments and as walking bridges between buildings. Bridges can be acquired by contacting the owner agency, which is listed on the website.

There are currently 10 bridges available for reuse in Missouri, including the Lick Log Creek Bridge in Bollinger County, the Leeper Bridge in Wayne County and the Pine Street Bridge in Butler County, to name a few. Baughn says the Pine Street Bridge is one of only two like it left in the state.

Baughn cites Green's Mill Bridge in Camden County, Missouri, as one success story in which a new bridge was built next to the old one to save the historic bridge that is only one of four like it left in the country. Closer to home, the Old Appleton bridge in northern Cape Girardeau County is Baughn's personal favorite historic bridge because it's the oldest in the area -- it was built in 1879 -- and made of wrought-iron, complete with an original name plaque that was recovered from Apple Creek below it after the bridge was destroyed in a flash flood in 1982. In fact, the whole bridge was rebuilt in 2005 by fishing pieces out of the creek and putting it back together.

More recently, the owner of Bass Pro Shops, Johnny Morris, has paid to disassemble the Riverside Bridge in Ozark, Missouri, with plans to utilize it 1.3 miles to the south of the bridge's original location, according to stories in the Springfield News-Leader and Christian County Headliner News. The company plans to use it in a project called Finley Farms, a 55-acre working farm and communal gathering space endeavor. The project converts a 1930s Missouri Department of Transportation maintenance garage into a workshop that acts as a coffee shop and space for seminars and classes. It also includes a restaurant for riverfront dining in the Ozark Mill, built in 1833, as well as a chapel for weddings and other events. The Riverside Bridge will be reassembled to provide pedestrian access from the city's trail system, with the project being managed by Johnny Morris' daughter, Megan Stack.

Kris Dyer, whose family has resided in Ozark for generations, spearheaded The Save Riverside Bridge Initiative when she read in the local newspaper that the bridge would be demolished. Thousands of people supported the Facebook page, and through much work and perseverance, the bridge was saved.

"I just felt an injustice to what was happening and wanted to do what I could to try and save the bridge," Dyer says of why she got involved. "I knew nothing about how to save a historic structure, so I immediately started researching. I contacted Bill Hart with Missouri Preservation, James Baughn with Bridgehunter, Nathan Holth with, Kitty Henderson with the, Todd Wilson with Bridge Mapper and Jason Smith with Bridgehunter Chronicles. They quickly teamed up with me to give me advice and counsel, and I was determined to do what they told me."

Baughn's role in helping this bridge be repurposed rather than demolished was this: in 2011, it was his idea to host the Historic Bridge Weekend in Missouri, starting in St. Louis and ending in Ozark so Dyer could host a fundraising dinner in conjunction with the conference to save the bridge. Baughn says historic bridge enthusiasts from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alabama and Germany, as well as many locals, were in attendance, which softened the local officials' stance on saving the bridge, deciding to repair it instead of replace it. The bridge reopened for public use in 2013 but was destroyed by a flash flood in 2015 that closed it again, allowing Morris and Stack to come along to repurpose the bridge. This reimagining of what a historic bridge could be is something Baughn hopes will be replicated across the state and country with old bridges that are up for demolition.

"I think there's probably a market for finding new homes for them and doing stuff with them. It's expensive, but then building a new bridge from scratch is also expensive," Baughn says of preserving and repurposing historic bridges. "This is our direct connection to the past, more so than some of the historic sites which have changed and been reused. So the bridges, you can still walk or drive across just like they did back then. So that's the kind of experience that when they replace it with a modern concrete bridge, you don't get that anymore. And then there's also engineering techniques they had back then that we don't have -- craftsmanship. There's a lot of iron bridges that were made kind of by hand; they would hand-forge the pieces and stuff. We certainly don't do that anymore."

It's craftsmanship that won't soon be forgotten, however. At least, not as long as Baughn and the users of have anything to do about it.

Want to contribute to the preservation of historic bridges?

Here's what you can do:

Find a new home and/or new purpose for a historic bridge. The bridges that are set to be demolished are free for the taking if you move them from their location.

In other places, historic bridges have been and are being repurposed in creative ways, including as part of a bar called the Full Throttle Saloon in South Dakota, as a hub for restaurants and cafes known as the Rock Island Bridge Project in Kansas City and as an entrance to the Quaking Creek Ranch subdivision in Silverthorne, Colorado. The possibilities to rethink and save these pieces of history are limitless.

If you have photos, information or stories about historic bridges, post them in the forum on Or, if you would like to regularly contribute to the site, sign up for an editor's account, which gives you access to uploading photos and information directly to the website.

Check out James Baughn's companion website to, called, which preserves the history of natural bridges, natural sites and historic sites such as water towers. You can also contribute to this site by uploading photos and sharing information in the forum or, if you plan to be more active on the site, as an editor who uploads photos and information directly to the website.

Need a bridge?

These Missouri historic bridges are available free for the taking, to whoever moves them from their current location. For more information, visit

Eagle's Nest Bridge (Pike County, Missouri)

East Fork Big Creek CR 687 Bridge (Harrison County, Missouri)

Halltown Bridge (Lawrence County, Missouri; part of the Old Route 66)

Leeper Bridge (Wayne County, Missouri)

Lick Log Creek Bridge (Bollinger County, Missouri)

Menefee Ford Bridge (Ralls County, Missouri)

Moscow Mills Bridge (Lincoln County, Missouri)

Niangua River Old US 66 Bridge (Webster County, Missouri; part of the Old Route 66)

Pine Street Bridge (Butler County, Missouri)

US-40 Salt Creek Bridge (Howard County, Missouri)