There is a phrase that beguiles me with its unknown source that “a prophet is rarely respected in his own Jerusalem.”
This phrase comes to mind when I consider the Rhine towns of Feuerthalen, across from Schaffhausen, and Rheinau, downriver 181 km / 113 miles if discussing walking distance.
Feuerthalen, population 3,500, is Schaffhausen’s unremarkable cousin across the river in Canton Zürich.
Its only claim to fame is its views of Schaffhausen and its two native born sons, Othmar Ammann (1879 – 1965) and Heinrich Sutermeister (1910 – 1995).
“Who were Othmar and Heinrich?”, you may ask.
They were two Swiss men, native sons of Feuerthalen, who in their own fashion, in very different professions, considered the questions of morality and mortality.
As I cross the Züricherstrasse Bridge from Schaffhausen over to Feuerthalen and see flowers in their curbside boxes dying from the ongoing heatwave, I am reminded of death connected to the name of Othmar Ammann.
Back in my homeland of Canada, back in a city I once called home during my college years, is the Quebec Bridge connecting Sainte-Foy, a suburb of Quebec City, across the St. Lawrence River to Levis.
The Bridge is 987 metres / 3,239 feet long and 29 metres / 94 feet wide, comprised of three lanes of roadway, one rail line and a pedestrian walkway.
It is still the longest cantilever bridge in the world.
The project failed…twice, at the cost of 88 lives, and took over 30 years to complete.
By 1904, the Bridge was taking shape.
However, preliminary calculations made early in the planning stages were never properly checked when the design was finalized.
The actual weight of the Bridge was far in excess of its carrying capacity.
The dead load was too heavy.
All went well until the Bridge was nearing completion in the summer of 1907, when the engineering team began noticing distortions of key structural members already in place.
The consulting engineer was informed but he replied that the problems were minor.
The Bridge Company officials claimed that the beams must have already been bent before they were installed.
Near quitting time on the afternoon of 29 August, after four years of construction, the south arm and part of the central section of the Bridge collapsed into the St. Lawrence River in just 15 seconds.
75 were killed and many were injured, making it the world’s worst bridge construction disaster.
Of these 75 victims, 35 were Mohawk steelworkers from the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal.
They were buried at Kahnawake under crosses made of steel beams.
Othmar emigrated to the US in 1904 after receiving his engineering degree in Zürich.
Ammann wrote two reports about bridge collapses, the collapse of the Quebec Bridge and the collapse of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
It was his report about the failure of the Quebec Bridge in 1907 that first earned him recognition in the field of bridge design engineering.
Ammann would go on to design more than half of the eleven bridges that connect New York City to the rest of the US.
His talent and ingenuity helped him create the two longest suspension bridges of his time.
Famous bridges by Ammann include:
– the George Washington Bridge
– the Bayonne Bridge
– the Triborough Bridge
– the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge
– the Walt Whitman Bridge
– the Throgs Neck Bridge
– the Verrazano Narrows Bridge
He also assisted in the design and construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel.
But it is his report on the first Quebec Bridge collapse that still affects us today.
His report showed what unquestionable power an engineer could have at the time in a project that was improperly supervised.
Professional engineers in Canada and many other countries now operate under rules and regulations that include that engineers must pass an ethical examination, must be able to show good character through the use of character witnesses and have applicable engineering experience.
In America, a bronze bust of Ammann sits in the lobby of the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, there is a residence hall called Ammann College on the campus of Stony Brook University, and a memorial plaque is near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Heinrich Sutermeister was a Swiss opera composer, who devoted his life to composition.
He wrote for radio, stage and television, bringing not only classic stories like William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to life in music, but as well Swiss folksongs and the great Swiss classic, Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.
The Black Spider, in particular, shows Heinrich’s intention to speak of death and ethics in music and song.
A village is ruled by a knight who drives the villagers very hard, relentlessly seeking monies from their efforts.
The knight demanded ever more ludicrous tasks, the last of which was the replanting of trees from a distant mountain to form a shaded path on his estate.
He demanded this job be done in such a short period that the peasants could not possibly do it without forgoing their own harvest and going hungry.
At this dire moment, the devil, in the form of a wild hunter, offered to assist them with the replanting.
As payment he wanted an unbaptized child.
I don’t want to spoil your reading of this classic tale, but suffice to say it is a powerful story of people wrestling with problems of doing right versus self-preservation.
Heinrich brought this story alive for those who did not know or had not read Gotthelf’s work.
For his efforts, he remains forgotten by the town that spawned him.
Float downstream to Rheinau.
Rheinau, population 1,400, has no famous native sons (or daughters) but instead is known for its Abbey – a holy place with a cursed history.
The Abbey was founded, then abandoned; reestablished then dissolved; replaced by a hospital and nursing home then replaced by a psychiatric clinic; then it was closed again but now has refound itself as a religious shrine of worship once again.
This temple of God has always seemed unloved in its own parish.
I remember once teaching a class of Business English in Lörrach at the University of Co-operative Education, wherein there was a disruptive Turkish youth in the midst of the students.
He thought he was Allah’s gift to mankind.
His peers did not share this opinion.
I remember one criticism by one young lady who remarked:
“Those who can’t succeed in Turkey come to Germany.”
I wonder if this is true.
Is a prophet always unloved in his own Jerusalem?
Must we leave home to find our own fame and fortune?
Is respect never possible among those who’ve known us in our infancy and immaturity?
Can we never go home again?