Two teams of Clarkson University student engineers are designing a bridge for the historic Fort de la Présentation site in nearby Ogdensburg, N.Y.
Clarkson Mechanical & Aeronautical Engineering Instructor Ron Buckingham approached Fort de la Présentation Association Board of Directors President Barbara O’Keefe, last year, about a possible project for his Capstone Design class. She and the association suggested a bridge.
The fort site is situated on Van Rensselaer Point where the Oswegatchie River flows into the St. Lawrence. The historic 18th-century French fort was torn down in the early 1800s
The property is now owned by the Fort Association and includes a peninsula that was built in the early 1900s for a ferry dock to transfer railroad cars across the St. Lawrence River to Ontario. A former property owner later cut into the peninsula forming an island at the end. The students are designing a 20- to 40-foot, eight-foot-wide pedestrian bridge to span the water to give future visitors access to the 300-foot-long island
"The point has the best views of the St. Lawrence River," says O’Keefe. "Access to it has been an objective, but was not achievable currently, since as a non-profit, our funds are limited. With plans in hand, we can now seek grant funding." She adds that the project will also enhance visitors' knowledge of Van Rensselaer Point’s railroad history.
"This project is very important for St. Lawrence County and Ogdensburg," says Buckingham.
"The association’s overall goal is to reconstruct the original fort and turn this lovely site into an attractive historical place that people will want to visit. The Founder's Weekend reenactment that takes place every July attracts hundreds of people from the U.S. and Canada. Having a bridge so that people can access the island is a very important piece of this larger vision."
In the fall 2020 semester, a team of mechanical engineering students had developed a preliminary design for a steel bridge. In the recently finished spring 2021 semester, another team of mechanical engineering students designed a timber bridge which would be an economical solution to provide an actual bridge as quickly as possible.
"Our team was tasked with building a five- to 10-year-life-span timber bridge," says mechanical engineering team lead Claire Zwack '21 of East Aurora, N.Y. "Our design focused on incorporating the railroad heritage of the area because the bridge will be built on the location of former train tracks. Another key feature of our design was that our bridge will be relatively easy to assemble, meaning that volunteer labor could be used to build it, possibly with Clarkson students doing some of the work."
The students envision building the timber bridge on the Clarkson campus and then transporting it in pieces for installation within a year or two.
In the same semester, a parallel team of Clarkson civil & environmental engineering students joined the project and did a preliminary design for a steel bridge with a lifespan of 50 years or more. They also did a design for the concrete abutments that could be used for both the wooden bridge and the steel bridges.
"Our team of civil engineering students designed not only a bridge, but also the foundations, existing trail connection, fencing, and landscaping," says civil engineering team lead Tyler S. MacNeil '21 of Fort Edward, N.Y. " To achieve these, we performed site analysis with the use of software, structural analysis calculations, construction schedules, cost estimates, a review of regulations, permitting, and construction drawings. Through it all, we have strived to provide the association with, to our best ability, the means to hand off our work to a professional firm to verify and perform construction of our project."
"Hands-on projects are important because they help students like us develop our communication and design skills while learning about engineering theory," says Zwack. "This project is particularly important because, not only does our team get to work on a 'real-world' engineering project, but we also get to help the local community in the process. When our timber bridge is built, it will allow visitors to explore the site and learn more about the rich history of Ogdensburg and the North Country."
The Fort de la Présentation Association is pleased with the students' work. "The committee is impressed with the students' maturity and professionalism from the RFP to the final presentation," says O'Keefe. "Communications have been excellent using Zoom. They have been able to incorporate our feedback."
Civil & Environmental Engineering Adjunct Instructor and Civil Team Mentor James J. Billings says that the students are gaining important lifelong skills through the project. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the students to not only participate in design and construction activities, but it also requires them to meet regularly and coordinate with owners and other stakeholders," he says. "It sharpens their communication, presentation and meeting skills."
MacNeil agrees. "Hands-on projects like this enable my classmates and me to get experience with a real-world project, as opposed to completing assignments in a typical classroom setting," he says. "There's much to the practice of engineering that can't be learned in the classroom, of which I believe we've received a great benefit from working on this project." MacNeil and his team also submitted their design work as part of the annual Clarkson University Research and Project Showcase, earning top-score honors.
O'Keefe feels that local college students should learn about the community that they call home for four years and its history. "The expectation is that working with a non-profit organization is rewarding and will translate into giving back to their future communities," she says. "Hopefully, they will someday bring their children to Fort de La Présentation and tell them 'I designed that bridge!'”
Buckingham says they experienced working with a very enthusiastic group of people who have a dream and are trying to make it come true. "The skills that the students built on this project, both technical and interpersonal, will most certainly help them in their careers," he says.
Read more about Fort de la Présentation at fort1749.org.