Pictures of History and Health

Physician/Photgrapher Turns Therapeutic Bridge Tour into Book

By Kate Poindexter | Photography by John Vitarello, M.D. | Posted on 11.01.20 – Feature, History, Lifestyles, Travel

For the past several years, physician-turned-photographer Dr. John Vitarello has been trudging through the Frederick County countryside, wading into rivers and streams and listening to folklore and facts from local residents and engineers—all while taking photographs, lots of photographs.

The practical result of his journey is a new coffee table book, Historical Bridges of Frederick County, which features his photography along with driving, biking and fishing tours. But there is more. He insists the experience stretched his imagination, improved cognition, elevated his mood and improved his overall health. He hopes the book will have a similar effect on readers.

“I wanted to improve the status of my brain health, the neuroplasticity or increasing of the functioning, size and mass of the brain,” Vitarello says. “The project allowed me to learn a new skill. It brought enjoyment that stimulates the brain. It put me in motion by walking and hiking and encouraged socialization by bringing me into contact with all the people I met along the way.” 

Known as Dr. V. to his patients, Vitarello has practiced cardiology in Frederick County for 34 years. He is the former president of the Frederick County Medical Society and a current volunteer for a slew of local health-related organizations. He played an active role in raising funds and awareness for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, leading an effort to keep the organization local. Three-and-a-half years ago, he turned to photography to keep mentally and physically sharp. He called upon two experts to teach him technical skills, while allowing his experiences in nature to shape his artistic expression. 

“The technical side is all the physics. You are replicating what the human eye does. What you see with your eyes is the art,” says Doc Miles, a San Francisco photographer who became a teacher and mentor to Vitarello. The two men met when Vitarello booked a trip through Miles’ touring business. Miles’ own work photographing the Golden Gate bridge from various angles at different times of the day influenced Vitarello to explore bridges of his own. The two shared long-distance information and lessons. “He would send me photos and I’d walk him through the post processing,” says Miles.

Bethesda-based photographer Roy Sewall, known for his books and photos of the Potomac River, served as Vitarello’s East Coast, hands-on teacher. “John called me and asked if I would teach him. He knew nothing about photography. He wanted some one-on-one time,” says Sewall. “I taught him what to do in the field. He had a lot of courage, climbing down muddy embankments. He did some clever things with rope so he wouldn’t get swept away.”

Both teachers say their student was a quick study. “He’s very enthusiastic, and an easy learner. I love working with him. He gets it,” says Sewall. Vitarello’s rate of learning was striking, but there was another component that made him a standout student for Miles. “I think he thought it was therapeutic for himself. He called me his photo therapist, tongue in cheek,” he says. 

Armed with two cameras—a Canon 5DS R and a Canon 5D Mark IV—a tripod and some rope, Vitarello set out to find just the right light to photograph his subjects. He often ventured out well before dawn to wait for the sunlight to illuminate a particular bridge and body of water. Along the way he encountered insects, quick mud (like quicksand, only messier) and, on at least one occasion, snakes. Undeterred, he snapped 7,416 photos over the course of the project. A fraction of those ended up on the book’s 100 pages.

EXPERT OPINIONS

This is not just a book of pretty pictures. It includes information on each bridge, including specifications, dates, design and dimensions. For some bridges, history is called out in greater detail, particularly those that played a role in the Civil War. Vitarello sought help from his friend and local historian Joe Collins, Mary Mannix, manager of the Maryland Room at the C. Burr Artz Public Library, and staff at the Frederick County Office of Transportation Engineering.

Frederick County has approximately 220 bridges, of which more than 60 are in individual municipalities such as the City of Frederick, according to transportation engineer Amanda Radcliffe. “We have a larger inventory than neighboring counties,” she says. Many of the bridges are on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The book and online interactive maps for driving and biking tours that connect many of the historic bridges are available at the Frederick Visitor Center and on its website, www.visitfrederick.org/things-to-do/tours. Original artwork from the book by painter Rebecca Pearl is also on display at the center.

“The timing of this book was very fortunate,” says John Fieseler, executive director of Visit Frederick, which manages the Visitor Center. Because COVID-19 restrictions closed large public events, people have been looking for outdoor recreation activities that they can do with their families. He is pleased that many of the truss and stone bridges featured in the book are getting a second look from tourists.

“The covered bridges, they’re the popular kids,” Fieseler says. “But there are other great sights that people can enjoy, too. Driving some of our rural roads is clearly therapeutic.”

 FACTS AND FOLKLORE

The book is organized in alphabetical order and is broken up with features on Civil War bridges, ghost bridges, and the tale of multiple Jug Bridge spans. The story of the Koogle bridge originally located just west of Middletown, is explained in some detail. It was a 90-foot-long roofed wooden timber arch bridge built in 1815 that connected the National Highway across the Catoctin Creek. It was burned by Confederate troops in 1862 as Union troops pursued them. The fire caused damage to a nearby barn and machine shop, but did not destroy the bridge surface. Once the fire burned out, Union troops were still able to cross. The book asserts that if the Confederates had successfully destroyed the bridge, there might have been different outcomes in the fighting at Fox’s Gap in the Battle of South Mountain. The bridge was rebuilt in 1864 and remained in service until 1923. Vitarello included a painting depicting the burning of the bridge by Sherry Kemp. The original painting was enhanced by Rebecca Pearl. 

Ghost stories are attached to several bridges in the book, including the LeGore Bridge in Woodsboro. “Of all the bridges in my book, this bridge attracts the largest crowd of ghost watchers,” says Vitarello. The structure was built by the LeGore Lime Company in 1900. It is a closed-span filled stone arch bridge. It features five spans supported by stone piers across the Monocacy River. According to Vitarello, each bridge span is slightly different in length. The entire bridge is 340 feet long, and 27 feet wide and its roadway is perched 64 feet above the river. 

The LeGore Bridge is attached to a series of unfortunate occurrences. Shortly after it was built, a disgruntled construction employee attempted to blow it up with dynamite, but failed. In 1930, George R. LeGore, the builder’s son, ended his life by jumping off the bridge. It has also been the site of numerous accidents because it has low railings and a steep grade. As recently as 2018, a bicyclist was killed when he lost control, was thrown from his bike and went over the side of the bridge. 

According to Vitarello, at dawn and dusk, when the lighting changes and casts colors and shadows onto the water’s surface, vapors create images and “orbs” that float in the swift currents. This effect brings many visitors to the bridge during those hours who speculate about the ghostly nature of the sights and sounds of the water and surroundings. 

The story of the Jug Bridge is really a tale of three bridges. As outlined in the book, the construction of the original Jug Bridge was completed in 1809. It was 425 feet and 4 inches long and featured four stone arches with sharp projections to deter winter ice buildup. A toll house was built on the western end of the bridge and a demijohn, a container with a narrow neck, was erected at the eastern end. Legend says that workers placed a bottle of spirits in the demijohn or “jug” upon completion of the bridge. 

The Jug Bridge crossed the Monocacy River, providing a vital pathway to the National Road and enabling settlers and merchants to travel west. It was well-traveled for more than 130 years. But, in 1942, a portion of it collapsed. A temporary bridge was constructed and was used for two years while a new three-arch bridge was being built.

As traffic demands grew, the National Road was expanded to four lanes and yet another bridge was built in 1956. The new 527-foot-long, two-lane bridge was built next to the existing one. For 30 years the two bridges carried traffic. A fatal bus crash in 1985 badly damaged the older bridge and it was officially closed to all traffic in 1987. The remaining bridge carries local traffic over the Monocacy River along Md. 144. 

DOING GOOD

In addition to the Visitor Center, book is also available at Downtown bookstore Curious Iguana. Vitarello worked with Federated Charities of Frederick County to direct proceeds from the book’s sale to local nonprofits such as Mission of Mercy which provides free health care, and Partners in Care, which provides transportation to health care appointments and other services.

“As soon as he described the book to me, I was interested in stocking it at the Iguana,” says Marlene England, who co-owns the store with her husband, Mark. “Customers frequently ask for books about the area and Dr. V’s unique focus on bridges, plus all those beautiful photographs, make it a perfect fit. I love his enthusiasm not only for the book but also for his love of Frederick County history and his passion for supporting local charities.”

“God love him. The book is fantastic. We welcome the opportunity to work with him,” says Elin Ross, executive director at Federated Charities. 

Frederick Elks Lodge # 684 is also selling the book and splitting proceeds with the Boys and Girls Club of Frederick County and the Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership of Frederick County. “Dr. Vitarello is a force to be reckoned with. I ended up with 750 books to sell because of his enthusiasm,” says Karen McNitt, the club’s exalted ruler, with a laugh. 

As for Vitarello, he can now add photographer to his list of titles and accomplishments. His teachers say he is the real deal and the book shows off his skills and intrepid nature. They look forward to his next photo project, whatever that may be. 

In the wildly popular 1992 novel and subsequent movie Bridges of Madison County, fictional photographer Robert Kincaid meets and falls in love with a local farm woman. Vitarello, a happy family man, does not wish to be confused with Kincaid. During the course of his photo project, he did not find new romance. “No,” he says with a laugh. “I fell in love with the people who told me their stories at the bridges.”