Wylie Elementary School fourth-graders recently presented their request to the Dexter City Council for an interpretive sign explaining the construction of Dexter’s iconic stone bridge and honoring its builder, engineer Frederick Pelham.
The request came as a result of the students’ work with a “place-based” curriculum unit of What Makes Bridges Work, Or Fail? The group studied bridge failure, constructed their own model bridges and stressed them to the point of collapse. Observations were noted and discussions followed with ideas as to how failure could be avoided.
“Place-based” learning focuses on engaging students and educators in their immediate locale as a primary learning resource – the unique history, environment, culture and economy of the students’ own “place” or community.
After their classroom work of bridge construction, collapse and conclusions was finished, the fourth graders visited Dexter’s stone railroad trestle leading west out of town. The bridge is well known for its narrow width for two-way traffic flow as well as the occasional truck overestimating the height only to end up wedged underneath.
What the students would like the bridge to be famous however for is its designer and builder – Frederick Pelham, who in 1887 was the first African American to receive an engineering degree from the University of Michigan.
Pelham graduated with honors from Detroit High School at a time when few Americans of any race did so. He went on to study Civil Engineering at U of M. Upon receiving his degree, he went to work for the Michigan Central Railroad. Pelham designed and built 18-20 bridges for the railroad his brief but shining career.
The story behind Dexter’s stone arch bridge begins with the tragic death of Dexter resident Martha Warner who was struck by a train while crossing the tracks. The crossing was a concern for citizens and Warner’s death prompted residents to petition the railroad company to make the crossing safer. The railroad assigned the job to the bright and talented 25-five-year-old Frederick Pelham who oversaw the design and construction of the bridge in 1890, for horse and wagon traffic. Sadly, Pelham’s promising career was cut short five years later when he died of acute pneumonia.
The “Place-based” emphasis of the study didn’t end with looking at the bridge and learning about its builder. The students were then encouraged to take further action, which they have. In an effort to share their work with the community at large, they have designed and raised funds for an interpretive sign honoring Frederick Pelham. The fourth-graders then experienced first-hand civic engagement in their “place” as they navigated channels for approval of such a project.
In an email to the city, Jeff Dagg, an instructional coach for the school district who has been working with students and staff with the new emerging “Place-based” curriculum, stated that the “4th-grade students at Wylie Elementary School have been studying engineering and the history of Dexter’s bridges. They are proposing that an interpretive sign honoring Frederick Pelham, the first black civil engineer to graduate from the University of Michigan, be commissioned for Mill Creek Park at the circular seating area near the corner of Jeffords St. and Main St. overlooking Dexter’s iconic, and historic, skew arch bridge that Pelham designed.”
Along with their parents, student representatives attended the City Council’s meeting on January 22nd to present their cause. Below is a conceptual mock-up of what the sign could look like.
The City Council unanimously approved the students’ request. The Wylie fourth-graders are hoping to see the sign unveiled before the school year ends in June.