A Bridge For Haiti

In 1992, a voluntary team of civil engineers and laypeople designed, funded and constructed a 90-foot-long suspension bridge for the people of Chauffard, Haiti. This is their story, as told by Kenneth E. Wilson, P.E.

Brent Wolff, a missionary in Haiti who lead the construction of the bridge, stands on the finished product.



Running through Chauffard (Haiti) is a dangerous river that schoolchildren must cross to get to their mission school and that farmers must cross to take their crops to market. Each year during the flooding season, two or three people, most often schoolchildren, are swept away to their death by the raging current.

Upon learning of this condition, a voluntary joint venture, consisting of the Foundation for International Development Assistance (FIDA), Engineering Ministries International (EMI), the Michael Baker Corporation (an engineering firm based in Pittsburgh, PA), and a local Haitian church, the Harmony-Zelienople United Methodist Church, stepped in to design, fund, and construct a 90-foot-long steel suspension bridge for the people of Chaufford.


The Haiti Eight, as [the volunteers] came to be known, helped the Haitian people erect the 20-foot high steel towers, pour the 10-inch thick concrete tower pads, and excavate and set reinforcing steel for the 54,000-pound concrete anchor blocks. Brent Wolff, who has lived in Haiti with his family for the past five years, then lead and assisted the people of Chauffard in pouring the anchor blocks, assembling the suspension cable system, placing and welding the steel plate deck, and finally painting the entire bridge.

Members of the Haiti Eight included (first row, left to right) missionary Brent Wolff, Brent's Haitian assistant Roberto, Tim Walker, Jerry Maharg, Larry Barnes, (second row, left to right) Tim Nichols, Ken Wilson, Brent's son Ian, Mimi Wilson, Wayne Schar and Dave Hoffman.

The Haiti Eight carry 200-pound steel pipes a half mile over mountainous terrain to the bridge site; the 20-foot long pipes will be welded together to become bridge towers.

Since the bridge site is so remote, all bridge materials were transported by foot down a steep and winding half-mile path from a truck to the bridge site. The Haitians and their American co-workers hauled 200-pound pipes and 90-pound bags of cement over the mountainous terrain, with the Haitian children generally leading the way and leaving their new American friends with wounded pride and sore muscles.

The mountainous setting in which the Chauffard bridge was constructed.

With no conventional construction equipment available at this remote mountainous site, the bridge was constructed using only support cables, a welder, and a lot of ingenuity and fortitude. Steel pipes were assembled and welded into towers, braced with steel angles, and capped with a steel saddle to support the main cables. Working side by side, the Haiti Eight and the local Haitian people chiseled away at the rock in both the tower pads and the anchor block holes, slowly excavating them to their proper depths. Reinforcing steel was cut by hand and was bent about a large rock near the bridge site.
About 30 Haitians joined the Haiti Eight in raising the 20-foot high towers into their vertical positions. A great roar went up from the assembled Haitian crowd when the towers were finally upright, and the Haiti Eight breathed a collective sigh of relief that none of the towers wound up in the 100-foot-deep canyon. Using a primitive yet innovative system of strings and plumb bobs, the team positioned, squared, and leveled the towers.  

Local Haitians put the finishing touches on the bridge as a crowd looks on at this most unusual site.


While many professionals were involved in the design and construction of this bridge, the local Haitian people, who will use the bridge and who made the decision to build it, played a major role in constructing it. However, Wolff is occasionally discouraged by his work in Haiti, and he compares the Haitian people with a group of crabs stuck in a bowl. "When one crab is about to make its way out of the bowl," he says, "the others drag it back down, not allowing it to escape its desperate conditions. When a crab finally does make it out of the bowl, it never looks back or returns to show the others the way out."

But he uses another word picture to illustrate his reason for staying in Haiti. "If an ocean storm strands thousands of starfish on the Haitian beach, it may seem pretty futile for someone to begin throwing them back into the ocean, one at a time. But it sure makes a difference for the ones he does throw back."

 Above the desk in Wolff's office is a sign titled "Serving the people" with the following words:

Go to the people

Live among them

Learn from them

Love them

Start with what they know

Build on what they have:

But of the best leaders

When their task is accomplished

Their work is done

The people all remark

"We have done it ourselves"

Mike Orsillo, the Executive Director of Engineering Ministries International who coordinated the bridge project, accompanies one of Tony's friends onto the bridge for the first time.


In addition to helping to construct the bridge and leaving a supply of food, medical supplies, and clothing, the Haiti Eight also left a small bronze plaque for the bridge with the words, "Pon Chofa, Depi ke Jezu to sevi tankou yon pon ant Bondye e nou menm lanmou Jesu fe nou konstwi pon sa-a pou ou e nou Dedye-l pou glwa granmet la." ("Chauffard Bridge, since Jesus bridges the gap between us and God, the love of Jesus compels us to build this bridge for you and dedicate it to God's glory.")

Wilson says of his experiences in Haiti, "This project has been a dream come true for me, allowing me to apply my bridge engineering skills in a cross-cultural setting. There's something special about the Haitian people that draws you like a magnet. They have taught us all a lesson in contentment and fortitude, and we have received a lot from the Haitians as well as giving to them."

A Haitian child joyfully makes his first crossing of the bridge that will provide him and his friends safe passage to school each day.


Information about participation in similar short-term mission projects is available through:

Engineering Ministries International, 110 South Weber, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80903, Telephone 719-633-2078


All images © Kenneth E. Wilson, 1992

This article has been used with permission from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and was originally published in the January 1993 issue of ASCE News


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