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Thursday, April 21, 2011 01:57 pm

The bridges of Sangamon County

What to do when a bridge can carry more history than traffic?

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Bolivia Road Bridge, North Fork, Sangamon River.
PHOTO BY LANDMARKS ILLINOIS

Usually, making a Top 10 list is cause for congratulation, but not when it’s Landmarks Illinois’ annual list of most endangered historic sites. In March, the preservationist group named to this year’s list the 110-year-old bridge that carries Bolivia Road from near Lanesville in Sangamon County south across the Sangamon River to the hamlet of Bolivia in Christian County.

Until recently the only people who knew that there is a bridge connecting Lanesville to Bolivia were those who live there. Nor will it be immediately obvious why Landmarks Illinois or anyone else should care that this particular bridge seems doomed to be replaced by a newer structure. The answer is that the bridge is one of only two bridges in Illinois using a Parker truss, a version of a design invented in 1844 by Thomas and Caleb Pratt.

The issue raises interesting questions about the nature of the historic. Is a thing – an artifact, a building, a structure, even a neighborhood – historic merely because it is old? Most people probably would say yes, but only if it is the oldest local example of its type. Is a thing historic merely because it is rare? Local rarity certainly confers a value in this case, but that design was widely used for railroad bridges, and examples still stand in lots of other places.

Whatever its age or rarity, a thing usually merits historic status depending on who is doing the defining. To the bridge nut, the appeal of saving an old bridge is self-evident – it’s an old bridge. The non-nut is more likely to see historic-ness in attributes other than its bridgeness – the fact that some famous person built it, perhaps, or that something famous happened on or under it, or that it utilized a breakthrough technology or material.

Some say that what transforms a mere relic into an historic artifact is its power to illustrate or at least recall the past. The Bolivia Road bridge was, I believe, one of 120 bridges selected in 1983 as worthy of preservation by the Illinois Department of Transportation because they “help us recall and appreciate the monumental effort” that went into providing Illinoisans with their road and bridge infrastructure.

It is natural that recalling and appreciating the effort that went into providing Illinoisans with their road and bridge infrastructure should be important to the state’s road and bridge infrastructure agency. But while (to quote IDOT again) “illustrat[ing] the advancement of structural engineering in bridge design” in Illinois makes the Bolivia Road bridge important to engineers, it won’t for that reason alone make it interesting to a general public. Neither Parker nor the Pratts had any connection to Illinois, nor did any event significant beyond the township take place on or near it.

Let us assume that the Bolivia Road bridge merits preservation, if only because these old bridges are much more interesting than the structures that replace them. It can’t be saved where it stands, so what does one do with it? A bridge, even a modest country span like this one, makes an awkward museum exhibit. That’s partly because of its size and partly because, well, who would pay to see it? It’s hard enough to get people to come to Springfield’s Presidential museum to look at a living corpse; how many are going to want to look at a dead bridge?

If a bridge can’t carry cars and trucks safely, it makes sense to put it to use carrying something it can carry safely, such as people and bicycles, rather than throw it away. After the covered bridge across Sugar Creek near Glenarm was judged inadequate for motorized traffic in the 1960s, IDOT built a new bridge nearby and preserved the old one for use as a pedestrian walkway. More recently an old bridge was removed, moved, fixed up and reinstalled on the Centennial Trail, a public foot and bicycle path up in Will County. By the 1990s, the two-span, 302-foot-long steel truss bridge built in 1898 across the Sanitary and Ship Canal at 135th Street in Romeoville had become so rickety that heavy trucks could not cross it, so it was officially closed. Nonetheless, as the only remaining example of this type of bridge in Illinois, it was designated by the State of Illinois as historically significant.

Sangamon County officials had such a second life in mind for the Bolivia Road bridge, but the federal and state bucks the county needed to determine if and how it might be relocated were not forthcoming. As the Iles House project reminded us, such unwieldly artifacts can be salvaged, even relocated, using mostly private funds. (The Texas-based Historic Bridge Foundation offers perhaps the ultimate in guides for the ambitious do-it-yourselfer – How To Save a Bridge.) Alas, keeping a useless relic around just because it reminds you of a happier past is expensive – look at what the General Assembly costs Illinoisans.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.


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