Neglect and Mother Nature brought this bridge down last week
If there was a word that should be added to the historic preservation glossary, it would be Neglect. A process of ignoring the needs of a structure with the consequence of it collapsing on its own, thousands of counties in the US and districts in Germany, France and other parts of Europe have dealt with structures crumbling, because of the lack of funding and will to restore them for future use.
The Maple Rapids Road Bridge, a pin-connected Pratt through truss bridge, spanning the Maple River just outside Maple Rapids in Clinton County, Michigan is one of those bridges that represents a classic example of how neglect can destroy a structure. Built in 1888 by the Variety Iron Works Company of Cleveland, Ohio (according to state bridge inventory), the bridge was one of the last surviving examples left that was built by the company, and the last example to be found in Michigan.
That was until last week.
During the week of April 4, the stone abutments gave out on one corner the of the bridge, causing it to tilt over and fall on its side in the Maple River. Nobody was injured at the time, but a photographer tried to photograph the process of the bridge groaning as it fell into the river. The photos can be found here with the aftermath photos found here. It is unknown how long this bridge has been abandoned, but prior to its collapse, there had been talk of dismantling and restoring the bridge before relocating it to its new home, with talks of it being incorporated in one of the historic bridge parks in Michigan and Iowa. Part of it has to do with the ornamental portal bracings made of iron, which made this bridge special. Yet despite this, there was no progress in collecting funds to even move the bridge off site and dismantle and store it for reuse. As a consequence, the issue was tabled and it was a matter of time before another flood would wash away the remaining stone abutments and the bridge would be washed away in history.
It is not the first time, such bridges fell victim to neglect and nature. Even in Michigan, as stated by Nathan Holth in his website, many notable bridges were lost because county officials had left them in place for too long of time without mininum maintenance, making it unsafe for people to use. As a consequence either these bridges collapse on its own or they had to be removed, before there was any chance to saving them. But this phenomenon has existed everywhere in the US and Europe, as many notable examples were lost because of this process. Two examples come to mind: the Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County, Iowa and the Bridgeport Bridge near Wheeling, West Virginia. Both of these bridges were closed to traffic because of structural concerns, yet no action was taken until it was too late. Two sections of the Horn’s Ferry Bridge, including the main span, collapsed in August 1991, whereas the Bridgeport Bridge was removed in 2011 because the bridge corroded to a point beyond repair or even restoration.
While many states and counties are tight financially and are having difficult times obtaining any funding to even repair the bridges, especially in light of the Sequestration process happening even as this article is being released, the issue of neglecting buildings and infrastructures should not be taken lightly, and in some cases, drastic measures, such as removal or tax hikes/ referendums in order to restore these places of interest may be the only two options left in order to at least stabilize the structures so that restoration is possible when the funding is available. In the case of historic bridges, dismantling and storing them before they can be restored and rebuilt is a practice that has increased over the past 10 years, and one that should be considered in cases of bridges like this one, that need the attention of all parties involved at any cost.
We can only hope that the tragedy of the bridge at Maple Rapids will serve as a wake-up call to determine which bridges will need the most attention, even if it means dismantling them so that they can be restored and reassembled at a fraction of the price of demolition and replacement. It is just a matter of inventory and prioritizing, keeping in mind that history and aesthetics dominate over modernization. Only then when common sense prevails that bridges like this one will be saved for future generations to come.