Purchase photos

Weathered wonder

10/13/2012

LORETTA -- A bit of history is crumbling.

LORETTA -- A bit of history is crumbling.

Built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, a three-arch, limestone bridge -- 91.3-feet long and spanning an unnamed tributary of the Smoky Hill River -- is in danger of collapse.

Problem is, it's on the National Register of Historic Places, and repair to maintain its historic integrity virtually would be impossible, said Rush County Road Supervisor John Moeder.

Instead, Rush County is proposing to remove the three-arch bridge from the register of historic places and replace it with a two-arch bridge, built in 1946, approximately 3 miles northwest of La Crosse.

They've cleared nearly every hurdle to start the project.

Except two.

One is an inter-county cost-sharing agreement between Russell and Rush counties. Russell has been inclined to replace the bridge rather than repair it.

The bridge, 10.5 miles northeast of Loretta, straddles the county line, with Russell County owning the north half while Rush owns the south half of the bridge. The Ellis County line is a half-mile west, and while Ellis County officials passed on sharing the cost, they've agreed to help with in-kind services.

The most daunting task left, however, might be the issuance of a permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the auspices of the federal Clean Water Act.

Before it will issue a permit to move ahead with construction, the Corps has issued a 21-day notice detailing the process to be taken. Prior to the end of that period, anyone can ask for a public hearing. The reasons for a hearing must be included in the request, which must be made to the Corps by Thursday.

The bridge, a joint project of the WPA and Rush, Ellis and Russell counties, according to the plaque at both ends of the structure, is deteriorating and now rated to carry no more than 3 tons.

"That's not even a big farm pickup," Moeder said.

But it's the oilfield traffic that's brought the bridge to the forefront, according to Moeder.

A spike in drilling has brought a crush of traffic to the tri-county area, and heavy trucks are using the road because it's the quickest route to Russell.

Moeder said nearly 1,100 barrels of oil daily are being pumped from a 900-acre patch right in the vicinity of the bridge.

"And it's all going to Russell," he said.

The massive guardrails on the bridge are starting to pull away from the structure itself, a defect that's visible from above where there's a hole in the deck a 2-by-4 piece of lumber can fit in.

On the underside, massive cracks are forming where the guardrails are separating.

And that's the problem.

To repair the bridge and maintain its historical integrity, Moeder said, would require disassembly of the bridge, stone by stone, something the state historical society suggested.

What Rush County's proposing to do is to install corrugated steel plates on the underside of the arches, building a set of concrete footings under each one.

After removing all the soil from the deck of the bridge, a series of anchors and cables would be installed, letting contractors pull the guardrails back to plumb.

Concrete then would be injected into the lower deck, Moeder said, allowing for a virtually unlimited weight limit.

From the top side, he said, the view of the bridge would be little different from what it now is. Nearly all of the changes would be either under the bridge or covered up by the deck.

The bridge is relatively unique, Moeder said, because its center arch is larger than the two adjacent ones.

That's why he and members of the Rush County Commission would like to do what they can to maintain the bridge.

Ken Urban, a Rush County commissioner who recently accompanied Moeder to the bridge, said he and other members are interested in keeping the bridge from a historical perspective.

Russell County commissioners, meanwhile, think the bridge can be replaced more cheaply than the limestone bridge can be repaired. While Rush and Russell commissioners likely will conduct a joint meeting in the future, Moeder said he's moving ahead with putting the project out for bid.

That way, he said, they'll know the exact cost and will be able to compare it to the cost of a new bridge. He thinks the cost might be approximately $170,000.

* Anyone wanting to request a hearing should contact Steven M. Whetzel at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers field office in Marquette by calling (785) 546-2050.