Eggners Ferry Bridge Reopened: But for how long?

Photos taken by James Baughn

There have been a lot of events that took place this past Memorial Day weekend that deal with historic bridges. One of course was the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which was attended by tens of thousands of locals, photographers, reporters and pontists. The other celebration was at an 80 year-old bridge located across the west end of the Tennessee River between Paducah, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee. The what is the difference between the two bridges?

While the people in San Francisco were commemorating the event to those who contributed to building the suspension bridge all covered in orange, the ones in Kentucky were celebrating the reopening of the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge, which is a vital access to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area- in other words, an island surrounded by two lakes where the Tennessee River flows through. Built in 1932 together with the Lake Barkley Bridge that spans the east branch of the river, this bridge carries US Hwy. 68 and Kentucky Highway 80 through this area. The bridge was raised in 1943 when the Tennessee River was impounded to create Kentucky Lake. While the bridge is so narrow that only two cars can barely pass through it, it is the only direct link to the park area, for the nearest crossing after that is 40 kilometers north along Interstates 24 and 69 near Paducah.

While the bridge, consisting of six through truss spans (four Parker and two Pratt) and trestle approachs on each side, has very little historic significance, it abruptly entered the headlines in January, when a cargo ship traveling northbound on the west branch of the river struck the bridge on the 26th, destroying one of the Parker spans and misaligning the easternmost Pratt through truss span. While fog may have played a key role in the disaster, questions still remain as to how the ship managed to float up the river in the first place, let alone choose the lowest of the Parker spans in the first place.

With a vital link gone, inspections were carried out to determine the stability of the remaining structure. After revealing that the rest of the bridge was stable, an emergency operation was carried out to put a truss span in place of the Parker span that was destroyed- a process that was quick, easy and affordable. A Warren through truss with V-shaped portals (instead of the West-Virginia style ones) was fabricated by Hall Contracting and brought out by barge before being hoisted up on to the current piers, and all this before the start of the summer travel season! For states, like Kentucky, which has lost as many pre-1950 bridges as Pennsylvania and Ohio (up to 60%) since 2001 due to its draconian policies towards replacing historic bridges, such an act was unthinkable. In Pennsylvania terms, a span gone means the entire bridge is gone, no matter what the costs are to replace it. However, given the tight fiscal budget the state (as well as over half of the country) has been facing since 2008, the words “common sense” is entering the vocabulary of the engineers and politicians over there, which means it is better to fix and rehabilitate the bridge at a lower cost than to replace it with money that the state does not even have. And with hundreds of people gathering at the site of the bridge, there could be some potential to make historic bridges a tourist attraction.

Still despite this fix-up, the bridge’s days appear to be numbered, as plans are in the making to replace this one, as well as the neighboring Lake Barkley Bridge with a set of tied arch bridges, providing four lanes of traffic to and from the park on the island. Construction of the approaches will start in the Fall of 2012 and the tied arch spans will be in place by the end of 2014. Both truss bridges will be demolished afterwards, sometime in 2015, unless there are interested parties in taking a portion of the bridge home with them for local traffic use.

While it will be sad to see the bridges go, the emergency repairs done on the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge shows that the structure is not all lost if one uses common sense and examines the rest of the bridge to determine its stability before a decision is made. Furthermore, it allows the engineers and the transportation departments to look into other options to repair and reuse the existing structure, regardless of whether it is a temporary fix or a permanent one. This includes the usage of truss bridges, once touted by many to be structurally deficient; especially in light of the I-35W bridge disaster on 2 August, 2007.  And if people are impressed with (the reopening of) historic bridges because of their design and technology, perhaps finding ways to reintegrate historic bridges more into tourism should be considered rather than watching them be imploded with dynamite. While this may be a tourist attraction in itself, do not be fooled with the fact that there are more people who want to know more about historic bridges, how they are built and how they are part of American culture and history, regardless of whether the history is on a local level, like the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge is, or a national (or even international) level like the Golden Girl spanning San Francisco Bay at the age of 75.

Note: James Baughn compiled an even more detailed summary and critique on the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge, which you can find here. He posted a lot of pics for the bridge, a couple of which you can find below:

The incident on 26 January 2012


Still a very narrow bridge despite the fix

The Warren through truss replacement span.