BHC Pic of the Week Nr. 135: A Tribute to James Baughn

This week’s Pic of the Week just might as well be a TRUSS Bridge article given the acute situation this bridge is in. This bridge was photographed by James Baughn in 2009. At that time, the four-span structure- featuring two Parker and one Pratt through trusses and one outer pony truss were open to traffic and carried the former, now-historic highway Route 66.

Fast forward 12 years later and we see the same bridge, except the road is no longer drivable and the bridge closed to traffic- most likely on the way out unless action is taken to save it. The Gasconade Route 66 Bridge is nearing the century mark, yet time may be running out to save the structure. Most recently, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) rejected a proposal to hand over ownership to a private group that is associated with Route 66. The question is why and what’s next?

I had a chance to talk with Rich Dinkela (a.k.a. Roaming Rich), who is one of the administrators of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians about the failure of MoDOT giving up ownership and found some similarities to the failed attempt to save the Bockau Arch Bridge (Rechenhausbrücke) near Aue in western Saxony- namely the attempt of a governmental organization to fend off those who are interested in saving the bridge for the sake of money and power. To summarize, MoDOT’s arguments against saving the bridge had a lot to do with excuses instead of known facts. They didn’t want a bridge sitting unused, which is being used- but for pedestrian purposes. They didn’t want a bridge that is alongside the current structures, which is being practiced in other parts of the state. They wanted zero responsibility for maintenance and henceforth, insurance that is 100% fault-free. That is rare to find and even if, one example that Rich mentioned in our conversation required an annual insurance premium of ca. $200,000 a year. The term “unicorn policy” is one that may be laughable at first but in reality, one that will most likely be a normal term in the coming years as we see more and more historic bridges meet the wrecking ball for excuses like those presented by MoDOT.

These examples mentioned run parallel to our attempts to save the Rechenhausbrücke, which ended with its demolition in January 2019. The difference was that we were offered the bridge but at a price of close to two million Euros, which the organization fighting to save the 150-year old structure did not have for at least purchasing it. Yet while the cause for removing the stone arch bridge was supported by the communities it used serve- Bockau on one end and Zschorlau on the other, plus all the political parties except a far-right party, the Gasconade Bridge has gotten support from not only the Route 66 organizations including the one for LeClede County, but also the locals, some of them have experience with the laws. It’s just the county and state officials that are not listening and are insistent that the bridge removal is justified.

So what happens next? Is there hope for saving this unique structure? Options will be looked at and every stone turned over, yet the time is running short. The trump card is the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which has been looking over the proposals and checking that everything is correct in order for the funding for the removal of the Gasconade Bridge is justified. While MoDOT insists that the cost for removal has been $250,000, that statement was given in 2015. In today’s standards, the costs have almost doubled. Bridge restoration firms have rehabbed and repurposed historic bridges for even LESS than the proposed cost at present. While time is needed to collect funding to fully restore the structure, which was why the short-term proposal of removing the decking and fencing off the bridge to repel the trespassers from even entering the structure makes sense, this time is not being given by MoDOT as it is luring the buffaloes over the cliff- the buffaloes representing the Route 66 groups fighting to save the bridge from becoming a pile of scrap metal. Whatever proposals are being made, they are being rejected using excuses that when thinking about it, are considered absurd. It’s the narrowed-mindness that will cost this bridge its life and once the FHWA gets the green light, the bridge will disappear like magic, if you look at it from the point of view of people, like Rich, who have fought for years to save it.

And the story of the Gasconade ends with a sense of irony. Route 66, like all the US highways in the country, will have the centennial celebrations come 2026. Celebrations are being prepared along the stretch of the Mother Road, except there’s not much to celebrate in Missouri as places of interest, especially with historic bridges, are disappearing. When people in Germany think of the US, one of the first things that is brought up is Route 66, its history, its artefacts and its heritage- the heritage that made America what it is today. Many travel this route to see the sites, others (and especially the younger generations) take in the experience and settle down. It is hoped there will be much of the highway left to experience, especially when we talk about bridges like the Gasconade in LeClede County.

Author’s Note: The group saving Route 66 is looking at every option possible, I’ve left the details out at their request as they will do the presenting in the near future. However once the announcements are made, you will be the first to know.

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