Cobban Bridge to Be Replaced: Truss Bridge’s Future Unknown

CHIPPEWA FALLS, WISCONSIN-  Imagine this situation for a second: You have an old but very unique historic bridge with a history that binds two communities together. After being built 120 years ago, it was relocated to its present site during its 20th year and remains in use until structural problems force the county to close the bridge and plan its replacement. The bridge is located near a bike trail that used to be a railroad line connecting the two communities. While the public is really attached to the bridge, the county insists on building a new bridge at its current site because the cost for even restoring the bridge is far more than just tearing it down and replacing it. Because of its history and unique design, the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which makes funding for restoring the structure easier to achieve than it is when removing it using federal funds. Yet funding for restoring the bridge is hard to find. What do you do?

Do you:

  1. Proceed to tear the bridge down and replace it?
  2. Get a second opinion about the cost of evaluating the bridge and find ways to fix the bridge for continued use?
  3. Build a bridge alongside the sturcture and convert the old bridge into a pedestrian crossing?
  4. Build a new bridge at its original site but find constructive ways to relocate the bridge or use part of the structure- especially along the bike trail?

In the case of the Cobban Bridge, a two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge spanning the Chippewa River southwest of Cornell in western Wisconsin, the situation is very precarious, for the historic bridge, considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of its history and unique design, has met the end of its useful life as a vehicular crossing. Yet costs for restoring vs. replacing the bridge have forced county officials to look at other options apart from rehabilitating the bridge in place or building a new structure alongside the old one. In other words, the bridge cannot remain in its current place and must go.

Since August 2, the bridge has been shut down to all traffic including pedestrians, and talks are underway for securing funding for the bridge’s removal in place of a new strucure. This also includes looking at options for reusing the bridge, which when looking at the drone video, it’s a real beauty:

Yet inspite of its beauty, the Cobban Bridge will most likely have to make its third move in its lifetime, unless financial support for reconstructing the bridge at its current location combined with constructing a new bridge alongside the structure is realized, not just on the government level but also from the private sector.

When the bridge was first built in 1908 by the Modern Steel Structures Company, based Waukesha, the two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge was over the Chippewa River between the townships of Anson and Eagle Point. The bridge was christened the Yellow River Bridge even though it was located one mile north of the Yellow River itself. Replacing the iron bridge built years before, the structure had the same features as the one at its present location: it was made of steel, had pinned connections, overhead V-laced strut bracings and a three-rhombus Howe lattice portal bracings with 45° heel bracings. Ten years later, as part of the plan to construct a dam along the river near Chippewa Falls (and subsequentially inundate the crossing upstream), the bridge was relocated 15 miles downstream to cross the same river between Cornell and Jim Falls near the village of Cobban. The bridge has been in service since then- all 486.5 feet in length; each span, being identical and having a length of 241 feet.

Despite this, planning has been in the works to replace the Cobban Bridge, even though the two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge is not only the last one of its truss type left in the state, but it is the only multiple-span bridge of its kind in the country! Inspections and estimates have revealed that restoring the bridge to be reused even for pedestrian purposes would be $13-14 million. A report presented by a well-known bridge builder, AECOM (whose regional office is based in Stevens Point in northern Wisconsin) revealed that replacing the bridge on a new alignment would cost $11 million, up from an estimated $7.2 million that was figured in March 2016. If delayed until 2025, the price would be lowered from $12.9 million to $8.6 million at the site where the bridge is located. Tearing the bridge down would cost $1.6 million. Established as a conglomerate in 1990, AECOM has its headquarters in New York but dozens of offices throughout the country as well as Europe. While its specialty is designing and building state-of-the-art buildings and modern bridges, for restoring historic bridges, its only focus has been on stone arch bridges, which included Grobler’s Bridges in South Africa and the Railroad Viaduct over the Neisse in Görlitz, at the German-Polish border. County officials and supporters of the Cobban Bridge are dissatisfied with the results provided by AECOM. Yet all parties have agreed to one thing, if the bridge is unsafe, then something has to be done about it.

Because of its design and historical integrity, the bridge is elgible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which means environmental and cultural impact surveys (especially those in connection with Section 106 of the Preservation Laws) are to be undertaken before any work on replacing the bridge was to commence. According to Marilyn Murphy, who has started a facebook page on Saving the Cobban Bridge and has over 2000 followers, the surveys are already underway. As the project will require federal money, state and local authorities are mandated to allow the surveys be undertaken to determine the impact of replacing the Cobban Bridge, while looking at alternatives for reusing the bridge. Several other agencies have been involved in looking for options for the bridge, including the Texas-based Historic Bridge Foundation, as well as the Chippewa County Historical Society. The key variable that is known, according to Murphy, is that the county would like to relieve themselves of legal responsibilities for the bridge and would gladly like to give the bridge to any third party member wishing to take responsibility for maintaining the structure, including its relocation.

So with the bridge available for the taking, what options are available for the Cobban Bridge?

In the interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, Murphy presented a long list of possibilities for reuse. This includes using portions of the bridge along the Old Abe Bike Trail, which runs along the Chippewa between Lake Wissota and Brunet Island State Parks, relocating one or both spans back to the original Yellow River site, using one span for a state park, or even purchasing parts of the dismantled span (boards or beams) as remembrances. However, as mentioned earlier, there is interest in keeping the two spans in its original spot- a practical and most logical choice, yet two variables are lacking: funding and expertise. Funding because it is likely that regardless of ownership- be it through the state with the Department of Natural Resources (which owns the Old Abe Bike Trail), private-public partnership or simply pure ownership- funding will need to be found mostly through private sources, including donations from companies and citizens. This would be needed to renovate the bridge to make it a viable crossing for pedestrians and cyclists and incorporate it into the bike trail. Expertise would mean looking at companies that have restored bridges like this for recreational use, and there are enough both in-state as well as out-of-state to go around. Even if the bridge is to be relocated again, these two variables are going to be key in order for the bridge to live on.

What needs to be done in order to prevent the demise of the Cobban Bridge?

We know that the bridge has been declared off limits for all traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists- at least until the environmental impact and cultural surveys are completed, which can take 6-12 months or more to complete (including alternatives for reusing the bridge both in place and elsewhere).  Without that there is no federal funding that can cover 80% of the costs for the bridge. There has been a lot of public support and sentiment towards the Cobban Bridge and ways to save and reuse the structure, yet the approach of doing-nothing is not an option. This was already seen with the Wagon Wheel Bridge in Iowa, and its neglect, combined with vandalism and the lack of maintenance resulted in the “Triple GAU” consisting of arson, collapse and in the end, the removal of the remaining structure in 2016. There are a lot of ideas for reusing the bridge- be it in place or at a different location (even in segments), and the county is ready to hand over the keys that will unlock the gates that have closed off the structure since August, forcing travelers to detour to crossings at Jim Falls and Cornell. Yet, like with the Green Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa, which has been reopened since the end of last year, a group or alliance will be needed that will take over ownership and assume full responsibilities of the bridge and assure that it is safe for use. And speaking from experiences of others, the going may be tough at the beginning, but after a series of fundraisers and other events to help restore and reuse the bridge, the Cobban Bridge may have another life beyond that of horse and buggy, the Model T and lastly, the Audi.

If you would like to help restore and/or reuse the Cobban Bridge, you can visit its facebook page (here) and contact Marilyn Murphy at this address: mjmurphy1970@gmail.com. She’s the main contact for the bridge and can also provide you with some other contact information of others involved with the project. She and her husband Jim were nice enough to provide some pics of the bridge for this article.  The Chronicles will keep you posted on the latest on the Cobban Bridge and the steps that will be needed on the structure’s future, regardless of which direction it is taken.

   

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Historic Bridge in Washington State Available/ Catch: State Will Pay for the Costs. Any Takers?

Photo taken by K.A. Erickson in 2009 before it was replaced.

Washington DOT (WSDOT) will pay up to $1 million for the dismantling, transporting and reassembling of the 1925 through truss bridge to be reused for any purpose.

TACOMA, WS-  Sometimes historic bridges get into the way of progress and need to be replaced. This is especially true with bridges whose height, width and weight restrictions hamper the ability to get trucks and other means of transportation across.  However, before they are removed, states are required to put them up for sale so that third parties can claim them and relocate them the way they see fit. In general, the bridge program has had a mix of successes and failures in selling off their historic assets, for on the one hand, third parties wishing to purchase the historic bridge for use are shirked away by the cost for transportation and reassembly. Furthermore bridges marketed by the department of transportation are often too big or in the case of arch, beam and suspension bridges, too entrenched or too fragile to relocate. On the other hand, however, one will see in each state a success story of a historic bridge that was given to a third party. This is especially true with truss bridges as they are easily taken apart, transported to a new location in segments and reassembled. One will see an example in every state, yet Indiana, Texas, Iowa, Ohio and Minnesota have multiple examples of success stories. Even some stone arch bridges have been relocated to new sites where they still serve their purpose.

However, there is one state department of transportation that is going the extra mile to sell their historic bridge by even paying for the relocation and reassembly of the historic bridge. Between now and 2019, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) can sell you this historic through truss bridge:

According to the information by the WSDOT and bridgehunter.com, this historic bridge was built in 1925 and used to cross the Puyallup River at State Highway 167 (Meridan Street) in Puyallup, located seven miles east of Tacoma, until it was replaced in 2011 by a modern crossing. It was then relocated on land, where it has been waiting for its new owner ever since. Washington has got a wide array of historic bridges, whose unique design makes it appealing for tourists. They have the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (with its name Galloping Gertie), the , the world’s only concrete pony truss bridge,  and a housed through truss bridge made of wood in Whitman County that was once a railroad crossing, just to name a few.  The Puyallup Bridge is a riveted Turner through truss bridge, a hybrid Warren truss design that features subdivided chords and A-framed panels. After the demolition of the Liberty Memorial Bridge in Bismarck, ND in 2009, this bridge is the last of its kind and one of two of its design left in the world- the other is a Turner pony truss crossing in the German city of Chemnitz. Normally, going by the standard marketing policy, the historic bridge is marketed first before it is replaced and then taken down if no one wants it. However, looking at that tactic done by many state DOTs, this has not allowed much time for third parties to step forward and save it, especially because of the costs involved. For some bridges, like the Champ-Clark Truss Bridge, spanning the Mississippi River at the Missouri-Illinois border, there was almost no information about the bridge being up for sale as well as a very small time window of three months, thus providing no interest for at least one of the spans. According to MoDOT representatives in an interview with the Chronicles a couple months ago, the spans now belong to the same contractor building the replacement, who in turn will remove the spans when the new bridge opens in 2019.

The Pullayup Bridge is different because of its large size and rare design, which goes along with the history of its construction. It was built in 1925 by Maury Morton Caldwell, a bridge engineer who had established his mark for the Seattle-Tacoma area. This event was important for its completion came at the heels of the introduction of the US Highway System a year later. Born in Waynesboro, Virginia in 1875, Caldwell moved to the Seattle area in 1904. He worked as a civil engineer for the City of Tacoma from 1910 to 1916 before starting his own engineering business. Prior to the construction of this bridge in 1925, Caldwell had been responsible for the construction of the Carbon River Bridge in 1921, the Pasco-Kennewick Bridge in 1922 and the Wiskah River Drawbridge in Aberdeen in 1925.  Yet the 371-foot long Pullayup Bridge proved to be one of his masterpieces that he built in 1925, thus leaving an important mark on his legacy of bridge building in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. It is unknown how many other bridges were credited to his name, but from the historic research conducted by WSDOT, he was never a licensed professional engineer for Washington State and only practiced the profession for the Seattle-Tacoma area, which means the highly likelihood of more bridges having been designed by Caldwell and located strictly in north and western Washington and possibly British Columbia. He died in 1942, having been survived by his wife, Amy, whom he married in 1915, and his sister Nettle, who resided in Virginia state.

The Pullayup Bridge is being offered to those interested by WSDOT between now and 2019. The catch to this is the DOT will pay for the dismantling, relocation and reassembling costs- up to $1 million for the whole process. The only cost that the party may have to pay is for the abutments and possibly the road approaching it. The deal provided by WSDOT is a great steal for those wishing to have a unique historic bridge for reuse as a park or bike trail crossing. Even the thought of using it as a monument describing the history of the bridge, bridge engineering and M.M. Caldwell is realistic. Some parties who have called up wished to convert it into a house, similar to one of the reused spans of the now demolished eastern half of the San Fransisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which had been built in 1936 and was replaced with a cable-stayed span in 2013.  The main slogan is if you have an idea for the bridge, WSDOT can pay for it, and you can make your dream a reality. With many successful projects, stemming from creating historic bridge parks in Iowa, Michigan and coming soon to Delaware (where historic bridges were imported from other regions) to numerous bridges along the bike trails throughout the US, Europe and elsewhere, this deal to have the bridge for free, with a transportation agency having to pay for the relocation and reerection at its new home, is something that one cannot really afford to miss out on.

If you are interested in this unique historic bridge, please contact Steve Fuchs at WSDOT, using this link, which will also provide you with more information on this structure. The agency is also looking for more information on M.M. Caldwell and other bridges that he may have designed and contributed to construction. If you know of other bridges built by this local engineer, please contact Craig Holstine, using the following contact details:  holstic@wsdot.wa.gov or by phone: 360-570-6639.

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