Last week, this newspaper published a story about what seems destined to be a battle over the fate of the old Burnt Mill Bridge near Robbins. The bridge — which has been used only as a pedestrian walkway over the Clear Fork River since being deemed too dangerous for vehicular traffic in 2004 — is in a serious state of disrepair that is rapidly declining. Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area Superintendent Nikki Nicholas has expressed her concerns about the safety hazards posed by the bridge to Scott County Mayor Dale Perdue, and an engineer has deemed the bridge too far gone to preserve.
If and when the debate over the bridge’s fate arises, it’ll be a “battle” because public sentiment will weigh heavily in favor of leaving the bridge standing.
The bridge, which dates back to the Great Depression era, is one of the last of its kind, even if it’s no longer suitable for vehicular traffic. It is of significant cultural and historical value, and it’s always sad to lose our historical landmarks — whether they’re out-of-sight and largely out-of-mind, like the old bridge on Honey Creek Road, or a two-story brick building on Oneida’s South Main Street.
Sometimes, though, the question must be asked: is it worth salvaging an aging structure simply for the sake of keeping it?
In 2005, when the old bridge had been closed and a new, modern, concrete bridge was being constructed downstream, public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the old bridge. Scott County Commission and then-County Mayor Dwight Murphy listened to the public and made it happen. At the time, it was a step worth taking.
Thirteen years later, the bridge is largely an eyesore, even if the safety concerns could be dismissed. Burnt Mill Ford is one of the most heavily visited areas of the Big South Fork on its southern end. The shallow waters and solid-rock river floor make the waters beneath the bridge a popular swimming hole, and it’s also a nice picnic area, in addition to being a put-in and take-out point for whitewater paddlers and trailhead for one of the national park’s most under-rated and scenic hiking trails.
The bridge is, frankly, a visual detriment to what is otherwise one of the crown jewels of the Big South Fork.
As for the safety concerns, they cannot be dismissed. With large sections of flooring already missing and some of the remaining boards so deteriorated that they threaten to buckle under human weight, it isn’t hard to envision someone falling to serious injury or even death from the bridge. Besides the financial liability such an accident would pose to Scott County and its taxpayers, it would also be a significant and unfortunate black eye for the BSF and its efforts to grow tourism in our region.
The bridge’s flooring is simply the start of the concerns, however. If an engineer who visited the bridge recently is correct, the integrity of its support structure is in question. That could create even bigger risks to both life and property, as the more modern bridge is just downstream and could be jeopardized if a portion of the old bridge collapsed amid flooding and was carried into the newer bridge.
Preserving the old bridge would mean a lot of effort to repair it, which means a lot of money. When the old O&W Bridge was repaired last year, the price tag — including the costs of both supplies and manpower — came to more than $90,000. Reflooring Burnt Mill Bridge would probably cost at least a third of that, and that price tag would not address the structural concerns, which would cost substantially more to address. Meanwhile, the O&W Bridge was paid for with a state tourism grant. Those grant dollars would not be available for the Burnt Mill Bridge, as grant-writers say the state will not fund multiple projects that are similar in nature.
Repairing the old bridge would carry a price tag that would fall on the taxpayers of Scott County. While the Scott County Road Department is ultimately responsible for its upkeep, taking funds from the department’s share of the state gasoline tax — funds that are used to maintain roads that Scott Countians actually use to get go to and fro — simply cannot be an option. Cutting straight to the heart of the matter means simply this: restoring the old Burnt Mill Bridge would have to be paid for by Scott County’s landowners through the county’s property tax. Is it worth it? It hardly seems so.
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