• 50°

State’s last steel arch bridge may come down

[11/21/2001]It remained when the others were taken, but the last steel arch bridge in the Vicksburg National Military Park has now become a problem.

Nearly 30 years of disuse has taken a toll on the attractive span over Jackson Road on Confederate Avenue. Superintendent Bill Nichols said the decking and one of the footings are failing. Decision time is near, he said, on whether to preserve the bridge or take it down.

The carefully marked and manicured park was created by Congress in 1899 to preserve as sacred the Civil War battlefield all around the city’s rim. Initially, five arched bridges spanned some of the deepest gullies that formed the city’s natural defense line. The bridge now failing may have been built about 1905. “They didn’t keep good … records back then,” Nichols said.

All five of the bridges were used until the 1970s. Four were removed when replaced by concrete and steel beam bridges. A modern bridge was also built over Jackson Road, but parallel to the old bridge. Although taken out of service in 1972, the old bridge remained as a concession to local demand and to historic considerations. It was converted into a pedestrian bridge and scenic overlook and served that purpose until five years ago when inspectors declared it unsafe because of rot and deterioration of the decking.

Nichols said a clogged drain has also allowed water to cascade down the side of the gully the bridge crosses. It has undermined one of the masonry footings that support the arch.

Because the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Structures, its fate will be carefully considered. “It is the last remaining steel arch bridge in the state and has state architectural significance,” Nichols said. “It has no known federal architectural significance.”

As early as 1991, Nichols said he started seeking opinions on what to do. “The consensus was that regrettable as it was, it was understandable that since there was no documented need we should not spend the funds necessary to restore it,” Nichols said.

Since then, Nichols has met with regional National Park Service officials who reached similar conclusions.

At present, Nichols said there are still three options:

Do nothing, which is untenable given the danger to traffic on Jackson Road below the bridge.

Spend about $1.2 million to repair it and commit the park service to perpetual maintenance. (Red lead primer, now known to be a hazardous substance, was used when the bridge was repainted in the early 1970s, and would have to be removed.)

Remove the structure at a cost of about $200,000.

As a result of the meetings with district officials, Nichols began the process of complying with the provisions of the National Environmental Restoration Act. That action is required because removing the bridge or restoring it would be considered a “significant federal action.”

Nichols said he and the rest of the staff of the park are preparing a packet of material that will be given to individuals and organizations interested in historic preservation.

“The park will then invite public comments on what would be the most responsible thing to do,” he said. “If there is any controversy, then we will have a public meeting.”

There’s no timetable, but as things are headed, the steel-arch bridge is likely to go, perhaps on or about its 100th birthday.