Bridge to the Nineteenth Century: Can Bell Road's span be saved?
The Bell Road Bridge in Dexter Township is on the National Register of Historic Places. The plaque so designating it, however, is sitting in neighbor Bill Klinke's garage—because for twelve years the nineteenth-century "iron through-truss bridge" has been rusting away on the banks of the Huron River. As the Bell Road Bridge lies there, overgrown with brush and poison ivy, it seems impossible that it could ever rise up out of the muck again. Yet citizen efforts have already saved two similar bridges downstream.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Huron River was spanned with iron bridges at every mill town—including Dexter, Scio (at Zeeb Road), Osborne Mill (at Tubbs Road), and Geddesburg (near present-day Washtenaw Community College)—as well as in Ann Arbor and Yp-silanti. Another iron bridge crossed the River Raisin in Manchester.
The bridges came in kits, like giant Erector sets, the pieces sent by rail. Locals assembled them and rolled them on logs down to the river to place on abutments made by local stonemasons. They were a lot better than wooden bridges that needed continual upkeep.
Iron truss bridges, patented by brothers Thomas and Caleb Pratt in 1844, are supported by a series of iron triangles held together with iron pins. A "through-truss" bridge has a top section that helps hold up the sides. "These old bridges supported more weight than you would think," says Richard Cook, who helped save the Delhi Bridge downstream of Dexter. "They carried not just horses and wagons but heavy steam-powered agricultural equipment."
In 1832 Samuel Dexter, the founder of Dexter, and Isaac Pomeroy built a sawmill a mile below Portage Lake. A later owner added a gristmill, and the hamlet of Dover grew up around it. At its peak it had a church, a hotel, a store, a blacksmith shop, several dozen houses, and a post office. A drawing in the 1874 County Atlas shows a wooden bridge across the Huron there. But by the time an iron bridge was installed in 1891, the village was waning; Dover's post office was torn down the next year. The bridge was named after John Bell, whose farm was across the river. By 1915 Dover no longer appeared on maps.
The other surviving bridges also served mill towns. Samuel Foster, a miller from Massachusetts, answered Dexter's invitation to work at his mill in Dexter. Eventually Foster started his own mill downstream, where Zeeb Road crosses the Huron; the village of Scio grew around it. Foster later built a second mill downstream at Maple Road. The settlement there, originally named Newport, became Foster's Station but was never very big. There was an iron bridge there as early as 1876.
Another iron bridge was built in 1888 at Delhi. At its peak this village, founded in 1831, was a railroad stop with five mills, a school, and a post office. The last mill was dismantled in 1906, and the stones from the mills spilled into the river, forming the rapids that are now the main attraction at Delhi Metropark.
During the twentieth century, the iron bridges disappeared one by one from the Huron, until only three were left— Bell Road Bridge, the Delhi Bridge, and the bridge at old Foster's Station, now known as the Maple/Foster Bridge.
In 1992 the Bell Road Bridge closed for awhile after a drunk driver ran into a post. It reopened with a load limit of four tons, which made it impassable for garbage trucks, school buses, delivery vehicles, and fire engines. Its abutments were crumbling, and in 1995 the Washtenaw County Road Commission put the replacement of the Bell Road Bridge on its wish list for the state's Critical Bridge Fund. Administered by the Michigan Department of Transportation, the fund covers almost all the cost of repairing or replacing failing bridges. In a typical CBF project, the local government pays just 5 percent of the bill; 15 percent comes from the state and 80 percent from the federal government.
The road commission wanted to replace the narrow iron bridge with a two-lane concrete span. Neighbors pushed instead to repair the old bridge, arguing that it was good enough for a small rural road, and that emergency vehicles could cross the river on North Territorial Road a mile south. They attended road commission, township, and county meetings, gathered hundreds of petition signatures, and got the National Register designation.
Eventually the road commission agreed not to replace the bridge. But in 1997 the bridge was taken down; its abutments were so weak that it was feared a spring flood might wash it away. It's been sitting on the riverbank ever since.
Three years later the same issues arose downriver, when the road commission decided the Maple/Foster Bridge was unsafe and needed to be replaced with a bigger, stroriger span that could carry emergency vehicles and school buses. Again, neighbors rallied. They formed the Citizens for Foster Bridge Conservancy and raised more than $40,000 to hire an engineering firm. It reported that repairing the bridge was feasible, though costly. Barton Hills, northeast of the bridge, offered to put in $250,000 from an escrow fund built up over years of refunds from state road repair money. (Barton Hills is a private village, and it pays for its own street repairs).
In 2003 the road commission spent five months repairing the bridge—replacing the timber deck, improving guardrails, and installing cable to strengthen the sides. Roy Townsend, the road commission's director of engineering, estimates the total cost was about $800,000, so the road commission paid about $550,000.
Two years later, the Delhi Bridge was closed by the road commission as unsafe. Because the abutments needed much work, the cost of renovating the bridge would be even greater than for Maple/Foster—and there were fewer neighbors with deep pockets like the residents of Barton Hills. Still, a citizens group, the East Delhi Road Conservancy, raised $50,000 from the Kellogg Foundation and $10,000 from individual donations and sales of lemonade and T-shirts.
An engineering study, paid for jointly by the road commission, Scio Township, and the conservancy, showed that the bridge was in good enough shape to rehabilitate—if money could be found to do so. Then the conservancy discovered that Critical Bridge Fund money could legally be used to restore historic bridges. Although MOOT agreed, the road commission was leery, joining the effort only after state representative Pam Byrnes convened a meeting with all the stakeholders.
In September 2005, when the Delhi Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the way was paved for repairing it with CBF money. With 95 percent of the cost covered by the federal and state government, the road commission agreed to put up half of the local contribution; the other half was split between the Delhi Road Conservancy and Scio Township. When the cost of the projected repair ballooned to $1.2 million, Huron-Clinton Metroparks chipped in $15,000.
The last hurdle, paying for the upkeep, was cleared when the bridge activists gathered enough signatures to ask the township to form an assessment district. About 120 nearby properties will pay around $30 a year to help maintain the bridge.
For further protection, the group got the county to establish an East Delhi Bridge Historic District, encompassing just the bridge itself. This designation ensures that the bridge may not be changed or moved without permission of the county's historic district commission.
"It was a grind," admits Cook. "It took a couple of years, endless meetings, and beating our heads against the wall." But he adds, "Very few get saved. We're very happy."
In fact, according to Townsend, this was the first bridge in Michigan to utilize CBF money for a historic rehabilitation. Because it was historic, the state waived the requirement that the bridge have two lanes. Instead, a traffic light will be put up, perhaps on side poles to make it less obtrusive. The bridge is scheduled to reopen in June.
Only five Pratt through-truss bridges survive in Michigan, and three of them are in Washtenaw County. The restored bridges at Foster and Delhi are the only two still in use in their original locations. The fate of the third, the Bell Road Bridge, remains uncertain.
The cost of saving the bridge hasn't been calculated, but it won't be cheap— Townsend says the abutments would have to be replaced. If it ended up costing $1 million—halfway between what was spent at Foster and at Delhi—then the local 5 percent match would be $50,000.
Cathy VanVoorhis, one of the leaders of the Bell Road group, is still hopeful. She says that the bridge isn't in bad shape-that most of the rust is on the parts attached to move it, and that it's easier to work with on the ground. "It's not abandoned," she says. "It's a project sitting there waiting for funding."
Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly says she wants the bridge saved, but "it's not likely to be rehabilitated anytime soon. In these economic times, there is no way." Meanwhile, Bill Klinke is keeping the bridge's historic plaque safe and dry. "It was the least I could do," he says. "I was hoping someday someone would call and say, 'Let's put it up.'"
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: A 1936 photo of the Delhi Bridge in its prime; in contrast, the Bell Road Bridge sits unused and rusting, and its historic plaque is in a neighbor's garage.
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: A $250,000 contribution by Barton Hills helped save the Maple-Foster bridge, an important route into the village.