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Clarkton Bridge is coming down

South Boston News
Engineers with VDOT and a Minnesota consulting firm commissioned by outside stakeholders take a look at the decaying Clarkton Bridge in a May 2017 site visit.

SoVaNow.com / June 19, 2017
After a two-decade, citizen-led effort to save the structure, Virginia Department of Transportation is moving forward to demolish historic Clarkton Bridge.

In 2015, VDOT closed Clarkton Bridge to foot traffic, citing safety concerns. The Staunton River bridge has been blocked ever since, despite its inclusion on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail and plans to make it a stop on the Tobacco Heritage Trail. The bridge hasn’t carried automobile traffic in more than a decade.

VDOT says it has immediate safety concerns even to those canoeing beneath it. “The bridge has its own timeline [to fall down], and we don’t know what that is,” said Kenneth Martin, VDOT Halifax Residency administrator.

After initiating a required review process in September, in accordance with the National Historical Preservation Act, VDOT held a series of meetings to discuss the bridge’s future with local stakeholders, the latest of which took place earlier this month. The stakeholders include concerned citizens and representatives of organizations who want the bridge to remain — many having led a previous effort in the early 2000s to stave off the wrecking ball.

After a final meeting this September with input from stakeholders, VDOT will request approval from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers for deconstruction.

Clarkton Bridge spans the Staunton River, connecting Halifax and Charlotte counties. It occupies a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge was built in 1902 by the Virginia Bridge & Iron Company, using a then-common style of metal truss spans, supported by steel cylinders. The Virginia Department of Historical Resources file notes that it is the “only remaining metal truss structure in Virginia built for highway purposes that is supported by such devices.”

After VDOT announced its intentions to demolish the bridge, concerned citizens P.K. Pettus, Carl Espy and Barbara Bass — with the approval of VDOT — commissioned a Minnesota firm, Olson & Nesvold Engineers, for a second opinion to see if the bridge could be saved. This outside review was encouraged by VDOT as part of an open exchange, bridge advocates say.

“They’ve [VDOT] handled the process in an exemplary way,” said Pettus, a Charlotte County resident and active area preservationist.

Olsen’s assessment echoed VDOT’s grim appraisal of the bridge’s condition, but the firm suggested that fixes were within the realm of possibility. In order to repair the bridge but minimize historical damage, workers could encase the steel support columns in concrete and replace many of the overhead trusses.

Using this method to make long-term repairs to the span — ensuring its survival for another 40-50 years — “will be extremely expensive,” the engineering firm concluded.

A second and cheaper method would be to support the bridge with steel beams attached to the bottom. This would allow the historic part of the bridge to support only its own weight and not much else. However, Olsen noted that this would “substantially compromise the historic integrity of the bridge” and endanger its standing on historic registers.

VDOT rejected Olsen’s proposals.

VDOT has pledged more than $900,000 to demolish the bridge but has emphasized that funding for a replacement bridge would have to come from outside sources — not from VDOT. Its estimates put costs for a totally new foot-traffic bridge at $6 million or a new vehicle-traffic bridge at $7 million.

VDOT’s initial assessments in September estimated that it would cost $10.7 million to fully rehabilitate the bridge, piece by piece. Olsen’s review put the costs of reinforcement at $7-8 million, depending on the engineering method used.

This is not the first time that the bridge has been marked for destruction. In 2004, VDOT moved to demolish the bridge, but quickly met resistance from local citizens and historical groups. Hundreds of people met for a “Save Our Bridge” rally at the bridge site, letters were drafted to initiate a review to slow the demolition, and private citizens and organizations moved to secure funding to shore up the bridge. After some repairs and evaluation, the bridge was reopened to foot traffic in 2005. However, 10 years later, an inspection revealed problems that spurred VDOT to close the structure a second time, foot traffic included.

With further resurrections extremely unlikely, the conversation has turned to ways to preserve the memory of Clarkton Bridge. Some stakeholders have suggested salvaging the trusses of Clarkton bridge and incorporating it into a new structure, while others have suggested keeping portions as part of a historical tribute and exhibit.

However, these options are difficult to see as the method of demolition remains unknown and funding for a new bridge has not yet been secured.

Either a reintegration or preservation of most historically-significant engineering portions can “certainly can be done,” said Olsen. “It’s a [bridge] technology that hasn’t been used in a hundred years.”

VDOT has pledged to erect historical markers and signs in memory of the bridge and also maintain the rights of way on both sides of the Staunton River. This right of way would ensure that the boat landing on the Charlotte County side of the river remains open to the public.

The quest for funding a replacement bridge has begun, but stakeholders emphasize that the search is coming largely from the outside community, given the cost. Furthermore, some would want a truss bridge erected in homage to Clarkton. Expressing disappointment at the impending loss, Pettus said, “For visitors, walking under and through a truss is a qualitatively different sensory and aesthetic experience.”

While VDOT seems adamant that the old structure must come down, Pettus believes “it appears we have convinced VDOT that this very special historic place deserves a replacement pedestrian and bicycling bridge, one that will be owned and maintained by VDOT. Also, agency staff noted last week that VDOT may be able to identify funding sources to provide match funds that could cover as much as half the cost.”

“It’s a beautiful place,” she said.

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