News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 6, 2007

Mark Bennett: With fund-raising efforts falling short, Parke County decides to replace Jeffries Ford covered bridge with a regular concrete span

By Mark Bennett

Rosedale — Like a road in an action movie, barricades block the pavement, and it ends abruptly at the edge of Raccoon Creek.

But this path has no Hollywood ending. Instead, the site is marked by its inactivity.

Where the rustic Jeffries Ford covered bridge once spanned this waterway, only its concrete foundation remains. The lone remnant of its wooden timbers is a charred beam still pegged to the top of the former bridge’s pier in the middle of the stream. It is peacefully silent, except for birds chirping, the rippling of the creek and the roar of diesel farm equipment in a distant field on the other side of the water.

For 87 years, thousands of people used the Jeffries Ford Bridge to cross Raccoon Creek either by vehicle or on foot. Many were sightseeing visitors to the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival. Others, though, were folks living near this rural spot.

All of that traffic ended on April 2, 2002. An arsonist’s fire destroyed Jeffries Ford, which had linked the two sides of the creek since 1915.

That devious act wounded the community historically and logistically. Its loss left Parke County precariously holding on to its title as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World” — a tourism coup — with 31 of those vintage structures remaining. The destruction also forced local residents to drive more than eight miles on a detour just to reach the other side.

They’re still driving that detour now, even after five years. Fund-raising efforts immediately after the fire generated hopes and plans for a new, larger covered bridge to be built in place of Jeffries Ford. The 204-foot original bridge was too small to accommodate modern farm vehicles and school buses. But the cost of an expanded replacement covered bridge exceeded what the county could raise privately or afford through public funds.

Meanwhile, that road stayed broken.

A remedy appears to be on the way. Parke County had to decide whether to wait for some sort of funding breakthrough to re-create the Jeffries Ford covered bridge, or to build a lower-cost conventional concrete bridge.

Given its tourist-haven status, that choice is difficult. After all, the covered bridges lure 2 million visitors who inject their disposable income into the local economy during the 10-day Parke County Covered Bridge Festival each October. Yet the Jeffries Ford neighbors must continue to burn up their fuel every day driving alternate routes.

“There are real issues there, but the question is, ‘What do you build?’” said James Cooper, a retired DePauw University professor who has studied and written about historic bridges since 1979.

In a place steeped in heritage, county officials have opted for practicality. The Parke County commissioners have decided to replace Jeffries Ford with a regular, uncovered bridge.

Commissioner Jim Meece hopes those concerned about the county’s historical niche keep this verdict in perspective.

“The wooden bridge isn’t lost because of the decision to build a steel-and-concrete bridge,” Meece said. “The covered bridge is lost because somebody burned it down, and we’re dealing with it the best we can.”

The move won’t make history, but it does make sense.

Time, money factors

In its location, the Jeffries Ford crossing needs to accommodate 21st-century agricultural traffic, as well as local vehicles. So the commissioners enlisted Aecon, a Bloomington engineering firm, to design a standard concrete bridge. According to Bob Bullard, Aecon’s vice president, the concept calls for a three-span structure big enough to handle farm equipment, emergency rescue vehicles, buses and cars.

“It’s not anything elaborate, or anything trying to emulate a covered bridge,” Bullard explained. “Bare bones, very low maintenance.”

Another advantage should be the price tag, said Randy Norman, Parke County highway superintendent.

“We’re hoping it’s going to come in at less than $1.2 million,” Norman said.

Rebuilding a covered bridge would run at least $400,000 to $500,000 more, Meece said. A new covered bridge built in Greenup, Ill., within the past decade cost nearly $3 million, he added.

That option was “just not feasible,” Meece said.

The final cost estimate is many months away, Bullard said. Aecon will present its preliminary design plan to the commissioners at a 3:45 p.m. meeting Monday in the county courthouse in Rockville. Then myriad studies will begin to satisfy state and federal regulations, and to determine the impact of a new bridge on the wildlife environment, its potential to cause flooding, and other variables.

“All of those things are still possible for a can of worms to pop up,” Bullard said.

Later this year, the local officials and designers will solicit public opinions and plan a hearing.

Eighty percent of the project’s funding will come from the federal government, while Parke County must come up with the remaining 20 percent.

“As far as spending tax dollars, this is by far the better decision,” Meece said. “And you make that decision reluctantly.”

Still, he knows residents have been inconvenienced for half a decade already. “Everybody wants to have that done. We wished it would’ve been done a long time ago,” Meece said. “I’m just amazed at how slow the process is.”

With federal money involved in this plan, it could be three to five years before the bridge is finished, Bullard speculated.

For some, that countdown can’t start soon enough.

“We’d just like to have access back,” said Brad Rukes, who lives near the site. “Most people out here are upset with not having traffic and not just that the bridge was gone.”

Even those inside local tourism and historical circles understand the cost of rebuilding a covered bridge is too high.

“The numbers just don’t jive to be able to do a covered bridge there,” said Cathy Harkrider, office manager for Parke County Inc., the nonprofit agency that coordinates local tourism activities.

Bridgeton situation differs

After an arsonist destroyed the Bridgeton Bridge in 2005, a fund-raising drive — generating more than $1 million worth of contributions, donated materials and labor — helped that Parke County town to rebuild that covered structure in time for the 2006 festival. The demise of the Bridgeton Bridge, with a scenic mill nearby and a reputation as a festival hot spot, sparked nationwide interest in its recovery.

It took a little more than a year to finish. But unlike Jeffries Ford, the Bridgeton Bridge was for pedestrians only.

“If it would’ve been a bridge built for vehicular traffic, it would’ve been a totally different picture financially, state regulation-wise, the whole ball of wax,” Harkrider said.

Private fund drives also began soon after the arson attack on the less-visible Jeffries Ford Bridge in 2002, but those efforts remained local and in amounts smaller than those at Bridgeton three years later.

“If people came out of the woodwork to do that with Jeffries Ford, [rebuilding a covered bridge] would’ve been the route we went,” Meece said. “But that didn’t happen.”

Harkrider said some donors earmarked their contributions to rebuild the structure. Those offerings, totaling less than $1,000, Harkrider said, remain in a county-supervised fund.

“Now that the county’s not going to [rebuild the covered bridge], we’ll have to address that situation,” Harkrider said.

Parke County Inc. still has those donors’ names, and may begin soliciting their preferences on what to do with those contributions, Harkrider said. A historical marker at the bridge site is one possibility, she said.

Other people donated to a fund to help capture the Jeffries Ford arsonist. Since then, Jesse L. Payne has been charged with the arson of the Bridgeton and Jeffries Ford bridges, as well as an attempted arson at the Mansfield Bridge. On Sept. 18, Payne was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, according to the Parke County Prosecutor’s office, and will remain housed in an institution until he is deemed competent.

Ninety covered bridges from the 19th and 20th centuries still stand in Indiana. Thirty, plus the Bridgeton replica, are in Parke County. Only a couple of counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania come near that total.

“The fact that Parke County has so many covered bridges left is remarkable,” said Jeremy Risen of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.

And the fact that Jeffries Ford is no longer on that list is completely because of one person’s senseless deed.

Mark Bennett can be reached at mark.bennett@tribstar.com or (812) 231-4377.