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In Pacific, a bridge's fate ignites hope, fear

In Pacific, a bridge's fate ignites hope, fear

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PACIFIC • On a sandstone bluff high above downtown, a familiar panorama spread out before Steve Myers: ivory cliffs, antique buildings and worn asphalt streets that disappear into woods at the foot of the Ozarks.

At 52, Myers has weathered many ups and downs in this railroad town, and now, through the windshield of his pickup, he envisioned a bright future built on nature and the city’s 163-year-old past.

Amid the tracks and Historic Route 66 highway, he pictured B&Bs, a winery and an influx of tourists drawn to the beauty of the Meramec River and the history of the place his family has called home for generations.

A few miles to the south lay the key to it all: a rickety, century-old, steel bridge named after his great-great-grandmother.

“If the community can come together and cooperate, we can do something truly amazing,” said Myers, a Pacific alderman.

Others, however, don’t view the Pennsylvania Truss structure, named the Withington Ford Bridge, but called the “Bend,” with similar fondness.

As Franklin County prepares to build a $4.5 million bridge 650 feet downstream, the Bend’s fate has captured the attention of residents, elected officials, nonprofit groups and federal agencies. The array of interests — environmental, economic and historic — are converging on the beams that span 422 feet of olive-colored water.

A prevailing theme has run through the discussions: The bridge’s current owner, Franklin County, no longer wants it.

You only have to look a few miles southwest to see why.

In recent years, the Bruns bridge, another steel truss structure abandoned long ago by the county, has seen injuries from jumpers, clashes with property owners, even an exploding meth lab.

“We already have one problem child,” said Franklin County Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer. “We don’t need another.”

TOO MANY DEATHS

Before the Bend was built, there was a ford where the Meramec sometimes flowed shallow enough for a buggy to cross. But the water wasn’t always easy to judge, and as the area’s population grew, the river claimed one life after another.

On March 7, 1904, Annetta Withington and her daughters Nannie and Edna headed to nearby Robertsville. As they entered the Meramec, one of their horses stumbled, overturning their carriage. Annetta and Nannie were swept away; Edna, 19, held onto a tree branch in the frigid water for two hours until rescuers arrived, according to a newspaper account.

Twelve years later, Franklin County spent nearly $14,000 on a bridge, naming it after women whose deaths one article declared brought about what “probably was the saddest day in the life of” Pacific.

Edna, who died in 1936, had three sons, including Myers’ grandfather. Myers said he was unaware of the personal connection until after he mounted the campaign to save the Bend.

OBSTACLES TO DEMOLITION

Residents have complained for years that the bridge needed to be replaced. The Bend has only one lane. Stories abound about stubborn motorists meeting in the middle, yelling at each other to back up.

Drivers follow a narrow road beside a bluff and make a 90-degree turn at the bridge, leaving large vehicles little room for error.

“A car is one thing,” Griesheimer said. “But if you’re a bigger truck, once you get there, you’re hung.”

Today, roughly 1,500 vehicles cross the Bend every 24 hours, sending tremors through its struts and causing its ancient rivets to grind and rattle.

For decades, old bridges have vanished from the nation’s landscape, partly because they are ill-suited for modern traffic. One estimate says the U.S. lost more than half of its historic bridges in 25 years, said Kitty Henderson, executive director of the Historic Bridge Foundation based in Austin, Texas.

Franklin County will spend $1 million and the federal government $3.5 million to replace the Bend. As a condition of receiving federal money, the county must at least consider the feasibility of preserving the Bend, which is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The process occasionally results in bridges being relocated, turned into recreational trails, or left intact as monuments, Henderson said.

The county also must contend with three species of endangered mussels in a bed extending several hundred feet. One of them, the Scale shell, once thrived in 50 rivers in 13 states but now is concentrated in the Meramec, Gasconade and Bourbeuse rivers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a plan to relocate the mussels.

TRAIL DREAMS

In what appears to be the most viable proposal to save it, Pacific would annex the bridge, providing a crossing for the Ozark Trail, which now terminates in Onondaga Cave State Park, about 60 miles southwest.

To pay for maintenance, the Magi Foundation, a local planning and policy nonprofit, would raise $750,000 for a trust.

But the Ozark Trail Association does not have easements from Onondaga to Pacific, and assembling that much land could take more than a decade.

Preserving the Bend could jump start the process, said Matt Atnip, the group’s executive director. The group’s plan calls for the trail to meet up with Great Rivers Greenway at the Franklin and St. Louis county line. In the next five years, tourists could bike from Route 66 State Park near Eureka to Pacific and return via canoe, well before the extension from Onondaga is completed, Atnip predicted.

Myers believes that connecting the well-manicured Greenway with the more-rugged Ozark could affect Pacific’s economy as the 240-mile-long Katy Trail has benefited Hermann in Gasconade County, with its thriving wineries and well-attended festivals.

“You see something that could shed light to our city, and you chase it,” Myers said.

Critics shake their heads at Myers’ dreams, recalling another proposal he made more than a decade ago to create an 800-acre lake and boardwalk in a flood prone area of town.

“He wanted to flood the south side of Pacific and make us a Branson,” said Linda Aycock, a Pacific resident who claims part of the land where the Bend sits. “True story.”

FIGHTING THE PLAN

At the edge of Aycock’s backyard, a cliff plunges into the river and the Bend’s silver-painted trusses rise up from the water.

The Bend doesn’t represent opportunity to her, but a series of what ifs — all with negative outcomes. What if the Magi Foundation goes bankrupt and it falls into disrepair? What if the bridge is preserved, but the trail is never completed? What if a drunk reveler climbs the bluff, injures himself and sues her?

The Aycocks say their property line extends to the middle of the river, encompassing part of the bridge, a claim that Myers and others challenge. No one disputes that the couple owns a portion of the road leading to the Bend.

When the county abandons the bridge, the land will revert to the couple, and they won’t let it be used for a trail, Aycock said. But Myers argued that if the city annexes the bridge, it would not be abandoned, only transferred, along with the property rights.

Myers, a distant relative of the Aycocks, also occupies a seat on the trail association’s board and is vice president of the Magi Foundation. He receives no compensation for the positions, he said. Still, some residents have questioned whose interests he serves — the nonprofits’ or Pacific’s?

Because of potential burden on taxpayers, Mayor Jeff Palmore said Pacific residents should decide the bridge issue. But an election might delay the bidding process, risking federal dollars and adding to the $200,000 budgeted for demolition, said Ron Williams, the county’s highway administrator. Proposals to save the Bend must be submitted to the county by Dec. 23.

Last month, as he sat in his truck above the city, Myers talked as if momentum was on his side.

“Pacific will become known as a place where people can come and get on and off the river, play and have good day,” he said.

From that lookout, a Civil War battle site, he could see for miles, past the city and its shortcomings to hills where sycamores met gray sky. Somewhere, hidden in the trees, was a bridge bearing the name of his ancestors — its fate, for the moment, also obscured.

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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