The understated importance of bridges
By Jim Schuh
Bridges. We’d be stuck without them. We travel over them almost every day, mostly without giving them any thought. It’s fair to say we take them for granted. But without them, it might be nearly impossible to get from point A to point B.
In the past few years, we’ve heard that our nation’s bridges are in tough shape. Estimates are that it could cost $1 trillion dollars to repair and replace them, so they’d meet safety standards. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan to do so. If there is, we don’t hear about it very often.
We have many vehicle bridges in our immediate area. The big ones cross the Wisconsin River in Stevens Point and Whiting. Some on I-39 cross our streets. Beyond that, most of us don’t even realize when we’re crossing bridges, like the one on highway 10 over the Plover River at Iverson Park or the one west of the city over Mill Creek.
Maybe there’s more awareness of crossing bridges where they are big ones, like in New York City or San Francisco. Without bridges across the Hudson and East Rivers, Manhattan would be much less accessible – only ferries would transport people – although there are a few tunnels. Think of trying to get from San Francisco to Oakland or Sausalito without bridges. Thankfully, for people there, the Golden Gate – one of the world’s most beautiful – connects San Franciscans with neighbors to the north, and the Oakland Bay bridge does the same with folks living to the east. How about the series of bridges that connect the Florida Peninsula to Key West and all the islands in between? The nation – and the world – needs bridges.
I started thinking about bridges I’ve crossed – like the two in San Francisco and the series of smaller ones in the Florida Keys. But I’ve passed over hundreds more – maybe even thousands – big bridges I’ve encountered on road trips and short ones across tiny rivers and streams. You have, too. They’re everywhere.
Among the larger bridges, when my travels have taken me to North Alabama, I’ve passed over the Tennessee River at many locations – the Houston bridge and the I-65 bridge near Huntsville, the Wheeler and Wilson Dam bridges, the Singing River bridge, O’Neal bridge between Florence and Muscle Shoals and the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge. I’ve crossed most of them several times.
In Tennessee, I’ve traversed the Tennessee River on the Scott Fitzhugh, Hickman-Lockhart, Johnny Mann Evans, Alvin C. York, Clifton Highway and Pickwick Landing Dam bridges. In Kentucky, the Clark Memorial and Luther Draffen Bridges have taken me across the Tennessee. The rickety highway 45 bridge over the Ohio River at Paducah – is so narrow that on one crossing years ago, a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction “clicked” rear-view mirrors with us as we passed each other.
In Illinois, I’ve been over the Kishwaukee River Bridge on I-39 near Rockford and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge between La Salle and Oglesby. I’ve crossed the St. Croix at a few spots between Wisconsin and Minnesota. I’ve been across the Mississippi at several points north to south, among them at Minneapolis, La Crosse, Dubuque and Davenport in Iowa, at St. Louis, Missouri, near Dyersburg, and at Memphis, Tennessee, in Mississippi via an old bridge on US 49 near Helena and at Natchez and in downtown New Orleans.
At Duluth and Superior, I’ve crossed the John Blatnik bridge over St. Louis Bay and the Aerial bridge. Growing up in Milwaukee, I crossed the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers hundreds of times. The list goes on, but you get the idea. It’s likely you, too, have navigated many of the bridges I’ve mentioned.
I recall crossing an old, narrow wooden bridge just wide enough for a car, on an Alabama side road. I’ve seen, but not crossed, a covered bridge. Overseas, I’ve crossed the Yangtze in China, the Neckar in Germany and the Neva in Russia, as well as lots more I can’t remember.
Not all bridges are for cars. In Alabama on a few occasions, we visited a now-abandoned railroad bridge that spanned a deep valley about 125-feet below. The I-C trestle – the Illinois Central owned it. It’s gone now but while the railroad was still operating, I recall venturing out onto it, although not very far for fear that a train would show up and there’d be nowhere for us to escape.
How about a bridge for airplanes? At Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, there’s a taxiway bridge over a highway.
Not all bridges are constructed of steel, concrete or wood. Although I’ve not seen it, the Chinese have built the venturesome 1,400-foot long Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge – the longest and highest glass bridge in the world. It’s 980-feet to the canyon floor below. The glass footpath is almost 24-inches thick.
If you’re not afraid of heights, go out to British Columbia’s new 427-foot long Whistler Blackcomb suspension bridge, which stands almost 66-hundred feet above the valley and trails below.
Then there’s the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge, near the north end of New Zealand’s South Island.
It’s not a crossing for the faint of heart. The open structure really does swing, as people cross the river gorge below on a narrow footpath with chain-link fence sides. It’s 360-feet long and is suspended between the two sides of the White Creek Faultline, the epicenter of a 1929 earthquake.
Martha will never forget her foray onto the bridge. She was extremely hesitant to set foot on it and did so only after I encouraged her and promised I wouldn’t make the bridge move. I lied – and after she got out a little way, I jumped up and down causing the structure to wiggle. She was petrified.
She hasn’t forgotten the experience and scowls when I mention the bridge. I’m surprised we’re still married.