On March 20, a backhoe took down an iron bridge over Salt Creek that has been closed to traffic for more than 30 years.
Mark Cagle, who’s lived just around the bend from it since 1966, was there to capture it with a camera.
He remembers rumbling over it in a school bus.
“It was one of those bridges where, if the bus driver was feeling playful, you could get a big bump if you were sitting in back,” he said. “It was quite the landmark.”
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As an 8- or 10-year-old boy, it was a sort of coming-of-age ritual to be dared to walk the top beams of the bridge, he said. Some even jumped off into the water when it was deep enough.
A neighbor told Cagle the bridge was erected around 1932 or ’33, and judging from its style — which was more popular around 1900 — it likely was repurposed from somewhere else.
Neighbor Jeff Deckard’s father, Leslie, had told him that it arrived by train in Helmsburg and was hauled to its home over the creek by mule team.
A couple of years ago, Cagle and others had talked about wanting to preserve the bridge for walking or fishing. But after conferring with the state historic preservation officer and checking state code, the Indiana Department of Transportation determined that the bridge would be removed, since it was neither owned by the state nor on the National Register of Historic Places.
This summer, the old iron bridge and the county bridge next to it will be replaced with a larger, longer one as part of a $4.5 million road reconstruction project led by INDOT and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Brown County Democrat archives over the past 75 years give a little larger window into both bridges’ history and their ties to the larger road project.
“The iron bridge to Yellow-wood Lake” was first mentioned in a June 1939 story about a Public Works Administration project to build a new road over Duncan Hill from State Road 46 to “the project office.” Yellowwood Lake was completed in 1939 and Yellowwood State Forest was opened in 1940.
A cracked abutment was repaired and other work was done to the iron bridge in 1962. A 1977 story described it as “in such pitifully poor condition” that it was recommended it be monitored daily for deterioration, because it was “not really large enough or strong enough to support much traffic or heavy vehicles.” It was posted with a 7-ton limit.
In January 1980, the state highway commission and Indiana Department of Natural Resources began planning for a new bridge and road but estimated it would take one or two years. The county commissioners asked if all of Yellowwood Lake Road could be “improved” from state roads 45 to 46 and the state highway commissioner said he would look into it.
In May 1982, the county commissioners and highway engineer lowered the weight limit to 2 tons and closed the bridge to all but car traffic.
In April 1983, it was closed to all traffic, and the state said it would be “at least 1985 and probably 1986” before bids to replace it would be taken. The fact that the bridge closing cut off the main access to the state forest “probably would not hurry up the bidding process,” a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Highways said in the story.
In 1983, instead of waiting for the state, the county commissioners used county money to build a temporary wooden bridge next to the old iron one.
A 1986 story said the the DNR had been trying to get a replacement bridge built since 1971, and “meanwhile, the state decided that if it was going to the expense to rebuild a bridge, it might as well fix the rest of the 2.8 miles of roadway from State Road 46 West to the entrance of Yellowwood.” The plan had been to follow the path of the existing road, but the state found safety and drainage problems, which led to a road survey and project redesign.
The first hearing about the estimated $3.4 million road and bridge project in 1990 drew “citizen concern,” including many of the same issues brought up when the current Yellowwood Road project was discussed again in 2013: “It’s overkill,” resident Linda Baden said in 1990. She also worried that widening the road would harm the ability of hikers to walk it, and that the project would disturb wetlands and other habitats. Residents also didn’t want Yellowwood Road to attract more traffic by people using it as a cut-through between state highways.
Friends of Yellowwood were credited with collecting 2,000 signatures against the project, and the plan was reduced to building a new bridge, raising the existing road and paving it. Work did not get done in the next several state budget cycles.
In 2000, Friends of Yellowwood began working with the DNR to study watershed management in the area. Research was collected for about 10 years, including ideal designs for creek crossings such as fords and the main bridge over Salt Creek.
In 2010, the “temporary” bridge the county installed in 1983 was replaced with a grated metal bridge. The old iron bridge still stood next to it, unused and deteriorating.
In 2013, the Yellowwood Road project, including a new bridge, new road surfaces and some realigning of road sections was proposed again, costing about $6.5 million. After more than two years of back-and-forth with residents and elected officials on plan revisions, the first phases of construction have begun.
Cagle’s late mother, Dorothy Stewart, was a member of Friends of Yellowwood, which in addition to the 1990 road and bridge plan, stopped the building of a cellphone tower on scenic Scarce O’Fat Ridge and the building of a housing development at Dubois Ridge and Lanam Ridge that Friends believed would have caused more siltation of the watershed.
Cagle said the demographics of the neighborhood have been changing, but there’s always been a core group of people who’ve cared about preserving it.
As he was taking photos before the old iron bridge came down, he said a young man in a truck came over the current bridge and asked if a new one was being put in. Cagle said it was. “Sweet,” was the young man’s answer, but then he added, “It’s too bad they’re tearing that down. It’s been there my whole life.”
“Mine too,’” Cagle added, before the man drove off.
“It’s a shame when the landmarks crumble,” he said.