“Historic Wellington may have another cause to support in the area of historic preservation. While the Ritz is still our number one priority, it may be critical for us to put some muscle into the effort to save the US 83 bridge over the Salt Fork Red River,” said Wes Reeves on behalf of Historic Wellington. The Texas Department of Transportation will host a public meeting on February 10 at the Wellington Community Center, Bura Handley Meeting Room. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. The purpose of this public meeting is to discuss the removal and mitigation of the US 83 truss bridge north of Wellington. Representatives from TxDOT Childress District, TxDOT’s Environmental and Bridge Division and the Texas Historical Commission will be present to answer questions. Two Wellington-based historic groups are mobilizing Collingsworth County citizens to support preservation of the bridge and to voice their opinions with TxDOT, according to a press release from Historic Wellington, Inc. Historic Wellington and the Collingsworth County Museum are advocating for the transformation of the highway bridge into a pedestrian bridge for visitors at the popular Pioneer Park, located along the Salt Fork of the Red River adjacent to the truss bridge. Preservationists are asking TxDOT for more time to put together a preservation plan and to gain a better understanding of the structural condition of the bridge. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the bridge was designed and built by the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. and the Texas Highway Department. It was owned by the state until it was turned over to the County for consideration of transforming the bridge into a pedestrian walkway on a path to the park located a small distance to the west. However, due to the cost of removing the lead paint from the steel work, repainting and transformation, the cost was far more than either TxDOT or the County were predicting. The bridge and another Salt Fork bridge built in the eastern area of the county were built in 1939 as part of a federal works program. The US 83 bridge has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Truss bridges, which use a steel framework constructed above and over the roadway to help transfer load to bridge piers, are no long common on Texas highways. This is also the site where, on June 10, 1933, the infamous outlaw couple, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, along with Ivy Barrow, Clyde’s brother, crashed their car into the river gorge near where the current bridge resides. Parker was badly burned in the wreck but was rescued by the Sam Pritchard family. The family was sitting on the east porch of their home when suddenly a new Ford coupe roared over the hill in front of their house. The car missed a detour at the top of the hill which was to take them over the Salt Fork of the Red River. Instead, the car followed the unpaved road and plunged into the river. The family rushed to the aid of the three in the car, took them into their home and later were involved in the shoot-out with Wellington police which wounded Gladys Cartwright, the daughter of the Pritchards. To this day, the evidence of the farm house can still be seen from Highway 83 where a historical marker stands as proof of the rich, historic story of bandits, betrayal and mayhem. Many local people have ties to the bridge and its history in one way or another. Chaparral Sams Club, for one instance, spends much of their time at Pioneer Park in their outings. “I hope that they keep the bridge,” said Sammer Harold Caldwell. “I don’t think there’s anyone around here that has the kind of money they’re asking for the renovation project, though.” Fellow Chaparral Sam member, Bobbie Rhodes, had her own interest in keeping the bridge. “It’s a landmark that we’re proud of,” she said. “My uncle John Templeton was a sand hog and helped set the very foundation underneath the bridge. That is my historical interest. My interest being a member of the Club is that if they made it into a walking bridge like they were planning, it would give us a place to walk without fear of being hit by passing traffic on the highway. It would make a wonderful walking bridge for anyone out there with the historic foundation as well as the scenery.” Still others in the county have lived out in the area of the bridge for the majority of their lives. “I would like to see it preserved,” said Willie Faye Patrick about the bridge that was located near her home until she moved into town. “But, I don’t want to see them preserve it for the cost that they’re wanting for it.” This bridge, not only one of the only remaining truss bridges in Texas but one filled with history of the county, has always been a point of interest for visitors and an object of pride for citizens of the county. It is a symbol of progress, a beautiful relic from the past. “I don’t like the talk of the bridge being torn down,” said City Councilman Willie Gragson who worked for TxDOT for 36 years. “I think it would be a terrible thing to tear down a bridge with so much historic value. It is a beautiful landmark, one that we’re all proud of. For them to think about tearing it down is awful.” Historic Wellington and the Collingsworth County Museum believe the preservation of the bridge will not only save an important piece of the past, but it will also serve as a stimulus to the area’s heritage tourism efforts. “The community needs to attend this public hearing,” said Wes Reeves. “If enough interest from the residents is shown to TxDOT at the hearing, it might be possible that they reconsider their plan.”
A public meeting was held Tuesday night, February 10, at the Bura Handley Community Center to discuss the fate of the historic Highway 83 truss bridge over the Salt Fork of the Red River. Members from TxDOT both from the Childress District and Austin were on hand to present the facts to those that gathered as well as take questions from a very eager group who showed incredible steadfastness toward the desire to keep the bridge in place. Marty Smith of TxDOT opened the program by introducing everyone who had collaborated and gathered to present information to the locals. First on the agenda was to explain how the renovation program began. In 1994 the project was programmed. Later on in 1999, environmental coordination was set into place at the river. Also in September of 1999 a special Commissioners Court meeting minutes reflected that the County Judge was given the authorization to write a letter to accept the truss bridge for historical purposes, stating that a new bridge would be built in the near future. In 2000, Schaumburg & Polk were hired to undertake the construction plans for making the truss bridge into a pedestrian walkway and building another bridge to carry north-bound traffic. Letting was originally planned for July of 2004 but has been moved to 2005. No one was prepared to hear the results that came back from a thorough inspection of the bridge that told it was in a worse condition than previously speculated. Darwin Lankford, who has been in close communication with the County of Collingsworth, had the following to say on behalf of TxDOT: We¹re here to propose alternatives and get input. Laura Teed, Project Manager for Bridge and Development, took control of the presentation to discuss the faults in the current condition of the truss bridge. She began her presentation by first stating the three alternatives we had in the renovation of the bridge. They were as follows: Keep the bridge a vehicular bridge, make it a pedestrian walking bridge or dedicate it as a monument which would not be used by either cars or people. When the inspection was given, they looked at various standpoints of engineering integrity. They first had to look at the condition the trusses were in. They also had to look at the actual truss geometry. The load rating how much weight could be allotted per square foot was then taken into consideration and measured. TxDOT then had to estimate the cost of repair and/or renovation then they had to find sources and limitations for funding and income. A series of detailed and diagramed photos were shown centering around various areas on the bridge. In almost all of them, concrete had fallen away from its steel supports, joints were butting up against each other and not allowing for expansion, bolts were practically sheared off, corrosion was prominent and the deck (the actual road that is driven on) was moving independantly of other structual aspects which is not normal. All of the bearings need to be replaced and/or rehabilitated and all floor beams require replacement. Cracks are running almost the entire width of one pier. Portions of the steel structuring require replacement, and the railing needs to be upgraded no matter what the bridge is to be used for if the bridge remains where it is. One of the largest areas of community discussion was the lead paint which is peeling off of the steel. The entire bridge needs the paint removed - whether it is demolished, rebuilt or renovated - and needs to be repainted if the bridge is to remain in place for any reason. Aside from all of that, there is a large hole about eight inches wide in the steel of the bottom chord and another large hole as well as section loss in the gusset plate. The bridge has a 24 foot roadway width and 15.5 vertical distance. The actual requirements for a bridge of this type today - a Parker-through truss bridge - are 38 foot width and 16.5 vertical rise. To top that off, the bridge does not meet current load rating requirements. It is operating at one-forth of its expected capacity. This bleeds over into the load rate for pedestrian walkways as well. The estimated cost for complete renovation: $2.5 million. The estimated cost comparison shows that replacing the bridge would be approximately $200,000 less than it would cost to renovate it. As of this point in time, funding would be rather difficult for the County to receive from federal sources, state sources and district sources due to said sources¹ funds being exhausted toward other projects. Thus the funding falls into the hands of the people of the community via taxes or goodwill donations or grants, but due to time constraints, it may be very difficult to apply for and receive grants before action is taken by TxDOT toward the bridge. In order to make the bridge a monument, it would have to be turned over to an individual or local entity because the liability for TxDOT would be far greater than they could handle though they would do some of the repair on the bridge. Some federal funds would be available, but district funds would be a necessity. TxDOT¹s conclusion: Replacing the bridge is the most reasonable discussion and course of action to take. A short question and answer period was offered between presentation times. During this time it was asked when the last maintenance was done on the bridge. No one could answer the question that everybody wanted to know the answer to. All they could say is that TxDOT was required to inspect the bridge every two years. Ryan Fennell and Lisa Hart, both of TxDOT in Austin, continued on with a presentation of the historical aspect of the bridge and the location at the river. The bridge was identified as a Parker-through Truss. Parker is the basic scalloped design of the bridge. Through merely designates that you drive through the steel supports rather than them not being formed over the driveway. The bridge was made using some of the approach spans from a bridge that was located just west of the current sight where, according to Fennell, Bonnie and Clyde actually crashed into the river. However, according to actual historical accounts, the Red River Plunge² happened more toward the existing bridge where Clyde missed the bend in the road and flipped the speeding vehicle into the river. The bridge was listed in the National Registry of Historical Places in 1997. There are 38 Parker-through trusses in the state of Texas. Thirty-three qualified for Parker- through Truss Replacement. The historic Highway 83 bridge was not one of those that qualified because it was in worse shape than they previously thought. However, the Highway 203 truss bridge did qualify to be replaced. The 83 and 203 bridges were both built in 1939. TxDOT has certain regulatory obligations that it has to follow between now and when the fate of the bridge is set in stone. There are preservation acts and the like that they must follow according to the law. Their project activities follow a certain pattern. They first look for public involvment, of which they had plenty at the Tuesday night meeting. They must find and persue an alternative analysis in order to find the best road to take. Then they can determine the preservation or market the bridge (find an entity to take over the object). Finally they enter into the development and execution of legal agreements regarding the decision. When looking at the purpose and need of the bridge, TxDOT takes into consideration the following things: how narrow the bridge is, increased traffic on the bridge, the number of accidents on average that happen on the bridge, the weight limits, physical deterioration and deficient railing. In the end, the community is left with six choices. TxDOT can now build the area or refuse to rebuild the bridge at all. The bridge can be rehabilitated for vehicular use. It can be bypassed and used as a monument. It can be rehabilitated for pedestrian use. The bridge can be turned over to another entity or the bridge can be entirely demolished. Following the presentations, a question and answer period was entertained where those who gathered could voice their concerns over the matter. One issue that was brought up was the safety for vehicles traveling over the bridge at the current time. No direct answer could be given except for the bridge will be fine for the period of time allotted to build a preservation plan, but large loads will have to be diverted from the straight-way. Barbara Bartlett expressed the thoughts of many at the meeting, This is a community who is proud of their heritage and since our history is about all we have left, you are going to find that we will fight to keep what we have in place and try to build on it to enhance our failing economy. Local historians seem to have a long road ahead of them in their fight against losing the historic steel and concrete spanning over the river. One can only hope that their fight isn¹t in vain in the end.
Scrutiny of a U. S. 83 historic truss bridge turned kaleidoscopic Tuesday night by the end of a lengthy public hearing at Wellington. Presenters from the Texas Department of Transportation and their audience – about 75 people counting both contingents – looked at the 1939 structure from all angles. The message from TxDOT was grim: the bridge isn’t worth saving – not from the point of view of government entities at any level. The preservation-minded crowd didn’t like the message. But the hearing earned the endangered bridge wide publicity via the Internet. A picture of the three-span structure and a report on the hearing took top billing on a Web site maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation: http://www.nationaltrust.org/magazine/ Some federal money exists for repairs or replacement but not for both. State funds are already committed to other projects. So are district funds. “That leaves the community,” said Lora Teed, TxDOT Bridge Division engineer from Austin, one of several TxDOT officials who presented information at the hearing. “A county or a city or a private entity would have to help us rehabilitate the truss bridge,” she said. If the historic bridge is left in place and a new bridge built to carry northbound highway traffic, even pedestrian use would require rehabilitation of the structure. “We believe that replacing the structure is the most reasonable use of taxpayer money,” Teed said. Historic Wellington Inc., a preservationist group already backing the historic Ritz Theater rehabilitation in Wellington, is interested in saving the bridge, all challenges notwithstanding. Wes Reeves, a former Wellington resident who lives in Amarillo, spoke for the group. “We have contacted a bridge expert in Austin,” Reeves said. “We are going to hire him to take a look at the bridge. … We would like a little time. We want obviously to preserve the bridge.” Historic Wellington also plans to obtain records on the bridge, Reeves said. But the time squeeze is suddenly as serious as the crush on the expansion joints in the old structure – very pressing. The proposed letting of bids for the project is currently set for July 2004 – effectively too short a time to allow Historic Wellington or Collingsworth County or any other entity to pursue grant money to save the bridge. “This bridge means a whole lot to everybody,” said Marty Smith, district director of planning and transportation. “We are going to move back into our 2005 letting.” The plan to demolish and replace the bridge is a departure from TxDOT’s original intent. “Four years ago we began developing this project,” said Darwin Lankford, district bridge engineer. “At that time our intention was to bypass the bridge and convert it (for pedestrian use) … to compliment the park. We spent the past four years developing our plans to that effect.” But six months ago a report on a special study of the bridge cited overwhelming deficiencies – factors apparently under-detected in routine bi-annual bridge inspections. “That’s sort of what precipitated this meeting,” Lankford said. Meanwhile, northbound traffic continues to cross the Salt Fork of Red River via the old bridge. “The truss will need to be load rated in the future,” Teed said. “Our engineers are still working on what trucks can use the bridge.”The bridge will also have to undergo rehabilitation even if it’s converted to function as part of the existing walking trail at nearby Pioneer Park. “The rehabilitation for pedestrian use is similar to repair for vehicular,” Teed said. Even if the bridge is simply isolated and turned into a historic site, the price is high. “The cost for using it as a monument would be a little over a million dollars,” Teed said. District TxDOT officials acknowledged that maintenance of the old bridge has not been a top priority the last several years. District Engineer Terry Keener compared the bridge to an old car not worth extensive expenditures. “We just didn’t feel like it was worth it from our perspective,” he said. The geometry of the bridge – a through-truss structure with beams overhead – doesn’t meet current standards for clearances, he said. Lead paint on the bridge is also a complicating factor – a hazard whether the bridge stays in place or is demolished. TxDOT close-up pictures of the bridge showed birds’ nests built in places where steel has rusted away. But from a historical standpoint, TxDOT and the National Historic Trust agree that the bridge is notable – not just because of the design of its trusses but also because it has an abutment from a previous bridge. In a 1996 survey of old bridges for the National Register, the Wellington bridge ranked high. “It had integrity of design and materials and so it rose to the top, even though it’s still in a deteriorating condition,” said Lisa Hart, supervisor of historical studies for TxDOT’s environmental division. “Therefore it retained the qualities that could allow it to be listed.” A TxDOT archaeologist stood from her place in the audience to address the group. She described the proceedings as a conversation. “You all live here,” she said. “You are part of the conversation. Every single time we do something we have to have these conversations.” Keener followed her comments, making an indirect reference to his then yet-to-be-announced promotion to the district engineer’s slot. He seemed to offer hope that the bridge may ultimately survive, but he indicated TxDOT won’t take on the preservation burden alone. “As of today the buck stops with me,” he said. “I think this district had a snafu back in 1996 when we started this process. Because of what we found out six months ago, we’re having to take a real hard second look at this. We’re going to try to turn this around. What we end up doing, we can’t do it by ourselves.” Keener expressed concern over rerouting heavy vehicles. “We’re going to have to restrict loads on this bridge more than likely,”he said. The significance of the bridge as a historical attraction is important to Wellington, a resident said. “This is an active community that cares about anything of historical significance,” she said. A crucial Wellington ballgame competed with the hearing. “If that ballgame had not been tonight, I don’t know if you could have fit everyone into this room,” she said. Few seats were vacant. Some people stood. The importance of the bridge to Pioneer Park and to the general tourist appeal of the area was the theme of some comments: “A lot of people stay here because of the bridge. I think it would be a shame for that bridge to be torn down. … We’re developing heritage tourism here. It’s slow. We’re trying to put these things together.” No solutions or proposals emerged from the meeting. “What I get from each one of you is that you’re committed to hearing our voice,” a woman in the Wellington group said. “I think a lot of us know that we can go forward.” The next day, Keener was back in his office at the District TxDOT complex in Childress. He reflected on his three-decade career with the district and the challenges he faces as district engineer, including crossing the Salt Fork of Red River at the historic U. S. 83 site. “Our goal is to try to walk away from this with a win-win situation,” he said.