MASON — With a helping hand from Blenko Glass, the lone West Virginia highway bridge equipped with aesthetic lighting is once again showing its colors after spending the past year in the dark.
Opened in 2009, the four-lane, 1,852-foot-long Bridge of Honor spans the Ohio River and connects the town of Mason in Mason County with Pomeroy, Ohio. It was built by the state of Ohio, with West Virginia sharing in development of its design concept. Under an agreement between the two states, Ohio retained ownership of the bridge and covered most of the construction costs, while West Virginia assumed most maintenance responsibilities for the span.
“While we didn’t really want the aesthetic lighting due to its added maintenance costs, Ohio funded it 100 percent, so now it’s ours to take care of,” said Tracy Brown, District 1 bridge engineer for the West Virginia Division of Highways.
The bridge, named in honor of three veterans from nearby communities, came equipped with light fixtures that illuminated the span’s graceful network of cables and support towers in a striking purplish-cobalt blue tint, designed to replicate the color of the Purple Heart medal, awarded to military personnel killed or wounded in combat. The lighting created an iconic night-time scene that quickly became a source of pride for those living in Mason and Pomeroy.
But starting in 2014, a few of the lights began failing to function. By early 2015, at least 40 had gone on the fritz.
“When they first started going out, we thought vandals were responsible,” Brown said. But on closer examination, it became apparent that a technical issue was involved — the light housings were overheating and, over time, causing their lenses to crack.
“We found that it got up to 200 degrees inside the light fixtures, which the lenses couldn’t handle,” Brown said. “We also found out that the manufacturer of the light fixtures had gone out of business shortly after the bridge opened, and that no other companies were making anything similar.”
With about one-third of the bridge’s lights failing to function, giving the nighttime view of the span a patchy, ragged profile, a decision was made by the DOH in February 2015 to turn the lights off, possibly forever, until a cost-effective solution could be found.
Brown arranged to have 10 or so of the light fixtures taken to a DOH shop to look into the possibility of a DIY solution.
“We found that we could keep the heat inside the fixtures to an acceptable level by installing two vents in each fixture, and by sandwiching specially laminated pieces of glass between the lens and the fixture.”
Still needed, however, were 140 18-inch by 12-inch purplish-cobalt blue glass lenses to restore uniform color to the bridge.
“We talked to several manufacturers, and they said they only way to make it work was to use glass made with graphite,” Brown said. “We called out of state to every place we could think of, with no luck. But it turned out our solution was only about a hour down the road. Warren Skaggs, a guy who has been here 26 years, thought it might be worth a shot to call Blenko Glass to see if they could help us.”
The idea may have saved the span’s lighting scheme.
Blenko, the Milton art glass company with an international reputation for excellent hand-blown glassware and art work, had the materials needed.
“They used up every bit of graphite they had to make the lenses we needed and about 10 or so extras,” Brown said. “After everything is said and done, we have about $50,000 in materials and labor for the new lenses. It would have cost $220,000 to replace the fixtures, so we dodged a bullet, there.”
All but about 15 lenses on the span have been replaced, and during the last week in February, their nighttime illumination resumed.
The remaining lenses, located high on the span’s piers, will be installed next week, when a truck with a lift bucket arrives at the bridge.
Overheating lenses are not the only problem the bridge has faced.
While under construction, a 20-foot-section of one support pier had to be rebuilt due to sub-par concrete. Later, a layer of unstable shale was found in hillside behind the Ohio approach to the bridge, requiring additional excavation and retaining wall work.
The original construction estimate for the bridge was $45.8 million, but it ended up costing $65 million to complete.
The bridge honors two Medal of Honor recipients.
Staff Sgt. Jimmy G. Stewart of Mason singlehandedly held a platoon-sized force of North Vietnamese troops at bay until five wounded rifle squad mates could be evacuated, only to lose his life in a counterattack when U.S. Army reinforcements arrived.
Cpl. Edward Bennett of nearby Middleport, Ohio, stormed a German machine gun nest in a village in Germany during the closing months of World War II and, acting alone, eliminated all eight enemy soldiers firing on his unit’s position. He survived the war, but died in 1983.
The bridge also honors U.S. Air Force Gen. James V. Hartinger, also of Middleport, who commanded the North American Air Defense Command, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Air Force Space Command before retiring in 1984. He died in 2000.
The Bridge of Honor was built to replace a two-lane span built in 1928 that carried old U.S. 33 across the Ohio River.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.