ST. MARYS — Repairs expected to begin this month on a remnant of a Pleasants County span with ties to the ill-fated Silver Bridge have been delayed until early next year, according to the state Department of Transportation.
The Ohio River Back Channel Truss Bridge at St. Marys, once a portion of an access ramp to the Clarksburg-Columbus Short Route Bridge, which opened to traffic on Oct. 25, 1928, now provides vehicle and pedestrian access to 240-acre Middle Island, the largest of the 22 islands in the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The island is one of only two in the refuge connected to the mainland with bridges, providing access to 3.5 miles of hiking and biking trails, a 1.6-mile auto trail with interpretive signs posted at pull-off areas, abundant fishing access and a wildlife viewing blind overlooking a wetland.
The refuge posted a notice on its website in March notifying the public that the truss bridge was expected to close for up to two years starting in June to accommodate repairs that include removing the old ramp leading off the bridge and onto the island, built at a sharp, perpendicular angle, and replacing it with new, gently curved ramp that would allow school buses and other large vehicles to gain access to Middle Island.
Refurbishing and enhancing the infrastructure of the 89-year-old truss bridge and adding a protected pedestrian walkway to it are also expected to be a part of the repair project.
“Right now, the project is programmed for the first of next year,” Brent Walker, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said. “There have been plans afloat for a long time, but we’re not quite there yet.”
So far, Walker said, no funding has been allocated for the project, which has been on the drawing board since 2006.
The Ohio River Back Channel Truss Bridge, as the span providing access to Middle Island is officially known, was once a segment of an approach ramp to the Clarksburg-Columbus Short Route Bridge, which opened to traffic on Oct. 25, 1928. The privately built suspension bridge, which carried vehicles across the Ohio River between St. Marys and Newport, Ohio, was a sister span of the Silver Bridge, completed five months earlier 75 miles downstream at Point Pleasant. Although the two bridges used different approach systems, the main suspension portions spanning the Ohio were built using the same engineer, contractor, fabricator and shop drawings.
The suspension bridges were supported with a new heat-treated eyebar chain system, “the first of its type in the United States,” according to a 1929 edition of the Engineering News Record, instead of conventional wire cables. Both spans initially operated as toll bridges until the state of West Virginia bought the St. Marys bridge in 1937 and the Silver Bridge in 1941.
On Dec. 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge collapsed during the afternoon rush hour during a busy Christmas shopping season, sending 32 vehicles into the icy waters of the Ohio River, killing 46 people.
The collapsed bridge’s twin span at St. Marys was closed for inspection immediately after the disaster, and a ferry system was put in place until a decision was made to build a new bridge several hundred yards downstream. The new Hi Carpenter Memorial Bridge opened for traffic in 1977.
The Silver Bridge’s twin span at St. Marys was demolished in 1971, except for the 457-foot truss bridge segment leading from St. Marys to Middle Island.
“We are looking forward to the bridge repairs,” Rebecca Young, Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge manager, said. “It will be great to be able to bring school buses out there and have more programs available for school groups.”
Bridge access and a trail system make Middle Island the most visited island in the refuge. In addition to providing access to birders, wildlife viewing enthusiasts, anglers and bow-hunters, Middle Island is visited daily by joggers and walkers from the St. Marys area, Young said.
Assuming the bridge is eventually closed for repairs, the island will remain open to the public and the trails will be maintained, Young said, but visitors will need boats to access the site.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.