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Milltown residents ponder saving bridge

Public opinions vary at meeting

February 06, 2008
Milltown residents appear to be divided on whether to keep the old, single-lane bridge once a new, two-lane span is built just upstream.

During a special Milltown Town Council meeting Monday, Jan. 28, four residents spoke against the town taking ownership of the bridge from Crawford County and keeping the structure, whose center pier dates to 1862 and actual bed goes back to 1913, while two said they favored maintaining it as a walking bridge.

Prior to hearing those opinions, Jeanie Melton, a council member who favors saving the old bridge, said the town's insurance company indicated that assuming ownership of the structure wouldn't increase the town's liability insurance premium, but having property coverage on it would and getting flood coverage would be impossible.

Melton said she has talked to a businessman who may be interested in offering financial assistance for the bridge's upkeep. She added the town may be able to get financial help from historical groups interested in the structure's preservation.

"We're certainly not going to make a decision this evening," Melton said, explaining the meeting's purpose was just to get a sample of the public's thoughts.

Ramsey Vance, chief of the town's volunteer fire department, began the public comments by saying he doesn't believe the old bridge should be saved. He explained that while he doesn't necessarily agree with those who say that removing the bridge and its center pier (the new bridge won't have a center pier) will alleviate flooding, it will prevent logs from getting stuck in the middle of the river and the need to remove them, which can be dangerous.

Vance said he is also concerned that if the bridge was damaged during a flood or if it collapsed, the town wouldn't be able to afford to repair or remove it.

"It's not cheap to get big cranes in," he said.

Ralph Seacat, Crawford County's former Emergency Management director and a Milltown resident, agreed with Vance.

"I hate to see the bridge go, but the question is, can we afford to keep it?" he said.

Lula Mae Van Winkle, however, offered a different opinion. A former clerk-treasurer for the town, she said she isn't against building a new bridge, "but I object to one more time" getting rid of history.

The town lost the old mill for which it was named in the 1950s along with an old swinging bridge and other pieces of its history, Van Winkle said.

"We have no history left in this town," she said, noting people don't have a reason to come downtown anymore.

Wayne Allen, who followed Van Winkle, said younger people, including his grown son, don't see that historical value. He said he agrees with them.

"To me, it's time for it to go," Allen said, explaining it has served its purpose. "I say get rid of the old bridge."

Kathleen Roggenkamp, perhaps the most vocal proponent over the years for a new bridge, said the "old bridge is beautiful but not that pretty" and saving it raises too many liability questions.

"If that old bridge caves in, if it falls in, then we're going to block the river," she said.

Before the town decides to take ownership of the bridge, Roggenkamp said, it must make sure it has answers to all the questions that must be asked.

"We've got to really investigate this," she said.

Alicia Lutz, the other resident to speak in favor of keeping the bridge, said she agreed with everything Van Winkle said.

"There's hardly anything left (of the town's heritage)," she said.

Lutz, who it Melton's daughter, echoed her mother in saying that grants and other funds may be available to assist the town.

She said she likes the possibility of turning the bridge into a covered structure for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, explaining it would help with tourism, especially since the town already has a canoe rental business and bed and breakfast.

Roggenkamp said if the town decides to keep the bridge, perhaps a tourism tax could placed on canoeists to help pay for it.

Melton said she believes the town can attain funding, but added she isn't sure if it will be enough.

Joined at the meeting by fellow Crawford County Commissioner Jim Schultz, Larry Bye, who represents the Crawford County side of Milltown, whose east side is in Harrison County, encouraged the town to move as quickly as possible so a project budget can be set. He explained that Harrison County, which is funding 60 percent of the project, with Crawford paying the rest, has several other bridges that need attention.

Melton noted that keeping the old bridge would save money, in part because utilities wouldn't have to be relocated and the structure wouldn't have to be removed, so waiting a bit before making a decision on the old bridge wouldn't adversely affect the project's budget.

Vance, however, said he is worried that Harrison County might become discouraged with the project if the town doesn't make a decision soon.

"I really don't want to lose a new bridge in lieu of the old bridge," he said.

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