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Milltown continues debate on future of single-lane bridge

Crawford, Harrison to conduct joint meeting Thursday

March 19, 2008
It had been about six weeks since Milltown residents first formally voiced their opinion on whether or not the town should take ownership of the old, one-lane bridge that connects the Crawford and Harrison County sides of town at the Blue River if a new, two-lane structure is built, but little had changed by the March 10 meeting of the Milltown Town Council.

Those who were against taking ownership of the bridge, which is in Crawford County's inventory, are still against it, and those who were for it then are for it now.

However, the argument may be coming to a close, as the commissioners from Harrison and Crawford counties, who are funding the new bridge, have a special joint meeting scheduled for tomorrow night (Thursday) at 7 at the Crawford County Judicial Complex at English to discuss the matter.

While last week's town council meeting produced much back-and-forth, it did offer some new information, including an update from Councilwoman Jeanie Melton and a short presentation from Greg Sekula of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.

Melton said she has been in contact with a potential corporate donor, as well as former Indiana First Lady Judy O'Bannon, about possible plans to turn the bridge, whose piers date to 1862 and iron truss goes back to 1913, into a pedestrian bridge.

Once a covered bridge, the structure is listed on a Web site detailing Indiana's covered bridges and is eligible to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, said Melton, who also read part of a letter from O'Bannon encouraging decision-makers to take their time before deciding to remove the old bridge.

Melton said she has also talked with Jim Epperson of the Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau about the old bridge. While he couldn't commit to providing funding, she said, he was "very interested in having another historical point of interest as close to Corydon as Milltown certain is."

Epperson, she said, told her the average tourist spends $90 a day in Corydon, and while it likely wouldn't be that much in Milltown, the old bridge, as well as other attractions the town could develop through photographs and interpretive signage, including the old kilns and former depot and mill sites, could bring in some money.

"It's something that keeps the people in the area," Melton said.

Sekula, who was invited to speak by Melton, encouraged the town to save the old bridge, saying that the "salvation for many communities" is their "heritage, their culture."

He recalled how his "face just lit up" the first time he came to Milltown and saw the bridge.

"If you lose that experience, the town becomes just another place," he said, adding the number of iron bridges in Indiana has reduced dramatically in the past 20 years.

Sekula explained that if the bridge were to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it should make the bridge more attractive in landing grant dollars to enhance and maintain it. In addition, he said his organization has smaller grants available to assist communities in planning work on projects, such as feasibility studies.

Following Sekula, Milltown resident Bill Byrd got the debate going regarding the future of the old bridge by asking if the town had funding secured, such as an endowment, to maintain it.

"I have no problem salvaging this bridge if there is an endowment," he said.

Byrd added, however, he is concerned that the town could put Crawford and Harrison counties, who are funding the new bridge, in a financial hardship if it keeps the utilities on the old bridge instead of moving them onto the new bridge in an effort to cuts costs on the project. Costs will only increase, and if the old bridge falls into the river, the utilities will have to be moved onto the new bridge, he said.

Melton responded that the town would need to conduct a feasibility study before it could answer questions about money. However, she added, a private individual has expressed interest possibly in helping financially.

"You're absolutely right," she told Byrd. "We don't want to raise the taxes for anybody here in Milltown."

Ralph Seacat, a former engineer and resident of the town, said he too is concerned about the project causing taxes to increase.

"The taxes will do more damage to the town than the cost of the bridge will," he said.

Seacat said he is also concerned how structurally sound the bridge, including its middle pier, is, especially since, in his opinion, the bridge wasn't repaired correctly the last time it was rehabilitated.

However, supporters of keeping the old bridge also made their feelings known. Resident Lulamae Van Winkle said she has repeatedly heard non-residents talk with fondness about the single-lane bridge. She noted how they have always said, "You are the town with the one-lane bridge."

"I love that," Van Winkle said.

Another resident, Alicia Lutz, got choked up when she began talking about the bridge.

"Being a younger generation, I really feel like it's our responsibility to save and preserve" the town's history, she said.

Crawford County Commissioner Larry Bye, whose district includes Milltown, said he and his Harrison County counterpart, James Goldman, who was at another meeting and couldn't attend, are concerned that the counties could still have liability even if ownership of the bridge was transferred to the town.

Bye said he and Goldman are worried that converting the old bridge into a covered bridge, as has been discussed, would make the bridge act as a dam and could bring the bridge down during a flood or harm the new bridge, to be constructed just upstream. He said he wasn't sure if Harrison County would fund the new bridge if the old one was left in place.

"We don't want to stick this much money in a project here in Milltown and have it damage the new bridge," Bye said.

Melton said that she too is worried what problems turning the old bridge into a covered bridge would cause and, therefore, that option doesn't appear likely. She asked Bye if Harrison County would be OK with leaving the old bridge in place if it wasn't converted into a covered bridge.

Bye answered he was unsure, but Goldman, in an interview later in the week, said he would still have concerns. He said a modeling of the river would need to be done to determine how dramatically leaving the old bridge, which unlike the new bridge has a center pier, would affect the river's flow.

"With the old bridge there, there's less flow allowed to pass through because of the pier. So, it changes the modeling of the bridge, and I think it could possible even affect whether we even get a permit to install the new bridge," Goldman said. "I think those are concerns that we've all got to consider.

"Bottom line is, it's Crawford County's bridge, it's in their inventory and it's their call, but Harrison County will assume no responsibility for that old bridge," he added. "If there's any chance we're going to be liable in any way should that old bridge remain, then I can assure you Harrison County will not be putting any money into a new bridge."

There has also been talk of placing the bridge on dry land and making it a historic attraction. Goldman said that Harrison County possibly could assist Milltown with such an effort.

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    Excellent Journalism
    March 19, 2008 | 03:22 PM

    Chris, you sure have a talent for covering and reporting newsworthy events without bias or agenda. This is a great report on the Milltown bridge saga.

    Ken McFelea
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