The southernmost of three Lone Rock bridges that are being given away by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. (photo: Jay Rath)
You no longer have to go to Brooklyn to buy a bridge. An hour west of Madison are three you can have for the low, low price of free.
The historic steel truss bridges connect two islands and the north and south shores of the Wisconsin River at Lone Rock, on Wisconsin Highway 130. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is offering them free, and will even kick in funds to assist in their removal.
A new $34.5 million bridge will be constructed approximately 900 feet to the west of the existing sructures. Its construction could begin as early as next fall, with completion by the end of 2024.
The current bridges were built between 1932 and 1943. They are 80, 550 and 640 feet in length. They’ve been beloved landmarks for boaters, an evocative backdrop for senior photos, and a Mayberry-esque welcome to the Richland County village of about 900 residents.
“They imbue the river and landscape with so much character and nostalgia,” says area resident Jim Doherty. But they’re functionally and structurally obsolete according to the DOT, not only because of their age but because of changing standards, such as width and load-bearing capacity.
“Maybe folks these days are too worn out politically to get exercised about an old truss bridge. Or maybe these picturesque landmarks are cherished by so many locals, preservationists and tourists that a big backlash will erupt,” says Doherty, formerly an editor and writer at Smithsonian Magazine.
Planning for a new crossing began in 2013. “The range of alternatives was pretty wide,” recalls Francis Schelfhout, an urban and regional planner with the DOT. “One of the considerations was removing the crossing altogether.”
Instead, the department adopted an extensive preservation and maintenance approach, he says. But it became clear that “the cost of rehabilitation was approaching the cost of replacement, just to get another 20 years of life [from the bridges], versus 75 to 100 years with a new structure.”
Bridges by their very nature seem to evoke deep feelings, framing a journey from near to far, hanging unchanged over ever-changing waters. They’ve inspired creation of preservation advocacy groups such as HistoricBridges.org and the Historic Bridge Foundation, both of which offer resources and counsel.
Wisconsin has 28 bridges on the National Register of Historic Places. La Crosse County alone has six. The Lone Rock bridges have been found eligible for nomination to the register. Among their fans is the Wisconsin Department of Transportation itself.
“Our goal is to preserve them,” says Schelfhout. “It’s just that the DOT isn’t in the business of historic structures. We’re in the business of transportation.”
Hence the give-away. Schelfhout is not new to this sort of thing. He estimates that during his 20 years at the department he’s already tried to give away five bridges.
So who takes them? Municipalities? People with large creeks? Wealthy eccentrics?
“All of the above,” says Schelfhout. Bridges are moved to parks, pedestrian and bike trails and even to flat ground.
In the case of new uses and new owners for any of the Lone Rock trio, “public access will weigh in the highest priority,” he says. Proximity will also be important, to maintain context. Around 30 inquiries from potential new owners have been received so far.
The DOT’s most recent informational meeting in Lone Rock was held Wednesday evening. Around 50 attended. On display were designs for interpretive panels that will be placed near the new crossing, celebrating the three historic bridges.
The deadline for those interested to request ownership materials has been extended from Oct. 31 to Nov. 30. To request an information package, please email Sue Barker at [email protected] or call (608) 821-8712.
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