Tuesday, June 6

Five entities agree: Bypass bridge decisions; the road must go on

Elkhart blacktop and historic bridge discussed          Send a link to a friend

[JUNE 6, 2006]  Another road season is here and the project that has topped the Logan County Highway Department list for several years was still not scheduled. County highway 10, the Elkhart-Mount Pulaski blacktop, has come overdue for repairs. The holdup: what to do with the historic Elkhart bridge that the roadway runs under.

Ownership and liability for the bridge was put to question early in 2005. The county's road and bridge committee had Tom Hickman, then the highway department engineer, send a letter to the village of Elkhart asking them to take ownership or find someone else who could. The bridge was going to be destroyed in order to make the roadway wider and safer.

With no answers yet, the matter was pressed again last month with another letter sent to Elkhart from the highway department. The village of Elkhart met last week and rejected ownership. The board was split on the matter: half for saving it for its historic value and charm; half seeing it as a traffic hazard.

In the meantime, local historical preservationists also set to work to get the bridge attention and possibly find funding to alleviate traffic hazards and maintain it.

The county's road and bridge committee and representatives of the Logan County Highway Department, Elkhart Historical Society, Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County and the Illinois Department of Transportation reviewed the status of the road and the bridge on Monday evening.

County engineer Bret Aukamp just received a letter from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency asking the county to "hold off" action against the bridge as they look into possible funding.

Geoff Ladd and Gillette Ransom of the Elkhart Historical Society said that the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Illinois Department of Transportation have agreed to help with the issue. Ladd and Ransom will be staying in close contact with those entities to keep it moving.

Ransom said that she will also be contacting another supportive agency that could help find funding. The Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois named the Gillett Memorial Arch as one of the "Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois" in 2005.

The walk-over bridge not only creates a scenic sensation, but it is most highly valued for its links to Logan County's founding fathers and most well-known former citizens, including Gov. Richard J. Oglesby, John Logan and President Abraham Lincoln.

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However, it creates several problems. When it was built in 1915, slower and narrower horses and buggies passed under it. The roadbed from either side peaks under the center. The narrowness and limited vision to see oncoming traffic now create a traffic hazard.

The historical society looked into assuming liability for the structure, but the latest insurance quote was $3,700 a year. This was much lower than a previous quote.

In the meantime, it was agreed by all present that the road has reached such a state of deterioration as to becoming "a hazard itself" as committeeman Dale Voyles said. "People traveling that roadway have a right to expect it to be safe to travel," he said.

While it is late in the season to be letting out bids, it was decided to go ahead with the road improvements without addressing the bridge.

Aukamp was asked if it could still get done for this year.

He responded that it may not be done for the start of the school year but definitely can be done this year.

Voyles summed up the county's commitment: "We'd like to come up with a solution that will stand the test of time." He added that it be noted that we're all working together to find a solution.

Several ideas have been developed that would address these hazards.

Raising the roadbed on both sides would reduce or eliminate the visibility issue.

Adding caution signal lights in advance of the bridge would create driver awareness.

[See Geoff Ladd statement on Elkhart bridge, June 5.]

[Jan Youngquist]

Related past article


Geoff Ladd statement on Elkhart bridge

Over the past month, several avenues were explored to solve once and for all the ownership, responsibility and safety issues surrounding the Elkhart bridge (John P. Gillett Memorial Bridge in Elkhart).

The Elkhart Historical Society investigated working with the village of Elkhart to solve this issue. We also looked at a less expensive insurance policy that the society could take on for the bridge, and indeed we did get a new quote in the $3,700-a-year range.

However, while these local efforts were going on, the state of Illinois reinvigorated their investigation of this issue as well, and as of June 5 they have asked the historical society to hold off on privately insuring the bridge until perhaps a more comprehensive long-term preservation solution can be found for this unique structure. 

Indeed, the state of Illinois, through the offices of Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, has made it clear that this bridge is "protected." It is in the process of being added to the National Register of Historic Places, and because of that and other protections afforded to this historic structure, any alteration or removal plans would first have to go through a review process by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

It is our conclusion, therefore, that the bridge is here to stay, and that now is the time for officials on a local, state and perhaps even a federal level to all work together to find the best long-term solution for the preservation of the bridge and that we all work together to implement whatever is needed to make the road underneath as safe as possible, including regular maintenance, road repairs, possible re-engineering of the road underneath and perhaps installation of signal lights within one-fourth mile of each entrance to the underpass.

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It is critical that the Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Landmark Preservation Council, Elkhart Historical Society and Logan County Highway Department continue a process of working together for a final solution that will offer the best protection for the future of this bridge -- a structure that may well outlive all of us who have been involved on one side or the other of this debate. I am urging that we now all work together to reach a solution -- a solution that we are convinced must involve long-term ownership and preservation.

We would like to thank all the entities that have been working with us and that are continuing to help us with this issue.

On a side note -- those of you who are interested in seeing this historic structure should make plans to come to Elkhart this weekend for their all-town open house celebration, June 10 and 11. [Article]

[Geoff Ladd]

Geoff Ladd is the executive director of Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County, and he also serves on the board of directors of the Elkhart Historical Society.


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