The historic old Clarkton Bridge seems to be headed for demolition despite the best efforts of many who have worked diligently to save it. A late Wednesday announcement by Commissioner Philip A. Shucet of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) directs the department to move forward with a project to demolish the old bridge which spans the Staunton River.
“Reports indicate that there is major structural damage to the bridge which could result in collapse,” W. T. Ramey, P.E., VDOT’s Lynchburg District Administrator was quoted as saying in the press release. ”Without major rehabilitation, the long-term viability of the bridge is in jeopardy. After extensive efforts to work with citizens desirous of saving the bridge, VDOT must consider the safety of area citizens and visitors to the region and proceed,” Ramey added.
P.K. Pettus of Charlotte County and Carl Espy of Halifax, both of whom have led the effort of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance to save the historic old Camelback truss structure built in 1902, said they were both shocked and saddened at the announcement. “We have had so much support from citizens of both Halifax and Charlotte County in our efforts to save the bridge and VDOT officials have been extremely cooperative in working with us,” said Espy.
“This turn of events is so inconsistent with the on-going conversations we have had with VDOT over the past six months,” said Pettus, who noted that as of yesterday morning (Wednesday) Alliance members had been working with the Virginia Historic Properties Revolving Fund, managed in trust for the Commonwealth by APVA Preservation Virginia which was willing to take over interim ownership of the structure until a permanent owner could be found.
“We thought we had a mutually agreed upon plan in place for saving Clarkton Bridge, Pettus said last evening. “That plan is the result of much work and extended discussions on the part of many people, including representatives from VDOT, local governments, the Department of Historic Resources, APVA Preservation Virginia and the Clarkton Bridge Alliance. The elements of this plan were outlined in our letter to Secretary (Whitt) Clement in March,” Pettus said.
“If senior officials at VDOT’s Richmond headquarters were not satisfied with this plan, why didn’t they raise those concerns in March when they received this letter?” she asked. “Meanwhile many people have moved forward in good faith to put this plan in place,” she noted.
Pettus and Espy reported to Halifax County Supervisors in mid-February on the progress they had made in preserving the bridge. At that time several County Supervisors from neighboring Charlotte County were also present to lend their support to the efforts of the Alliance which proposed that the bridge be adapted for recreation and tourism projects. Pettus told her listeners then “There are many reasons to preserve the bridge since it is remarkable what it offers in terms of natural and historic tourism opportunities.” She explained that the bridge is a key link for a network of walking, bicycling and horseback riding trails and has been nominated as stop on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. It also offers an opportunity for individuals with limited mobility to enjoy birding and wildlife watching along the Staunton River, Pettus said.
She also pointed out that the old structure is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and lies within six miles of Red Hill, Patrick Henry’s last home. “It will be a great asset for economic development since nature tourism and heritage tourism are fast growing attractions for visitors to Virginia,” she told Supervisors.
Yesterday’s press release says “In the late 1990’s VDOT made efforts to transfer ownership of the structure to a willing party as recommended in VDOT’s Management Plan for Historical Bridges. When attempts were unsuccessful, plans were made to document and demolish the bridge. In 2003, awarding of a demolition contract was delayed to allow the Clarkton Bridge Alliance an opportunity to find a suitable owner. As of May 2004, no ‘plan of acceptance of ownership’ by a permanent third party has been made nor (have) there been firm commitments for maintenance of the structure if an owner is found.”
Finally the release says “Full documentation of the structure for historic purposes will take place and, in order to ensure public safety, the bridge will be removed.”
Pettus and Espy still hold out hope that the bridge can be saved. “If VDOT needs more information about the prospects for long term ownership, we are happy to discuss it. In recent weeks, our focus has been on completing the many steps needed to transfer ownership of the bridge to the revolving fund. We know VDOT is eager to cease ownership and we’re doing all we could to make that happen as soon as possible,” Pettus said.
And she added, “If VDOT has identified new concerns, we are eager to know what they are.
The Clarkton Bridge Alliance has enjoyed a courteous and productive working relationship with many representatives of VDOT during recent months, especially Joe Barkley and Tom Ramey. We are always ready to come back to the table and continue our discussions,” she concluded.