The battle of Clarkton Bridge
Supporters of old span over Staunton River rally to stop its state-ordered demolition
NATHALIE - Advocates for a century-old bridge deep in Southside Virginia are vowing to fight to the end to save the single-lane span over the Staunton River.
The Clarkton Bridge is scheduled to be dismantled beginning today, and supporters say they will make a last stand.
They plan to spend the night on the bridge and greet workers expected to begin the demolition this morning with a sit-in. The workers are expected to remove the wooden deck boards first, and the dismantling is expected to take several months.
State Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet decided this month to move forward with the plan to demolish the old truss bridge, which until its 1998 closing was used by many residents as a shortcut between Halifax and Charlotte counties.
In a news release, Virginia Department of Transportation officials pointed to reports of "major structural damage to the bridge which could result in collapse" without major rehabilitation, as well as the need to "consider the safety of area citizens and visitors."
The bridge's advocates, operating largely under the umbrella of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance, take exception with the report and say they have been blindsided. They said efforts to save the bridge have been under way for more than a year, and they thought they had pulled various organizations together - including VDOT - to put a deal in place that would save the scenic bridge.
P.K. Pettus of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance said the plan called for the Virginia Historic Properties Revolving Fund to buy the bridge and assume all responsibility and liability until Halifax and Charlotte counties could organize a parks and recreation authority to take over the property.
Sunday evening, a rally on the bridge drew about 200 people. Consequently on Monday night, at the behest of supporters, the Halifax Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution urging a 45-day reprieve for the bridge, as well as authorizing $20,000 to be used in partnership with Charlotte to establish an authority.
Halifax and Charlotte supervisors have already passed resolutions in support of preserving the bridge.
Last week, the board of directors for the Halifax Industrial Development Authority called for 45 days to work with its counterpart in Charlotte to create a regional authority that would be responsible for the bridge.
The Halifax supervisors Monday night initially considered adopting the same resolution but added the financial allocation because, as Supervisor R.E. Abbott noted, "money talks."
"I don't see anything wrong with asking for time here," Abbott said.
The "unique early multispan metal Cam- elback through truss structure" was built in 1902, VDOT said. Advocates acknowledge the bridge offers little use as an automobile roadway but say that for about the same amount of money it would take to demolish it, the bridge could be converted into a platform to enjoy birding and wildlife, and become part of a network of walking, bicycling and horseback riding trails being developed.
Pettus noted in an e-mail that Gov. Mark R. Warner often speaks of the importance of tourism as a means of economic development in rural areas.
"How ironic that Gov. Warner's administration will use scarce VDOT funds to tear down a historic resource . . . when those funds could be used to repair it," she wrote.
Gathered on the bridge Sunday, the advocates were using stronger rhetoric.
Jack Dunavant, a member of both the Halifax IDA and the activist group Southside Concerned Citizens, climbed onto the railing of the bridge and declared, "We have just begun to fight. We are going to save this bridge."
Dunavant, a civil engineer, Monday night told the supervisors that the most recent VDOT engineering evaluation said the bridge could be used for pedestrian traffic for another century with minimal maintenance.
Meanwhile, one woman recalled the June 25, 1864, Battle of Staunton River Bridge, several miles downriver, in which a ragtag Confederate group of old men and young boys held off 5,000 Union cavalry soldiers. "We can do the same if we stick together," she said.
At which one man suggested, "We all go home and get our shooting irons."
VDOT officials said the agency tried to find someone to take ownership of the bridge in the late 1990s and in the last 12 months has granted two extensions to Clarkton supporters before deciding to demolish the bridge.
Supporters, VDOT officials said, had failed to secure a permanent owner or secure funds for long-term repairs.
Tamara Neale, a VDOT spokeswoman, said Shucet made his decision based not on politics or popularity, but the bridge's condition.
"It's pure and simply safety," Neale said. "The bridge is at a condition where it could stand a long time or it could collapse at any time."