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Bridge recognized as historic, one-of-a-kind


By Beth Altena, Rockford Squire


Did you know that the Pine Island Drive Bridge, just north of the Pine Island and Ten Mile Road intersection, in Algoma Township, is the only one of its kind in the country? Built 90 years ago, the bridge has never been more beautiful. It underwent a lengthy restoration, and was recently recognized by the State of Michigan with a historic marker detailing its unique qualities.

Julie Sjogren, of Algoma Township, described the long process of recognizing the bridge among the state’s historic landmarks, a process begun in 2006 with the help of Tom Byl, with the Kent County Road Commission. Sjogren spoke at the dedication on Friday, October 17, at the site of the marker, before its unveiling, and practically in the shadow of the bridge it references.

N-Bridge-signAlgoma Township Deputy Supervisor Nancy Clary was the next speaker at the event, addressing a crowd of onlookers and news cameras. “This bridge has always been the jewel and crown of Algoma Township and its never shined brighter than it does since it was restored.”

James Carr spoke about the research he undertook to better recall the bridge’s history. “History means so much more when it is local,” he stated. Construction for the bridge began in 1922, and the county still has copies of the original plans. He said he looked to find his father’s initials on the project because at that time his dad was director of the road commission. “Many individuals had a hand in making this happen,” he said.

David Groenleer, P.E. Vice Chairman for the Kent County Board of Road Commissioners spoke next. He said the bridge was completed in 1924. “If you look at the plaque on the bridge, you’ll see Townsend, Johnson and Ramsdell. Townsend was Warren Townsend of Townsend Park.” Johnson was another notable public servant, recognized by the park in his name in Grand Rapids. Ramsdell, although lacking a park in his name, is the individual after which Ramsdell Road is called.

“I thought that was pretty neat, those three guys were pretty important to this area.” He also recognized another local of note, Otto Hess. “Otto was the driving force behind the organization of the Road Commission,” Groenleer stated. He said the road commission was organized in 1911. Hess was later recognized by the State of Michigan for his implementation of many of our lovely roadside parks.

Groenleer said he can picture Hess at his former place of work, sitting, tie loose, undoubtedly with a cigar in his mouth. Back in those days, Hess had some options when a new bridge was needed, and at the time, a replacement to the old 14-foot-wide steel truss bridge was needed.

N-Bridge-Old“This was a state reward bridge, where the state designed it and paid half,” Groenleer described. He said Hess was reluctant to put in another steel bridge because he had just paid $5,000 to repair the North Park steel bridge. That bridge, finally replaced with the current bridge in the 1980s, was a segmented steel bridge. When it was replaced in the 80s, one of the conditions was that a section of it be preserved. That one section from the original seven or eight, is now in Riverside Park.

“They floated the section down, but what you might not know, is that when they got it where they were supposed to, they pushed a spike into the riverbottom to stop it but it just kept going.”

Hess knew that if he put in another steel bridge, he was going to continue to see maintenance costs, so he considered the concrete camel back bridge design, similar to one in Ada, which is now gone. Another Michigan camelback bridge can be seen from I-96 near Nunica.

The Pine Island Bridge, however, is unlike either of its Michigan cousins because of the unique braces across the top, joining it all the way around. The low banks of the Rogue River under the bridge required an additional structural component, to keep the bridge from failing if the river floods it.

In this respect the Pine Island Bridge is unique from any other camelback bridge in the entire United States, a structure both beautiful, but built for purpose.

“The concrete was shipped by rail from Englishville,” Groenleer said. “A lot of towns have gone away but this one is still there if you want to look it up on a map.”

Groenleer quoted the Grand Rapids Press at the time the bridge was built. It read: “The Algoma/Solon Road bridge will last indefinitely.” He said he looked in Webster’s Dictionary for a definition of indefinitely and failed to find one. “Well, for sure we know indefinitely means at least ninety years.”

“Now in 2014 for ten times the cost of the 1920 construction it has been renovated.” He praised the contractor and noted some details. The concrete was cleaned with baking soda blasts to remove graffiti and grime. He said damage to the superstructure, such as chipping and pitting, was hand-repaired with epoxy seal silicone and the rail on the northwest corner was replaced.

He credited the Kent County Road Commission and staff, specifically Wayne Harroll for “all their efforts on this historic structure that is also an important transportation structure.”

Larry Wagenaar, Michigan Historical Commissioner, had the honor of unveiling the historic designation marker for the bridge. “I am here wearing three hats,” he stated. First he was present for the State of Michigan on behalf of the Historic Commission. Second, he is the Executive Director for the nonprofit Historic Society of Michigan. Finally, he stated, he was there as a resident of Kent County, specifically Ada, which lost its own camelback bridge.

“This is a unique span of 100 feet and is the only one like it in the country. I hope it stands another 90 years, gets restored again and stands another 90 years,” he said.

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