Martin Road Bridge gets second life

Oct. 31, 2015

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Bridge gets second life By SALLY YORK, Argus-Press Staff Writer The Argus-Press

SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — The Shiawassee County Road Commission is selling the long-closed Martin Road Bridge in Caledonia Township — for one dollar.

The deteriorated bridge will be restored and installed next summer in Auburn Heights Preserve, a tourist attraction in Delaware that recreates life at the dawn of the automotive age.

“There are no funds available to save this bridge, and it is in such disrepair that someday it will fall in the river,” said Brent Friess, managing director of the Road Commission, which owns the bridge.

“Now the bridge will live, and show its glory.”

The historic metal truss bridge, which has spanned the Shiawassee River since 1885, will be disassembled and transported to Michigan experts for restoration in a few weeks.

Restoring and moving the bridge to its new home will cost an estimated $600,000.

The bridge was closed to traffic in 1987 because the structure sagged and was deemed unsafe. The closure divided Martin Road, a short gravel roadway bounded by Lytle and Kerby roads, into two dead ends.

The sale of the bridge, unanimously approved by the Road Commission Tuesday, was prompted by a phone call from Julie Bowers, executive director of the North Skunk Green River Association in Grinnell, Iowa, an intermediary for Auburn Heights Preserve.

“You have a bridge we want to buy,” Bowers told a surprised Friess.

As Bowers discovered through research, the Martin Road Bridge was ideal for the Preserve’s needs. For one thing, it was the right size, 119 feet long and 15 feet wide.

It also has an interesting history, being the only surviving bridge in Michigan erected by the Mount Vernon Bridge Company of Ohio and one of the oldest metal truss highway bridges in the state.

In 1990, the bridge was listed on the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites.

Finally, “it’s a beautiful bridge with very unique features,” Bowers said, citing its wrought-iron vertical posts, the detail on its forged end loops and riveted portals.

The Road Commission was open to the idea of selling the bridge. Repairing the deteriorating bridge and large-stone abutments would cost $350,000 to $450,000. Removing the structure: Roughly $50,000.

“In the past, there have been attempts to raise funds to refurbish the bridge, but to no avail,” Friess said. “The Road Commission owns the bridge and would be responsible for it if the bridge became in such disrepair that it had to be removed for safety or environmental reasons.

“This would be a costly undertaking, and one the Road Commission does not want to take the chance of occurring.”

In 1991, money to replace the old bridge with a modern concrete structure became available through the state’s bridge fund.

However, residents fought to keep the old bridge, even if it remained closed, saying they didn’t want increased traffic and that a modern bridge would be unattractive.

Leading the charge to save the old bridge was Sheila Ralph, who grew up on Martin Road. She and the late Margaret Zdunic had nominated the bridge for the State Register of Historic Sites. Ralph launched a successful petition drive.

“I could not see them tearing down this beautiful old bridge,” said Ralph, owner of Sheila’s Hair Salon in Owosso.

Twenty-four years later, she shares the Road Commission’s concerns about the bridge’s fate if it isn’t sold.

“I would hate to see it fall in the river,” Ralph said. “If someone else can enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed it, then I’m thrilled to death they’re going to save this old bridge.”

Auburn Heights Preserve, located in Yorklyn, Delaware, is a private/public partnership of the Delaware Department of Environmental Control Unit and the nonprofit Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve.

The Preserve features a furnished mansion built in 1897 and the Marshall Steam Museum, which boasts the largest collection of operating steam cars in the world.

Currently, Preserve officials — through the Iowa-based association — are purchasing several historic bridges for the attraction, including ones in Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

The Martin Road Bridge will be a point of interest in the Preserve, Bowers said, traversed by pedestrians, bicycles and antique cars. Signage will tell its history.

“The bridge is going to be preserved with in-kind techniques to make it look like it came from the factory that day in 1885,” Bowers said.

“Many people will see it, enjoy it and hear its story.”

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