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Oregon Couple Wants to ’Adopt’ Arrah Wanna Bridge

Thu April 07, 2011 - West Edition
Yuxing Zheng

WELCHES, Ore. (AP) It’s not an adorable kitten or a child in need of a loving home, but Bob and Margaret Thurman are nonetheless intent on adoption.

The Thurmans have launched a bid to “adopt” the Arrah Wanna Bridge, a one-lane pony truss bridge spanning the Salmon River in Welches about a half mile south of U.S. 26. They hope to move the century-old structure to one of their nearby properties, repurpose it as part of a public pedestrian or hiking trail, and, in the process, preserve a piece of local history and architecture.

“People are nostalgic about the past, and there’s an awareness that things are disappearing,” Bob Thurman said. “Somebody needs to move it or they’ll scrap it and sell it to China.”

The Thurmans hope to persuade Clackamas County, which owns the bridge, to let them move it before crews start construction in 2012 on a wider, modern replacement. They expect to pay for relocation and future maintenance costs, although they haven’t solicited bids or submitted a detailed proposal.

If the Thurmans succeed in their quest, it won’t be the first time the bridge has been moved. But from exactly where, nobody seems to know.

Bridge experts date the 117-ft.-long, 16-ft.-wide span as roughly a century old, from sometime in the 1910s or 1920s. But it doesn’t match any of the standard design plans for truss bridges drawn up by officials in the 1920s and 1930s at the old Oregon State Highway Department, the predecessor of today’s Oregon Department of Transportation.

All the experts know is that records indicate the bridge was relocated to its current Salmon River site in 1957 to replace a wood Howe truss bridge.

Today, the W-shaped truss bridge with its camelback curve is “a wonderful example” of one of a handful of remaining steel pony truss bridges in the area, said Robert W. Hadlow, a senior historian with ODOT. “These little truss bridges are great examples of the advances in steelmaking in this country in the early 20th Century. This bridge was of that period of industrialization in America.”

Pony truss bridges steadily declined in popularity over the years, in part because of growing traffic demands, Hadlow said. But truss bridges are relatively simple to relocate because they can be easily taken apart and reassembled.

“If there is an opportunity to preserve this bridge rather than scrap it, it’s a way of ensuring that people will continue to appreciate our built history,” Hadlow said. “It’s not unlike preserving an old house, especially if it’s an example of an architectural style that is fading out.”

Adopting a bridge may be untraditional, but it’s not unheard of.

The Indiana Department of Transportation operates a Historic Bridges Marketing Program, where 50 or so bridges are listed for rehabilitation or possible relocation. In Michigan, the Calhoun County Road Commission operates Historic Bridge Park, which draws pedestrians and bikers with a collection of rehabilitated, relocated historic bridges.

The Thurmans years ago embraced the burgeoning heritage tourism trend. They’ve lived in Brightwood since 1977 and devoted their full attention to their Welches-area properties after retiring in 2000 from jobs at Portland Public Schools, she as a grade school teacher, he as a school psychologist.

The Cabins Creekside at Welches, a rental property they own, is steeped in nostalgia. Old gas station signs, a Johnson seahorse motor, a corn sheller, kerosene stove and rendering pot to melt lard all decorate the property. Inside the rooms, vintage posters and historic photographs introduce younger generations to bygone views and artifacts, such as the Skiway, essentially a flying bus of sorts that transported visitors on a bus suspended on a cable between Government Camp and Timberline Lodge.

Clackamas County will likely advertise a request for proposals for the relocation of the Arrah Wanna bridge in upcoming months, said Joel Howie, a civil engineering supervisor for the county. The county would prefer a proposal that keeps the bridge in the local area, he said.

That’s good news for the Thurmans.

“Historic marketing works,” Bob Thurman said. “Here, you have something people can actually experience, move through. You can walk through history.”

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