The Historic Bell Road Bridge

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, September 1995,
September 1995

Author: Grace Shackman

What do you do with a 104-foot antique?

The Bell Road bridge, which spans the Huron River a mile north of Hudson Mills Metropark, still has its original sign, "Wrought Iron Bridge Company, Canton, Ohio, 1891," clearly legible on the top bar of its Erector Set-like frame. One lane wide and 104 feet long, resting on a fieldstone foundation on an unpaved road, the bridge looks much as it did 100 years ago, when it carried loaded hay wagons from the nearby Bell family farm.

But a century of use has taken its toll, and the bridge is currently closed. Bob Polens, director of the Washtenaw Road Commission, explains, "It is in a deteriorating condition. The truss is deteriorated because of rust, one or more of the wing walls have capsized, and the fieldstone abutments also have cracks." A car crashed into an end post in late 1992, closing the bridge for part of 1993, and nearby residents complained about having to go miles out of their way for necessities such as groceries. The road commission then reopened the bridge, limiting traffic to vehicles under four tons, but when more stones from the abutment began falling into the river, they closed it again while they try to decide what to do.

Of the several options possible, the least likely one is to tear the bridge down. It is an official antique, designated as "historic" in a study jointly funded by the state highway department and the state bureau of history.

The chief consultant on the project, Charles Hyde, is a professor of history at Wayne State University and the author of Historic Highway Bridges of Michigan. According to Hyde, the Bell Road bridge is the state's third-oldest extant metal-truss bridge made by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company. One of the two older ones is also in Washtenaw County: the Maple Road bridge over the Huron, sometimes called the Foster bridge because it is closer to Foster Road on the south, dates back to 1876.

Washtenaw County has two other metal-truss bridges not mentioned by Hyde, both built in 1900: the Delhi bridge at Delhi Metropark (see the August Observer) and the Furnace Street bridge in Manchester. While these historic bridges add to the beauty of our landscape and to our understanding of the past, it's quite a challenge for the road commission to figure out how to make them meet modern load-bearing and safety requirements. The Furnace Street bridge is badly rusted and open only to foot traffic. The Delhi bridge collapsed in the 1917 tornado but was rebuilt using many of the original parts. Repaired many times, the Maple Road bridge is still in use, but only one lane at a time. Because it is limited to twelve tons, it is not safe for many vehicles, including school buses and fire trucks.

The commission has received dedicated funds to work on the Bell Road bridge, but because it is historic and federal funds are involved, it must go through an analysis by the state bureau of history before a final plan is accepted. As Kristine Wilson of the bureau of history explains, "They have to demonstrate they have looked at all the prudent and feasible alternatives. Could it be rehabilitated? Could it be moved? Could it be left and another bridge built beside it while it is used as a pedestrian bridge, or could it be used for one lane of traffic?"

At first the county road commission doubted that the Bell Road bridge could be rehabilitated with any amount of historic integrity, but Polens now thinks it is possible. He says, "While the bridge could never be brought up to today's [structural] standards, it could be renovated and used with weight restrictions, [because] traffic in the area is not expected to increase, since the Stinchfield Woods [owned by U-M] and the Huron Mills Metropark limit future growth." The counter argument to this solution is that the amount of traffic might not justify the cost of the renovations.

Another possible solution is to use the old bridge as a foot or bike path and build a parallel bridge or a new one upstream, maybe connecting Strawberry Lake Road with Stinchfield Woods Road. A third option is to do nothing, leaving the bridge closed and continuing to detour traffic via the North Territorial Road bridge to the south (heavier vehicles must use North Territorial even when the Bell Road bridge is open).

If the road commission decides on this option, they could give the bridge away. Under the terms of critical bridge funding, the money budgeted for demolition of an old bridge can be used to move and repair it. Historic bridges have successfully been moved in other communities. Just recently a Belleville bridge was moved to Kent County to replace a bridge the county had given to the village of Portland. The Bell Road bridge would not be suitable for a highway bridge but could be a beautiful and unique footbridge or bicycle path in any number of river parks in our area.

This fall, after the summer construction season is over, the road commission will turn its attention to the future of the Bell Road bridge, using input from nearby residents and the affected township governments in an attempt to find a solution that works for everyone affected--a process they figure will probably take several years.


[Photo caption from original print edition: Scenic and historic--but no longer safe for traffic--the Bell Road bridge is protected from demolition by state law. It may take several years to decide whether and how to repair it; if repair isn't feasible, it could be given away.]