The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 28, 2009

Mechanicsville Road bridge stands at ‘Great Crossing’

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer - cfeather@starbeacon.com

The Mechanicsville Road bridge is an Ashtabula County treasure.

The oldest of the extant covered bridges over the Grand River, this bridge also has the distinction of being the state’s only Howe truss bridge with an arch and, prior to 1996, was the longest single-span wooden bridge in the county, 156 feet.

The Mechanicsville Road bridge ties with the Wiswell Road bridge in Windsor for being the oldest in Ashtabula County, as well. Both were built in 1867.

Located southwest of Austinburg, Mechanicsville was one of the last to be renovated under John Smolen’s ambitious plan for the county’s 12 legacy bridges. The job was performed by Union Industrial Contractors from July 2003 to March 2004. The bridge was rededicated in May 2004 and opened to traffic, although a new concrete span next to it carries travelers more interested in expediency than nostalgia.

This new bridge bypassed the old structure when it could no longer bear the weight of modern traffic. The old structure was kept on life support until money became available for the ambitious and expensive task of renovation. The job cost slightly more than $540,000 and came from a Federal Transportation Enhancement Grant with 20-percent local match.

Duane Urch was foreman on the job. In a 2004 interview, Urch said he had no idea how workers in 1867 were able to build the thing, given the tools available to them.

“Everybody who worked on that job still hasn’t figured out how they put this thing up,” he said.

The old bridge was in bad shape when Union Industrial’s team tackled the huge task. The span was bowed and the northwest corner had dropped about four feet. One end of the arch was badly rotted and had to be rebuilt. Both the upper and lower chords, the continuous horizontal members of the bridge, had extensive decay.

Whenever possible, the original lumber was salvaged, but visitors to the bridge will notice that much of the lumber is of the modern, laminated type.

“I was hoping it wasn’t too far gone,” Urch said in the aforementioned story. “There was quite a bit of existing material they wanted saved.”

A platform was constructed under the bridge to make it safe for the workers, who tore off the siding, roof and roof trusses, cut out damaged bridge members and then rebuilt the structure, all without any kind of reference material to go by.

“There was a lot of physical labor, but everybody who was on the job thought it was one of the most unique jobs they had ever worked on,” Urch said.

The two piers under the bridge were built in 1996 as a stop-gap measure to stabilize the structure. They were left in place after the renovation because the bridge’s weight actually helps keep the piers in place. The pressure counters the force of ice, floating trees and other debris that comes drifting down the river.

The area where this bridge stands was known as “The Great Crossing.” Early French maps of the region marked the river as “deep” at this location. The first mill in the county was built by Ambrose Humphrey in 1801 and stood just south of the bridge. The “Old Girdled Road” crossed here at the French-Indian portage.