The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 9, 2009

Spring Street bridge tackled Gulf divide

By CARL E. FEATHER - Staff Writer -

Motorists and pedestrians alike cross the Ashtabula River with ease, giving little thought to the structures that facilitate our travel.

However, in the first century of the community’s history, the Ashtabula Gulf provided a formidable challenge to transportation and development.

The chasm’s first crossings were simple wooden bridges elevated only slightly above the water and requiring a long, perilous descent and ascent along the bank to reach. There were two such crossings.

The first was at Tannery Hill. The type of bridge that once stood here has not been documented by history; however, local historian Walter Jack, in a 1951 Erie, Pa., Times article, stated that a covered bridge once stood at Tannery Hill. The crossing evidently required some private financial investment, as there was a toll for traveling the steep roads leading to the bridge. The toll gate was on the east side, known as Harmon’s Hill. In the valley near the crossing was Harmon’s Mill, a stone structure. On the west side, the road connected to North Main Avenue in the city.

The other crossing was near Spring Street (East 46th). Historian Alice Bliss, in a 1968 story about the covered bridge that made that crossing possible, described the route.

“On the river’s west bank, the approach from Ashtabula Village was down Fuller’s Hill, and (the bridge) carried foot and wagon traffic to the East Side near the present (East) 46th St.”

The last covered bridge to stand at this site has been dated to 1876. A notice in the Sentinel newspaper of Jan. 6, 1849, advertised for bids for a new bridge because the original covered bridge in the valley had been washed away by a flood. The new bridge was to be of the same plan as the old one and that of the Conneaut Mill bridge. That advertisement would suggest at least two predecessors to the 1876 bridge, which has been assigned the number 35-04-50. It was also known as the “Main River Crossing.”

Any wooden bridge built at this level was destined for destruction because of the periodic flooding that occurs on the broad valley. A particularly vicious flood was Feb. 3, 1882, when an ice jam was flushed down the river, washing away timbers of the old bridge, as well as sections of the Harmon Flats road.

The wooden bridge was repaired, but it was obvious a high-level span across the Gulf was needed. As is typical with such projects, there was controversy as to where that span ought to cross. Options included where the Route 20 viaduct eventually would be constructed, a straight shot from East 51st Street, and the most sensible of options, the narrowest portion of the chasm.

The latter won, thanks to Lucius Jason Fargo, an eastside landowner who obviously had a stake in the development the bridge would bring. He donated the land needed to create the East 46th Street from State Road to the river’s west bank.

There was just one problem: the bridge would end at Fuller’s livery stable on the west side of the river and the cost of acquiring Fuller’s property had not been included in the bond issue. Another $5,000 had to be raised, or it would have become Ashtabula’s “bridge to nowhere.” Already heavily invested in the project’s success, Fargo stepped forward with the cash to purchase a right of way from Fuller, and construction started in 1895.

The Parker Deck Bridge cost $75,000 and was built by the King Bridge Co. of Cleveland. The steel bridge had stone footers quarried in Windsor. The bridge was 1,000 feet long and had a deck 110 feet above the valley floor.

From the start, there was controversy about the bridge’s ability to carry the heavy loads entrusted to it. The P&O; Traction Co. was given the right to run its streetcar tracks across the structure, despite those concerns. Later, when motor vehicles replaced the horse-and-buggy traffic, the flooring was replaced with 2-by-4-inch boards covered with blacktop. Again, scoffers questioned whether the bridge was up to the weight of the new deck, let alone the traffic.

As for the covered bridge below the bridge, it was abandoned after the new crossing opened. Nature reclaimed the old muddy, rutted road that once provided access. In a few years, the acquisition of land in the valley for a park would begin, laying the groundwork for what would become Indian Trails Park.

A second high-level crossing would come to the city in 1928 with the completion of the Route 20 viaduct. The Spring Street bridge continued to carry traffic until 1981, when concerns about its condition forced closure. It was leveled with explosive charges three years later and replaced with a new structure.

Next week: The final installment of our Forgotten Crossings series.