Sunday, December 24, 2000

Bridge's day of destruction soon to come

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A plan to replace the High Street Bridge might be considered a disaster by some historic preservationists, but the bridge's inevitable fate can't compare with its predecessor's.

        The present bridge, a concrete span of four lanes, has withstood storms and minor earthquakes since it was built in 1915. City and state officials plan to tear down the busiest span on the Great Miami River in Hamilton in the next several years.

[photo] High Street Bridge into Hamilton.
(Enquirer file photo)
| ZOOM |
        Its demise will contrast with the violent end suffered by the previous bridge, washed away in the devastating 1913 flood.

        Hamilton historian James Blount rates the flood as the county's No. 1 influential event of the 20th century.

        The present bridge was born out of that disaster, as were the Miami Conservancy District and various anti-flooding projects built along the Great Miami.

        It all happened so fast.

        As the river rose swiftly that March, water covered the deck of the bridge. The top buckled. Suddenly, the bridge jolted loose from its moorings and collapsed into the black torrent.

        A wall of water rolled into downtown and neighboring areas. Horses swam up High Street.

        The flood destroyed 300 buildings and caused $10 million in damage. The area around the bridge looked as though it had been hit by a gigantic bomb.

        “Terrifying flood memories caused many Hamiltonians to turn their backs on the river for decades,” Mr. Blount wrote in The 1900s: 100 Years of Butler County History. “The Great Miami was feared, not considered a useful resource.”

        The iron truss' life was brief. When erected about 1895 at a cost of $110,000, the bridge was considered one of the longest single-span projects in the nation.

        At its dedication few people feared that it would be swept away, for it represented the highest bridge technologies of the era.

        The iron bridge was fancy, with intricate metal workings that looked like spiders' webs and round cornices and spires and side walkways.

        The bridge sat near the Memorial Building, a marble and limestone masterpiece built at the turn of the last century as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at High and Monument streets.

        When the waters finally receded, surprised residents learned that the flood had miraculously spared the Memorial Building, which was at the center of the destruction.

        About a month later, the county engineer started planning a new bridge, the one that now sits across the river. A.J. Yawger Co. of Indianapolis built the bridge — 576 feet long and designed with an old- world appearance.

        Work started in May 1914. On May 6, 1915, Butler County Prosecutor Ben Bickley dedicated the bridge and several people christened it with bottles of champagne.

        Today, state officials are planning a new bridge, only the fifth in the area since 1819, to be patterned after the present one, so as to blend with city architecture.

        Nevertheless, Jay Antenen, chairman of the Save the Bridge Committee, said the High Street Bridge needs to be fixed, not replaced. He said the committee will continue to fight to save the bridge.

        The new bridge could cost $6 million to $8.5 million.

        Bridges like the one in Hamilton typically have a life span of 75 years — floods and progress notwithstanding.


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