131-year-old bridge could get new life as part of Washtenaw County Border-to-Border Trail

WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – Can you teach an old bridge new tricks?

The planners behind the Washtenaw County Border-to-Border (B2B) Trail hope so.

They view a disused 131-year-old bridge that once served as a gateway to a now-defunct mill community on the Huron River as a potentially missing piece in the puzzle in their quest to bring the non-motorized trail that traverses the county to completion.

The former wrought-iron Bell Road Bridge — made by the same Ohio company that built two single-lane bridges that still stand downstream — could potentially be repurposed as the Mill Creek bicycle and pedestrian crossing on the edge of downtown Dexter as part of the continuation effort , to close B2B gaps between the city and Chelsea in the west.

Although the plan is far from complete, city officials have signaled support to Dexter, and a preliminary investigation shows the bridge’s key structural elements remain in good condition.

Officials from the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission are delving into more assessments and working on designing the B2B space in hopes it could be built in 2024 in time for Dexter’s bicentennial.

It would be a brand new life for all 103 feet, 6 inches of the metal bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1990s.

It once marked the 19th-century mill settlement of Dover, about five miles north of Dexter on the Huron River. The outpost began as a sawmill built in part in 1832 by Judge Samuel Dexter, founder of the community that now bears his name, according to the National Register application filed with the National Park Service.

In the decades that followed, the mill changed hands and uses, but by the late 19th century the settlement had an Episcopal church, hotel, shop and blacksmith’s shop, and in 1891 the Bell Road Bridge was owned by Canton, Ohio’s Wrought Iron Bridge Co., One manufactured the largest manufacturer of metal truss bridges in the Midwest.

Historic photos of the Bell Road Bridge in Washtenaw County

Photos accompanying a 1996 application for inscription on the National Register of Historic Places show the single-lane Bell Road Bridge near the former mill town of Dover in Washtenaw County north of Dexter.National Archives

The bridge would far outlive Dover, which by 1915 had only four buildings, according to the National Register application.

At the time of its national historic designation in 1996 – and the placement of a Michigan Historical Marker at the bridge in Dexter Township shortly thereafter – the structure was one of only a handful of its kind in Michigan, including the nearby East Delhi Road and Maple Road bridges closer to Ann Arbor.

The Washtenaw County Road Commission completed several rehabilitation projects during its useful life, but they had deteriorated to the point that the bridge was closed to traffic in the mid-’90s, said Road Commission spokeswoman Emily Kizer, who holds the agency’s files on the structure searched .

In 1997, crews used a crane to detach the bridge from its abutments and place it on the river bank, she said.

Decommissioning of the Bell Road Bridge

Photos from the Washtenaw County Road Commission show crews using a crane to remove the Bell Road Bridge from its abutments on the Huron River in 1997.Provided by the Washtenaw County Road Commission

There the aging metal colossus sat for more than 20 years, vegetation grew through its beams.

But you won’t find him on the river bank anymore.

In 2018, the road commission, which owns the bridge, and county parks officials signed a deal to have the structure disassembled and stored with the idea that it could one day be repurposed for a parks project, Kizer said.

It is now stored in Holt, south of Lansing, by a company that specializes in metalwork and the restoration of historic bridges of this type.

A preliminary estimate of the cost of the proposed B2B segment, running from Miller-Smith Preserve on Parker Road to Mill Creek Park in Dexter, shows that the bridge’s repurposing isn’t just a historical tribute.

It saves approximately $600,000 off the segment price compared to the alternative of installing a prefabricated footbridge, according to cost records and Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission project manager Peter Sanderson, the lead planner for the B2B project.

Beginning this winter, a team of engineers with experience evaluating historic bridges will develop a detailed plan for the restoration and reinstallation of the Bell Road Bridge, including adding handrails for safety because the original doesn’t have them, Sanderson said in an email. The blueprints contain details down to the individual rivets and paint color.

Conceptual depiction of the Bell Road Bridge on the Washtenaw County Frontier Trail

A conceptual illustration shows a potential reuse of the disused Bell Road Bridge, a 131-year-old structure built on the riverfront near Dexter in the late 1990s as part of the Washtenaw County Border-to-Border (B2B) Trail. Planners are exploring using the bridge as part of the B2B segment linking Chelsea and Dexter. The rendering overlaid on a photo from Mill Creek Park shows the bridge over Mill Creek.Rendering by Stantec/Photo by Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission

There are also still some questions about alignment of the big picture for the approximately 3,500-foot B2B segment, and officials are in discussions with the property owners about easements to allow the trail to be connected to the preferred Mill Creek crossing, which will include the installation of Wooden walkways would include at the flood plain, he added.

Officials are exploring grant funding opportunities and aim to complete technical and environmental clearance procedures next year with hopes of building the segment in 2024.

“2024 is Dexter’s bicentennial and our understanding is that Judge Dexter was a supporter of the initial installation of the Bell Road Bridge, so it would be appropriate to finally find a home for this bridge in the city and restore it,” Sanderson said.

With these plans, time will tell if the structure will return to action in Washtenaw County in its 133rd year.

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