(CBS4)– Some of Colorado’s most endangered places don’t include a single location, but rather a group of 46 bridges. When the railroads removed their rail yards, they left behind steel truss bridges.
Rather than removing them, city planners have often transformed them into walkways. Today, the Colorado Department of Transportation is similarly looking at bridges across the state, trying to balance the historic nature of those bridges with the growing transportation needs of Colorado drivers.
One such bridge is at Red Cliff, rising 209 feet above the Eagle River.
“When you see this bridge, you know you’re in Red Cliff,” said Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society. “Bridges can tell stories. As artifacts, they can reveal the history of a county, city, or state.
Heicher says that walking under the arches of the Red Cliff Bridge brings her back to the 1930s: “The Red Cliff Bridge is an artifact from FDR’s recovery programs during the Great Depression. It was a time when the federal government released a lot of money for road improvements to revive the economy.
For two years, workers braved freezing temperatures, suspended above the river below.
“There are stories of workers spending all day on that bridge. They were hoisted onto buckets or platforms,” Heicher said. “When the workers left, the children of Red Cliff came down and used the structure as monkey bars on a schoolyard.”
The bridge eliminated two miles of steep, narrow mountain roads.
“A state legislature columnist wrote, ‘It’s the end of white driving when you pray you can pass Red Cliff,'” Heicher said.
Travelers crossing the bridge can appreciate its usefulness and beauty as it bypasses Battle Mountain. Often drivers cross bridges without even knowing it.
“A lot of times we get from point A to point B in a bit of a rush and think more about how we get there than what we’re looking at while we’re en route,” said Shoshana Lew, executive director from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
CDOT wants to see more attention given to historic bridges.
Lew believes that bridges play an important role in cultural identity: “Things like roads and bridges are hugely important to the usefulness of getting where we need to go today, but they also take us back to periods of time that are fundamental to the culture of Colorado.”
CDOT studied their bridges with a historical and practical eye.
“First and foremost, we need it to function,” Lew said. “A lot of those bridges don’t work for today’s needs. You can’t just keep them as they were, and it’s often very expensive to try to upgrade them in place.
The CDOT has identified 46 bridges in its system that have historic value and a high probability of being preserved.
“The Cherry Creek Bridge was built in 1946,” said historian Lisa Schoch. “We were able to retain the original arch of the bridge while widening the structure so that it can meet today’s transportation needs.”
Bridges come in all different shapes, sizes and materials.
“The Zaricillo Canyon Bridge, which is on Highway 12, is a bridge (Works Progress Administration). It is built at an angle, it has very nice stone pillars,” Schoch said. “I also love Rainbow Falls…It’s tucked away in a canyon, it carries 24 US. A lot of people went there to put graffiti on the substructure of our bridge, so there is an interesting cultural atmosphere.”
Some bridges were built with local materials, such as volcanic rock on the Rito Seco Creek Bridge in San Luis.
“For me, these are historic properties. For CDOT engineers, these are functional transport elements,” Schoch said.
For CDOT engineer Michael Collins, this represents a delicate balancing act: “We look at the safety requirements, we look at the conditions.”
“Bridges are like an old house. Buying an old house and having that charm and living in it, being able to see it as part of the original design of the landscape where it is, trying to retain it as much as possible, but being able to update it to the standards of today’s security and bring it down to today’s functional needs,” Collins said.
Meeting these needs creates challenges. For example, those old steel truss bridges have low vertical clearance issues.
“The safety rail, there’s no good place to mount it on these bridges, so we have to get creative with how we restore those safety standards,” Collins said.
These solutions are neither easy nor inexpensive.
“Determining where you get the most bang for your buck by preserving those links is something that’s a challenge for us as we grow our infrastructure,” Lew said.
The conversation, CDOT says, is something they look forward to continuing with local communities.
“We want people to kind of broaden the spectrum of what can be historical and what is important for national and local history,” Schoch said.
“That’s why it’s important to keep records, to preserve where preservation is possible, and to make sure these bridges remain a part of Colorado’s history,” Heicher said.
CDOT hopes that the discussion and appreciation of historic bridges will expand to the county and local levels so that historic bridges that are not state-owned can also be preserved.