Pere Marquette Railroad Bridge, Guest Editorial

Railroad Bridge over Black River, just west of the St. Clair River, Port Huron. V. Priest, 2017.

Below is an editorial by William Collins, Executive Director of the Thumb Land Conservancy.  It was submitted to The Times Herald, but not published.  A very short version can be found at the online paper, however.

The City of Port Huron seems content to sit on its hands while the Port Huron Yacht Club seeks to demolish the historic Pere Marquette Railroad bascule lift bridge over the Black River. Meanwhile, the City of Ashtabula, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie has just approved construction of a new hotel designed specifically for views of Ashtabula Harbor and their historic bascule lift bridge over the Ashtabula River. Ashtabula is actually capitalizing on their “ugly” old steel, which is 6 years older than Port Huron’s and still in use. The developer of the new River Bend Hotel says, “We think that it’s going to be quite a unique concept, unrivaled in the region. It’s going to be an incredibly beautiful scene.” (River Bend Hotel planned for Ashtabula’s harbor district is town’s first new hotel in 100 years)

The Ashtabula bridge is one of the few remaining Brown bascule bridges, designed by Wendell P. Brown of Cleveland, Ohio and built in 1925. Similar to the Port Huron bridge, it has a moving counterweight on a rocking truss that pivots atop a half A-frame support. About 10 years ago, my wife and I visited the Ashtabula Harbor and watched this lift bridge in operation. Point Park, on a bluff overlooking the Ashtabula Harbor, provides a great view of the port where tons of coal are still loaded to ships. In this little park sets part of a large Hulett Ore Unloader machine, used at Great Lakes ports in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Very informative signs describe the history of Ashtabula Harbor. Down below is the Ashtabula River and the working bascule lift bridge. We watched it in operation and couldn’t help but think of Port Huron’s bridge as the two look similar. We asked, “Why can’t Port Huron do this?” Ashtabula cares for its industrial heritage, while Port Huron would rather scrap theirs out.

A bascule lift bridge is a drawbridge with the weight of the span balanced out by a counterweight. Like a seesaw, this allows raising and lowering of the bridge span with relatively little energy. The word “bascule” is derived from the French word for a balance scale. According to Wikipedia, there are not quite 300 bascule lift bridges remaining worldwide. Of these, 126 are listed for the United States. That’s only about 2.5 per state, but Michigan has 12, although few are as old and unique as the Pere Marquette Railroad bridge.

Built in 1931, the Port Huron bridge is a rare Abt bascule lift bridge designed by Hugo A. F. Abt. According to HistoricBridges.org, there were only eight of these Abt bridges built. Six remain, one being the Port Huron bridge. The Abt design differs from other bascule bridges in that the counterweight rotates upward as the bridge is lowered. This ingenious design distributes the weight of the counterweight over a larger portion of the bridge structure. The elevated counterweight also allowed trains to pass under in both raised and lowered positions, so the rail line was not shut down during construction as trains used the old bridge being replaced.

Considering their otherwise generous engagement with the community, I don’t get why the Port Huron Yacht Club is so dead-set on tearing down Port Huron’s bridge. They could fit perhaps 10 boats in the bridge area, but I’m told they plan an observation platform in its place. As the Yacht Club expands, surely they will need far more slips somewhere. The Yacht Club is a vibrant bunch with a passion for sailing and the welfare of the Blue Water Area. The Port Huron Yacht Club was founded in 1906 and has maintained a very active role in the Great Lakes sailing community. Some members participate in events worldwide. The Yacht Club holds over 60 races each year and leads group cruises. They offer training and even non boat owners are encouraged to participate as crew members or on the race committee team. They support the Sea Scouts, a program of the Boy Scouts of America. The Yacht Club holds many social activities for boaters and non-boaters alike. In addition to all of this, Yacht Club members support numerous Saint Clair County charities such as The Hunter Hospitality House, Women’s Shelter, and Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Their Leukemia Cup Regatta has raised over $1.2 million in the past 20 years. That’s about $60,000 per year. What’s not to like about this organization?

I love seeing white sails on Lake Huron on a sunny day. There should be sails out there. This is part of what the Blue Water Area is about. The Port Huron Yacht Club is and should be a vital part of the Blue Water community. They are known as “The friendliest club on the Great Lakes”. Their slogan is “Where the members make it happen”. The question with the historic Pere Marquette Railroad bridge is, “What are they making happen?” Is removing the bridge best for our community? I think the Port Huron Yacht Club is missing the boat on the bridge issue. Even if it could be moved, wouldn’t the small fortune required be much better spent supporting charities as the Yacht Club does? Would they agree to keep the bridge intact if we started a campaign to raise a few hundred thousand dollars for a charity of their choice? They have a great opportunity to be heroes and save an icon of Port Huron. I’m certain they would find more support than they could have hoped for. At this point however, I could not consider joining a club wanting to needlessly deprive residents and visitors of their history. When something historical is lost, the loss continues for generations. What really would be the gain of demolishing the bridge and is it worth the loss?

For a thorough description of the Pere Marquette Railroad bridge and analysis of the proposed demolition issue, see HistoricBridges.org.

William Collins
Born and raised in Port Huron / Fort Gratiot
Manager, Huron Ecologic, LLC

 

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