The Bell Ford Bridge began its journey to Fishers after crashing into the White River 75 miles away.
The collapse didn’t just happen, it had been years in the making. Originally built in 1869, the bridge had a good run for its first century in Seymour. But by the time a windstorm blew the western portion to smithereens, it had been 30 years since a car had ventured across its 325-foot expanse.
Neglect led to the demise of the rest of it. Barely nine months after the bridge ended up on the National Register of Historic Places the remaining half plunged into the river below on Jan. 2, 2006.
At the time, hope for the Bell Ford Bridge seemed as shattered as the bridge itself, which was lying in the river against its former support beam. Days after the collapse, then-Jackson County Commissioner Gary Darledge told the Seymour Tribune, “There is nothing left of the Bell Ford Bridge, and I will not spend another tax dollar on it. Ninety percent of the people in this county think it is asinine to even consider rebuilding that bridge.”
But in 2024, Hamilton County will do just that.
“A lot has happened since we first acquired the bridge (in 2018),” Hamilton County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt stated in a media release. “We don’t want people to think we forgot about it.”
Plans are in place to reconstruct the old bridge — the last remaining of the three combination Post truss bridges in the world — into a pedestrian bridge over Fall Creek just south of Geist Park. The City of Fishers will incorporate the bridge into a new, soon-to-be-developed trail, while INDOT and the Hamilton County Highway Dept. work together to secure funding for the project. The cost is an estimated $3.5 million, with $2.8 million already raised through a grant with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Organization.
The bridge will not look exactly as it originally did. The distinctive red siding will be removed, in part because it will give pedestrians a more scenic view as they cross it and also as a preventative measure against vandalism. The bridge also will be trimmed from its original length to 160 feet, and the county is still undecided about what to do with the remaining segment.
A final design to incorporate the bridge is not complete. County officials are weighing three options, with the differences affecting the foundation and accessories, such as lighting fixtures, not the bridge itself. The pedestrian version of the Bell Ford Bridge will remain authentic to the original by utilizing many of its components.
“The bridge will be reconstructed in the same style that it was first built with in 1869,” Daniel Kurdziel, project manager with VS Engineering, stated in a media release. “But it will get a bit of facelift. The bridge will receive a more durable roof that mimics the original cedar shake roof and will be rebuilt with the addition of clear polycarbonate siding modeling the original open-air structure. These features will maintain the historic integrity of the original bridge while accenting and protecting the structural members that make this bridge one-of-a-kind.”
Until construction begins in 2024, the bridge resides in a new, unused wing of the Hamilton County Jail.
“Who would have imagined that we would have stored a historic bridge in a jail?” Heirbrandt said.
The bridge is being stored in pieces. Original 1869 wooden beams are stacked in one section, with original wooden planks in another. There are crates of cast iron hex nuts, more than 150 years old, the size of a man’s hand. There are also buckets of handmade nails used on the original structure. Heirbrandt and others involved in the project kept one as a souvenir. All the components were fished out of the White River after that fateful day in January 2006.
Although Jackson County officials had no intention of inserting more money into the dilapidated bridge, they did have the foresight to rescue the fallen bridge from the river, disassemble it and store it. Instead of restoring the bridge, Jackson County officials were preoccupied with saving another historic structure: An old round barn for which they didn’t have funding.
Before Heirbrandt made his first trek to Seymour about the bridge, officials from other cities across the nation had already asked about taking possession of it. All of them, including Heirbrandt, were turned down. According to Jackson County Commissioner Matt Reedy, the bridge was not for sale.
But something about the Hamilton County plans for the bridge stuck with Reedy. Reedy checked with a consultant who encouraged him to let Hamilton County use the bridge if Reedy wanted the bridge built well and in his lifetime. That appealed to Reedy. He called Heirbrandt and offered to give Hamilton County the bridge as a gift.
“We were completely blown away,” Heirbrandt said. “(We said,) ‘Why don’t we give you $25,000? That way you can use these funds to help you restore your old barn.’”
The deal was struck, and the one-of-a-kind Bell Ford Bridge was soon on its way to Hamilton County, where it will once again span a river.
“One-of-a-kind” is an often-overused phrase, but it is an apt description of the Bell Ford Bridge, the only combination Post truss bridge left in the world.
Post truss bridges were a combination of a Warren truss, two long spans connected only by angled cross beams that alternated their incline, and a double intersected Pratt truss, which has vertical beams sloped toward each other.
The bridge style is named after Simeon Post, who invented the design in 1863 yet never received a patent for it. Two other Post truss bridges, which are not combinations, still stand in Worcester County, Mass., but they are in poor condition.