In Depth: Historic Bridge Faces Uncertain Future

Time is running out on a historic historic steel truss bridge connecting two north-central counties along the Kentucky River. It’s not the first time the forward march of progress has altered the rural area’s landscape and economy.

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If you take state highway 355 between Monterey and Carrollton, you’ll cross the Kentucky River at Gratz.

Back in the late 1800’s, when steamboats still plied the river, the city named for Benjamin Gratz Brown, was a happening place. The river was the town’s highway, and Gratz had a thriving business district, a hotel and a bank.

Paddle wheelers ferried passengers to Louisville and Cincinnati. Farmers sent tobacco and livestock to market, and showboats brought entertainment. That lasted almost 80 years, from 1844 to 1920.

But railroads and highways soon eclipsed river trade, and Gratz began a steady decline. In 1931, the town found new life when the state built a bridge at Gratz to connect Owen and Henry counties. Eight years ago, the 1,100 foot long bridge (pictured below, right) was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But the future of Gratz is again in question, because the old bridge’s days are numbered. It’s now rated ‘functionally obsolete’ and totally unsuitable for the heavy trucks from a nearby quarry that still use it. The bridge’s pending demise is the talk of the town.

Earl New and his wife Linda own a country store and restaurant next to the historic bridge and that’s where Melvin Lyons of Bethlehem was munching on a grilled cheese sandwich. Talk about the bridge sparked memories of his grandfather, a local veterinarian.

“Some of the store owners here were betting,” said Lyons. “And he had a real good horse. Said the horse wouldn’t cross the bridge. And he said, ‘Well by golly I’ll just be the first one to go across there.’ So he was the first one to cross it on a horse.”

Also grabbing some lunch at News Café was Alva “Shorty” Robinson, of nearby Lockport. Shorty, who’s actually more than six feet tall, has been around about as long as the bridge. Is he sad to see it go?

“Oh, not too much,” said Robinson. “If you was ever out on it when those trucks come across it, it was getting bad. I’ve been under it. It’s got a lot of rust on it.”

Indeed it does. Earl New and I walked down to take a look at the old bridge, which certainly has seen better days. Earl plans to open a bed and breakfast above his store and restaurant. But can his business survive without the bridge?

“If the state helps us out on the signage up and down this road,” said New.

“Yeah, the new bridge kind of bypasses you,” said McVeigh. “So, that has to be a concern, because we’re standing underneath the old bridge, and it comes out right at your store!”

Yes,” said New.

As we headed back, Earl pointed out a small plaque bolted to the bridge abutment.

“It says, The flood of January 1937,” read McVeigh. “High Water Mark. January 24, 1937. Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Cincinnati District.”

Five hundred feet upstream from the old bridge, workers continue drilling rock blocking the approach to the new bridge.

“And actually, it is a one of a kind bridge in America, with the longest single span, pre-stressed, post-tension concrete bridge,” said Chris Poe of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “And we are very proud of the structure that we’ve put in place here.”

Poe says the new bridge (below, right) is almost finished.

“Traffic should be on the new bridge by the end of November of this year,” said Poe.

“What’s the timeline on taking the old bridge down?” asked McVeigh.

“We have not yet received their demolition plan,” said Poe. “But we expect it to happen in December.”

So, it’s out with the old and in with the new. Will the new bridge revive historic Gratz, or finish it off? Only time will tell for the little river town, where at least for now, as one local jokes, stray cats and dogs outnumber the people!

By Tony McVeigh

Veteran broadcast journalist Tony McVeigh has been covering Kentucky politics since 1986, reporting for Clear Channel Communications before joining Kentucky Public Radio in 2004. His stories are aired by seven KPR affiliates, whose signals blanket the Commonwealth and parts of surrounding states. McVeigh began his broadcasting career at WRFC in Athens, Georgia, while earning a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Georgia. He has extensive anchor/reporter experience, including stints with South Carolina Network and Georgia Radio News Service in Atlanta. In 2007 and 2008, McVeigh was named Best Radio Reporter in the Kentucky Associated Press Awards. He also picked up consecutive AP Awards for Best Political Coverage. McVeigh won four Kentucky AP Awards in 2009, six in 2010 - including Best Political Coverage and Best Hard News Feature - and three in 2011. His coverage of the 2007 Kentucky governor's race topped the Political Reporting category of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards of 2008. In 2009, McVeigh placed second in Courts and Law Reporting in the Atlanta-based competition for journalists in 11 Southern states. McVeigh is also the proud recipient of an Individual Liberty Award from the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The Brunswick, Georgia, native is a die-hard UGA football fan who enjoys photography, astronomy, live music, hiking Kentucky's Red River Gorge and exploring the state's beautiful back roads. McVeigh and his big, fat, black cat Simon, reside in Frankfort, KY.