Along the banks of Bayou Teche in the heart of Cajun country sits a 1938 rim-bearing swing bridge. Misunderstood by some, but loved by others, the demise of this special bridge was imminent until the Historic Bridge Foundation received a telephone call in the spring of 2007. Despite his tears and my difficulty understanding his strong Cajun accent, the gentleman on the other end of the call was able to explain the story of the bridge and its importance to the history of sugarcane farming and the community where it stands. As I listened, I began to realize that a determination of eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places had not been completed and that several federal procedures were not being followed.
Thus began the saga of the Vida Shaw Swing Bridge. Thanks to a team of dedicated people and a few miracles, the bridge stands today. Although its final fate is still unknown, the bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places at the state level of significance. The federal Section 106 process continues. And a proud Louisiana gentleman continues to take his morning walk and gaze, at least for now, upon a noble bridge that is part of his heritage, and part of the story that defines Iberia Parish, Louisiana.
In many ways, that conversation was a pivotal moment for the Historic Bridge Foundation. We were beginning to expand our original work beyond Texas to the other 49 states and were learning more about the importance of grassroots support. As executive director, I was well aware that it “takes a village” to save a bridge, but not until that conversation on an early April morning did I truly understand how deeply a person or a community could love and find their identity in a historic bridge.
Saving a historic bridge is frequently a complicated and time-consuming process. Federal procedures are in place to help us save bridges, but the ways in which these federal rules and regulations are implemented seem to vary from state to state. And then there is the issue of money. Many times federal money is available. Sometimes state and/or local funds can be found. But regardless of the money source, replacement is almost always seen as the cheaper, and thus, best route. What is lost in the calculated costs of replacing or rehabilitating a historic bridge is the intrinsic value of the bridge itself. Across our country we devote million of dollars to the preservation of buildings, schools, and other cultural and historic landmarks. Often, however, when a community takes inventory of their historic properties, the local historic bridge fails to make the list. Somehow we must elevate the importance of our historic bridges in the stories that identify the communities of our nation and say “this bridge is part of who we are and it must be saved.”
The Historic Bridge Foundation exists to help individuals and communities pay tribute to their heritage by providing education about the importance of historic bridges and by joining forces to save these engineering landmarks. We invite you to contact us and tell us your story so we can work together to find solutions that will insure that the historic bridge in your community will have a place in the stories yet to come.
Now Available: Chicago’s Bridges
By Nathan Holth, author of HistoricBridges.org, this book provides a discussion of the history of Chicago’s movable bridges, and includes a virtual tour discussing all movable bridges remaining in Chicago today. The book includes dozens of full color photos.
Only $9.95 U.S.!