Before the opening last week of the new low-slung concrete bridge spanning the banks of the Big Blue River, residents worried that the old bridge would fall apart before its replacement could be built. Closing it was unthinkable—a detour would require a minimum of 45 miles one way on dirt and gravel roads for employees of the Georgia-Pacific plant three miles north of town. The Kansas Department of Transportation rated it one of the worst bridges in the state.
People said, someday a section is going to fall off like you see on TV and cars will go sailing into the river. You wait and see. I’m scared to drive across it.
I thought about that often when crossing the bridge at three a.m. on my way to work. I always kicked the headlights to high beam and slowed down, and always breathed a sigh of relief when I was safely across.
It probably wasn’t as bad as people said, but hear something enough and it becomes real, at least in the imagination.
This went on for years, decades. Then KDOT replaced it. The new bridge is wider, more stable, with better visibility and a gentler curve leading into the approach from the downhill side.
It didn’t take long for people to change their tune. I’m going to miss the old bridge, they said. The new one isn’t as pretty.
Or as rusty, I pointed out. Or as bristly where the concrete had fallen away to expose the underlying rebar.
No matter; change had come and nobody seemed happy about it. But I had to admit, there was something comforting about the old bridge’s oxidized green girders, especially in winter when ice or snow glazed the road’s surface. They wrapped vehicles in a cocoon of metal latticework, and you knew with utter certainty that there was no way your vehicle was going to slide into the river. No way.
The new bridge: people are already saying how scary it’s going to be in winter, how dangerous. Cars will go sailing into the river, you wait and see.
For a week we watched the old bridge shed its layers. Jackhammers broke apart the concrete and cutting torches sliced away the rebar. The old roadway was zippered up like a sheet of carpet. It didn’t take long until all that was left were the concrete supports and the girders. Beside it, the new bridge, not 50 feet away, radiated newness like a beacon.
When people learned I’d been photographing workers rigging explosives, discussion inevitably centered on their preference for the old bridge. It wasn’t just the style of bridge, I don’t think, merely that it was what they knew. And for many it was all they knew; the bridge was built 62 years ago, replacing what was an even worse structure. A few remembered the grand gala when the bridge was dedicated. Videos of its ribbon-cutting show politicians grandstanding and musicians bandstanding and people waving flags, long lines at the feeding tables and smiles all around, hi-ho the old bridge is dead, long live the new bridge. This time around the ribbon-cutting was a solemn occasion. There were no trumpets or tubas, no glad-handing. People spoke of war, of soldiers dying on foreign fields. Skies were as somber as the mood of the participants.
But one common theme ran through every thought, every sentence—they’ll miss the old bridge. The new one just isn’t the same.
Maybe it’s because the differences are so obvious. For months they formed a twin span, side by side, the old versus the new. Comparisons were inescapable. When it’s gone, I thought, memories will fade. The new bridge will become, simply, the bridge. Not new, not old, just there.
But for that to happen, the old bridge had to go. And on a sunny autumn afternoon, under clear skies, it did.
It was over in a second, a heartbeat registered by a shockwave as the concussion of the blast rolled down the valley. Little puffs of gray smoke blew out the girders, dropping them as neatly as if severing strings.
That’s it? someone said.
There aren’t many iron bridges left in Kansas, Pat Haverkamp, KDOT project inspector said, and now there’s one less.
What was left was a tangle of twisted beams wreathed in smoke. Somewhere down the line I heard a man say, I’m going to miss that old bridge.