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The Big Blue Bridge in Portland will come down, INDOT official says

PORTLAND, Ind. (WANE) – The Big Blue Bridge in Portland, a steel truss structure built in 1914, will be demolished this spring, according to a spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Transportation.

The INDOT official responded to an email from WANE 15 and said Portland officials weren’t interested in saving the historic bridge that replaced a wrought iron bowstring bridge built in 1870.

“As for the Big Blue Bridge in Portland, it is still set for demolition in spring 2023. We hosted a meeting at our East Central District Office in January where we sat down with the Portland Group and other officials. Here we discussed the potential relocation of the Big Blue Bridge structure, however there was no interest from Portland officials,” said Kyleigh Cramer, spokesman for the INDOT’s East Central District based in Greenfield.

“Once the existing bridge is removed, it will be replaced through a $3,291,496 contract,” Cramer said. What happens to the bridge once it is demolished is up to Milestone, an Indiana-based contractor, Cramer said in a phone call.

“Residents had until March 10 to submit a plan to try to raise money and allow the bridge to stay somewhere else. We didn’t hear from them,” Cramer said. “Also local officials are not interested in saving the bridge.”

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Jenny Bricker, a local mother of six, is one of two people leading the fight to save the bridge, a single span constructed over the Salamonie River during a time when many people used horses for transportation.

It holds a place in her heart and apparently 2,400 other area residents in or around Portland, a town of 6,000 people, who signed a petition, Help Save the Blue Bridge!, Bricker said. Raising the nearly half a million dollars in six weeks INDOT requested was a task that the county commissioners weren’t comfortable with “being responsible for,” she added.

The hope was to get the bridge in parts after hiring a company with cranes to move it off the abutments, take it down, number it and take it someplace to store it,” Bricker said. The steel truss bridge, so common at one time in the state, is still around, but this is the last one in the Jay County.

Bricker crossed the bridge every day on the way to East Elementary School, she said, and her children ranging in age from three to 23 are still catching minnows under the bridge, fishing for crawdads and at this time of year, playing with ice chunks. People have gotten engaged or married on the bridge, had their first kiss there.

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Bricker’s favorite story is of mothers who took their kids to “duck their heads” in the river, a ritual that has continued for decades, Bricker said. The Big Blue Bridge used to be green, the pale green you often see with rust showing until it got its current color.

According to INDOT data, the single span concrete-through-arch is about one-tenth of a mile from Portland’s downtown. It’s on U.S. 27 and is a principal urban artery that gets 7,300 vehicles per day. Not quite 10% of traffic is commercial.

Repairs were made in 1997 and 2012, but now the wearing surface is in poor condition – rated 4 out of 9, INDOT documents say. INDOT also stated that the existing steel railing and lamp posts are peeling and exposing the steel underneath, while “the existing masonry coating on the arch and columns is discolored, cracked and starting the peel. The city of Portland also desires improvement to the appearance of the bridge as the bridge serves as a gateway to the historic downtown area.”

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The documents also state that the “remaining bridge elements are in satisfactory or good condition – rated a 6 or 7 out of 9.”

If the state were to do nothing, the state said “the existing overlay will continue to deteriorate. This continued deterioration will spread and accelerate deterioration of the underlying bridge deck floor system, requiring a more extensive rehabilitation to address the condition in the future. Without repairs, the estimated service life of the existing wearing surface is five years.”

COVID put a cramp into saving the bridge, Bricker said, and her preference would be to keep the bridge and use it on the Jay Randolph Exercise Trail for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“You can’t get these kind of bridges back,” Bricker said. It will be blasted, sunk to the river bed, cut in pieces and sold for scrap,” But, she said, “the process is pretty much coming to an end unless there’s a miracle.

As reported by WANE 15