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Wilson Bridge spans American history

June 23, 2003|by JESSICA DAVIS

jessicad@herald-mail.com

Editor's Note: Washington County was the first and is the oldest of 31 counties in the United States to be named after the country's first president, George Washington. This weekly series each Monday seeks out other places and items in the county that hold the title of "the oldest."




Washington County's oldest stone bridge has endured a near-demolition from both Mother Nature and a wrecking ball in its 194-year history to remain a standing tribute to the westward expansion of early America.

Wilson Bridge, seven miles west of Hagerstown on U.S. 40 beside Hagerstown Speedway, connects "the eastern wilderness to the western seaboard," according to a plaque near the bridge. Built in 1819, the bridge served as a gateway to the West for trade and commerce.

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Around that same year, a road was in construction that would allow continuous travel between Baltimore and Cumberland, Md. The road, later known as National Pike, was the first federally mandated and funded road in the United States.

Conococheague Creek ran through the middle of the proposed road and a bridge was needed to connect the two sides of the river.

On Dec. 31, 1817, the Hagers-Town and Conococheague Turnpike Road Co., which financed the bridge, awarded a contract to Silas Harry to construct it at a cost of $12,000, according to documents.

Harry also built the Van Metre Ford Stone Bridge that crosses Opequon Creek in Martinsburg, W.Va., in 1832, according to www.structurae.de, the online International Database and Gallery of Structures.

Construction of Wilson Bridge was completed on June 20, 1819, and the bridge was named after the nearby village of Wilson. The five-arch structure was replaced in 1936 by a higher, 370-foot bridge but continued to handle traffic until 1972, when flooding from Hurricane Agnes seriously damaged the bridge and forced it to be closed to vehicles.

The deterioration of the bridge - culminating with the collapse of an entire section - caused a movement, led by the Washington County Committee of the Maryland Historical Trust, to save the historical arch.

In July 1976, the bridge was nominated as part of the "Stone Bridges of Washington County" group for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was opposed by the County and State Highway Administration, according to documents found in the Miller House library.

In a letter to committee member Adele Donnelly, former Washington County Administrator Barry Teach wrote that the county believed "if any single bridge were listed, all stone bridges in the county would have to be listed. Under no circumstances is the Board willing to accept listing of any stone bridge with this condition."

Donnelly said she had been driving over the bridge for years and loved it.

"When I heard they were going to tear it down, I said 'over my dead body,'" Donnelly recalled.

After numerous letters from the Maryland Historical Trust, State Historic Preservation Officer J. Rodney Little agreed to nominate the bridge separately in 1981. In March of that year, the Governor's Consulting Committee on the National Register approved the nomination and on March 15, 1982, Wilson Bridge officially was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite the honor, the committee still faced costs of about $600,000 to restore the bridge for the sole purpose of improving its appearance. To improve the bridge for safe use of vehicles would cost close to $2 million, according to documents found at the Miller House.

County officials declined to pay the substantial price, citing the danger of flooding and hazard to canoeists, according to documents. The Washington County Commissioners then offered Wilson Bridge as a donation to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The offer was denied by officials, who cited the expense of the bridge's upkeep coupled with no opportunity for revenue, according to the documents.

Because the bridge is not on a battlefield or other National Park Service property, tax dollars were not able to be used in the restoration efforts.

"I had even given up hope, as badly as we wanted to save it," said John Frye, a local historian who was chairman of the Washington County Historical Advisory Committee for the restoration of Wilson Bridge.

"Some would say it was an 'eleventh-hour' save; I would go so far as to say it was about 11:55," he said.

Frye credits LeRoy Myers Sr. with the physical work and Donnelly with the behind-the-scenes effort to save the bridge.

The future of Wilson Bridge looked grim until Myers, a local mason, volunteered to have his company, LeRoy E. Myers Inc., restore the bridge for a bid of $159,230 in 1983. At the next County Commissioners meeting on Aug. 9, Myers and members of the Maryland Historical Trust committee presented the bid to the commissioners, along with a proposal to put the $30,000 slated for the demolition of the bridge into a restoration fund instead, according to documents.

The commissioners agreed and the renovation of the bridge was set in motion in November 1983. Work was completed the following fall and the bridge was rededicated in October 1984.

The bridge currently is not open to traffic but is used by pedestrians and fishermen. A small park and picnic area are situated alongside the bridge. Park hours are 9 a.m. to sunset, according to the posted sign.

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