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Failed river rescue

January 18, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

It was never a question of whether Price's Bridge, a crumbling, 19th-century, five-arch, stone bridge over Conococheague Creek, should be saved.

It's a matter of whether or not it can be saved.

Built in 1822, Price's Bridge was the northern-most bridge over the Conococheague in Washington County. It is a snapshot of what the county's road system was like in the 19th century. Though it withstood Hurricane Agnes in 1972, it was damaged and the bridge hasn't been used since the storm.

"We're trying to treasure our stone-arch bridges, but there are certain situations - I believe Price's Bridge is one - where it's just not a valuable use of public funds to restore a bridge, when you have so many demands on the revenue for existing infrastructure," said Gary W. Rohrer, director of special projects for the Washington County,

In the early 1990s, the bridge's prospects were promising - at first - when a massive effort was launched to restore Price's Bridge. The idea was to make the bridge into an entry-exit point for people wishing to use it access the Conococheague, said local historian and author Pat Schooley, a Herald-Mail contributor who was part of the effort.

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But the project failed, and now county officials say the bridge is subject to demolition by neglect.

Not just a bridge

Washington County has more stone bridges than any other county in Maryland, said Merry Stinson, architectural historian and founding member of the Antietam Creek Watershed Association.

Stinson said stone bridges were eventually phased out in the early 20th century when builders started using cement.

Price's Bridge was built to replace an earlier wooden structure, Stinson said. The bridge spans the Conococheague Creek, a free-flowing stream that originates in Pennsylvania and empties into the Potomac River near Williamsport.

Rohrer said the bridge was taken "off system" after sustaining damage during Hurricane Agnes.

Renovation project fails

Rohrer was Washington County's director of public works when the effort was launched in the 1990s.

Schooley said, organizationally, the project was a mess.

Schooley and Rohrer agreed it wasn't clear who was heading up the project - local volunteers, county officials or the state government.

The project had the support of the county and state government, as well as local historians. The manpower was there. People were willing to donate labor and materials and grant money - a total of $300,000, according to documents presented to the Washington County Board of Commissioners. But Rohrer said funding was simply that - pledges. Schooley said the project never actually had money in the bank.

Still, work was started on the project. Members of the Maryland National Guard stripped away the bridge's top layer of asphalt, but that's as far as things got.

Rohrer and Schooley said bureaucracies at the state level caused the project to stall, leaving the work unfinished.

The county pulled the plug on the project in 1996, Rohrer said.

Brush now grows in place of asphalt.

Bad timing?

Rohrer said the idea to restore the bridge came at a time when the county was in the midst of an economic slump. He said the County Commissioners were cutting budgets and other projects to stay in the black.

In July 1995, the county was forced to take over the Washington County Sanitary District, which was in $57 million in debt, Rohrer said.

"The taxpayers can't afford to save every structure," Rohrer said.

He estimated that today, the cost to restore the bridge today is between $2 million and $3 million.

The county has no plans to restore Price's Bridge. "We can't justify that kind of funding now," Rohrer said.

Schooley was more optimistic about the bridge's fate. She said she would support any new efforts to restore the bridge.

"It went through a hurricane and it's still standing," Schooley said. "It hasn't fallen down yet."

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