Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Uncommon Partnership Saves Historic Bowstring Bridges

Preservationists, Hunters, and Government Officials Coordinate Efforts to Spare Bridges from Demolition

Uncommon Partnership Saves Historic Bridges | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Thanks to the coordinated efforts of an uncommon partnership, a series of century-old bowstring arch bridges still mark the historic McGilvray Road in La Crosse County. The McGilvray Road was built in 1892 to traverse a swampy, forested bottomland area along the Black River between La Crosse and Trempealeau Counties. Five bowstring truss bridges constructed between 1902 and 1908 shortened the route for rural residents traveling to La Crosse.

In 1953, a new highway was built just south of the old road, and a new bridge was constructed across the Black River. McGilvray Road became the alternate route, and the historic bridges faced an uncertain future

Ownership Question Creates Maintenance Headaches

Given its location in a river bottomland, McGilvray Road was (and still is) highly susceptible to flooding. The road's ownership was an ongoing controversy for years, so maintenance was a perpetual issue. However, some local residents eventually adopted and continued to maintain the road and bridges.

In 1947, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) became interested in the area around McGilvray Road, known as the McGilvray Bottoms. The natural conditions of the area were ideal for hunting. In 1957, the State began to acquire parts of the nearby 700-acre William Van Loon estate. Today, the protected Van Loon Wildlife Area includes almost 4,000 acres and is used primarily for pheasant hunting.

When the McGilvray Road and bridges were damaged by a flood in the 1970s, the road was closed to vehicles. Although the board of nearby Holland Township wanted to keep the McGilvray Road open for local landowners, hunters, and outdoor recreationists, the board had to give it up. In 1975, the township transferred the road and bridges (through quitclaim deed) to the DNR. The DNR then legally accepted the maintenance responsibility. However, little money was spent on bridge or road maintenance, and the original structures deteriorated.

National Register Listing Prompts Action to Save the Bridges

In 1980, local advocates Genevieve Koenig and David Henke from the La Crosse County Historical Society prepared a successful nomination of the McGilvray Road Truss Bridge Group to the National Register of Historic Places. A listing on the National Register requires local agencies to be notified of any demolition plans. This requirement would later serve an important role in saving the bridges from destruction.

In 1985, the DNR received word from a structural engineering firm that the McGilvray bridges were in very bad condition. One bowstring bridge had collapsed into the Black River. The engineering firm estimated that repairing the four remaining bowstring bridges for pedestrian use would cost $90,000. Repair and modification would cost $115,000, and new structures would cost $265,000. A sixth bridge, a rare wooden king post bridge that had been constructed in 1920, was rotten and unsalvageable. The DNR, believing it had no other choice, closed the road to pedestrian traffic in 1986.

In 1989, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson proposed $84,000 to dismantle and remove all but one of the remaining historic bridges due to liability issues and repair costs. Because of the National Register listing, the DNR issued a letter to the La Crosse County Historical Society to alert them to the situation. The letter let the historical society know they needed to come forward or lose the bridges.

Friends Group Comes to the Rescue

The La Crosse County Historical Society quickly organized the right expertise to solve the immediate problem with the McGilvray bridges. Phil Davey, president of Davy Engineering in La Crosse, was a board member at the historical society. He volunteered the time of one of his engineers, Craig Walkey, to evaluate the historic bridges. Walkey declared the bridges safe for pedestrian traffic and became an ardent supporter in the effort to save the bridges.

The La Crosse County Historical Society, the Preservation Alliance of La Crosse Inc., and other local citizens joined forces to save the historic structures. Together, these advocates formed the nonprofit Friends of McGilvray Road in 1989. The group soon learned that DNR staff wanted to save the bridges too.

Protest letters, appeals, petitions, and news releases all demanded that the bridges be saved. The collaborators issued 850 orange postcards to Wisconsin state legislators to urge protection of the bridges. The group's efforts worked. In August of that year, State Assembly member Brian Rude proposed a successful bill amendment that eliminated the $84,000 proposed for the bridges' demolition. The bill stated:

The Department of Natural Resources shall be prohibited from demolishing the bridges.

Restored Bridges Stand as Testament to an Uncommon Partnership

After the bridges were saved from demolition, the Friends of McGilvray Road group turned its attention to restoration efforts. The project moved ahead with concerted expertise from local preservationists, a DNR attorney, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Artists produced a series of limited-edition prints featuring the bridges and McGilvray Bottoms wildlife. The prints sold out and raised about $350,000 for the bridge restoration efforts.

Today, the restored bridges along McGilvray Road stand as a testament to the hard work of the Friends group and the many volunteers, hunters, and government employees who appreciated the serenity and historic value of the place enough to save it. The full story is chronicled in the 2001 book, The Historic McGilvray Bridges and The Friends Who Saved Them by Ray Kyro and the Friends of McGilvray Road. This book is available in the Wisconsin Historical Society Library.

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