Nevada County’s Bridgeport covered bridge awaits repairs

Three years ago, California state parks workers in Nevada County made an alarming discovery. The wooden arches of the 152-year-old Bridgeport Bridge – billed as the longest covered single span in the world – were warping dangerously.

The picturesque bridge on the South Yuba River, a relic from the Gold and Silver Rush eras, has since stood unused behind a chain-link fence, a quiet reminder of the financial and management troubles faced by California’s state parks system.

Now the quest by local activists to get the bridge repaired may finally succeed, thanks to $40 million in “deferred maintenance” funds that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed allocating to the state Department of Parks and Recreation in his latest budget. In unveiling the proposal last week, Brown said the money would start whittling away at what parks officials say is a $1 billion-plus list of needed repairs at California’s 280 state parks and recreation areas.

Parks officials say the message is clear: The beleaguered department is being given the chance to redeem itself.

The governor also is advocating a $14 million boost for the state parks operations budget, an amount that should allow the department to keep all state parks open and operating at current levels this year.

Rocked by revelations two years ago that department officials were hoarding millions in cash even as they contemplated closing 70 parks, the parks and recreation department has struggled to right itself. With his funding proposal, “the governor has given us a really strong signal,” state parks director Anthony Jackson, a Brown appointee, said last week. “We are taking this as a first step, our opportunity to show the governor and the Legislature we can handle that money properly.”

Jackson was appointed a year ago after former director Ruth Coleman resigned amid an investigation into the fiscal mismanagement, and after several other high-ranking parks officials were fired or disciplined for their roles in the scandal. Investigations by The Bee and the state determined the department had been holding more than $20 million off the books. The department was allowed to keep that money, and since has spent almost all of it: half for deferred maintenance projects and half to match donations from nonprofits and other organizations that contribute to park operations.

A spokesman for the governor, H.D. Palmer, said the additional $40 million proposed in the budget reflects a push by the governor to put more money into fixing aging infrastructure statewide. The department is not being given free rein. The Legislature has tapped a new commission, called Parks Forward, to conduct an independent review and come up with suggestions for improving state park operations and financing.

“What is the thing that really makes parks sustainable?” said Ken Wiseman, the group’s executive director. “What (does) it really cost to run a park? There isn’t that confidence. We have to get that confidence back.”

Parks Forward commissioned an initial report last month saying the department’s accounting is antiquated and that its list of deferred maintenance is not updated with solid cost estimates.

The Legislature has yet to say whether it supports Brown’s proposal for deferred maintenance funding. Jackson, the new parks director, said the department nevertheless has begun reassessing conditions at parks, historic sites and recreational facilities statewide, looking for problems that need immediate fixing. He said if the department gets the $40 million, the priority would be given to repairs that keep a park or facilities from being shut down, as well as issues affecting public safety and preservation of at-risk cultural or historic resources.

“We intend to apply it at the most needy spots immediately,” Jackson said. “If you have a cultural resource that is about to collapse on you, that would take priority.”

Jackson acknowledged the postcard-pretty bridge with the sugar pine shakes in the hills of Nevada County is “on my mind.” He has met with Nevada County officials and bridge advocates, and he said “they gave a powerful presentation.” But he said it is too early to know if the bridge would get some of the additional funding.

Preliminary estimates by the parks department indicate it will cost $1.1 million to fully restore and reopen the Bridgeport Bridge. The department has qualified for a federal grant for half of that amount, but has yet to come up with the rest.

Members of the South Yuba River Park Association and South Yuba River Citizens League are growing concerned as the months pass. The warping of the bridge’s massive timbers has worsened noticeably in the last year, they say, causing them to fear that the bridge could collapse in a major wind or snowstorm.

In recent weeks, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and city councils in Nevada City and Grass Valley passed resolutions urging the state to repair the bridge. Local officials say the historic span attracts bridge fans and tourists from around the country, and even from Japan, Germany and other countries, helping pump up the Nevada County economy.

State parks officials have agreed, as an interim step, to spend $220,000 later this year for some basic stabilization work. That should protect the span from a catastrophic failure, they said, but probably will not make it safe enough to reopen.

That work is not scheduled to happen until fall. Hank Weston, a Nevada County supervisor, said he wants the state to move up its timeline.

“They need to do it; start the stabilization now,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Once the bridge is stabilized, advocates plan to keep pressure on the state to do the bigger, permanent fix. They have launched a “Save Our Bridge” fundraising campaign, and have been cooperating with the parks department to cobble together funding.

The fix itself might be tricky. Cast-iron tension rods have stretched and are no longer holding key bridge pieces in alignment. Two-foot-thick Douglas fir timbers have pulled away from each other. Key support beams have bowed as much as 5 inches.

Local parks superintendent Matt Green said the state is consulting with experts on how to design a “cost-effective” fix while maintaining the span’s status as a historic landmark. “We will find a solution that hopefully will keep it here for the next 150 years,” he said.

That the 229-foot-long combination truss and arch bridge has lasted this long is a tribute to its sturdy engineering, advocates say. They count only nine covered wooden bridges left in California. Many get washed out by floodwaters. This one is the oldest.

The bridge was constructed in 1862 by David Wood, who owned a sawmill in the area. It served as a key river passage for what was called the Virginia Turnpike, the wagon trail from Marysville to the silver mines near Virginia City, Nevada. Toll prices weren’t cheap. Carts pulled by eight horses, mules or oxen had to pay $6. A one-horse buggy paid $1 to cross. Horse riders paid 50 cents. People on foot paid 25 cents. Hog owners paid 5 cents per hog.

The bridge later served motorized cars taking the northern, lower-elevation route through the mountains.

As a key attraction in South Yuba River State Park for the last 45 years, the bridge has become a pilgrimage destination for bridge lovers. Standing inside, you can close your eyes and hear the hooves of the mules and the creak of wagons headed to the mines, said Dave Anderson, president of the South Yuba River Park Association.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, “an engineering feat, just a wonder of the world in my mind.”