Historic Iron Bridges

Spanning History
Denton County saves historic bridges, captures stories

January 23, 2014
By Liz Carmack

Denton County Judge Mary Horn with Denton County Historical Commission Chair Beth Stribling and Dent

Denton County Judge Mary Horn (center) with Denton County Historical Commission Chair Beth Stribling (left) and Denton County GIS Manager Rachel Crowe at the Denton County Administrative Complex, now home to two of the county’s historic truss bridges.

The Denton County Commissioners Court faced a dilemma in the early 1880s.

During the previous decade, the county’s population had jumped from 7,000 to more than 18,000 residents. Farmers who had once only planted corn and just enough vegetables to feed their families began turning wide swaths of prairie into the money-making crops of wheat and cotton.

The changes promised economic development and growth, yet the county’s potential wouldn’t be fulfilled unless residents could reliably cross Hickory Creek and other streams. A growing constituency demanded improved transportation routes to support increased commerce and to connect residents to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, Santa Fe and other railway lines just coming into the county.

So in 1882, the commissioners court appropriated $10,000 to construct eight bridges on Denton County’s major transportation arteries. The court thought the project was so important that it tapped the county’s Permanent School Fund to pay for it. In subsequent years through 1895, Denton County voters, through referendums, approved spending additional public funds to build more bridges. By 1910, the county had placed about 30 iron and steel bridges over waterways once spanned only by wooden bridges or by none at all, said DJ Taylor, Denton County Historical Commission member. Many were constructed in the Pratt through-truss style. The bridges became important symbols of modernity that provided reliable crossings to the nearby communities that depended upon them.

Although the county lost some of its historical bridges during the past 100-plus years, recent efforts by the commissioners court and local preservationists have helped save many of its tangible links to the past.

Avoiding the Scrap Heap

The impetus to rescue the relics initially came from Mildred Hawk, a Denton County Historical Commission member who began researching historic bridges in the late 1990s and chaired the commission’s Historic Bridges and Structures Committee during the following decade. Hawk, now deceased, spearheaded bridge preservation projects and created a brochure featuring photos and details of more than a dozen bridges throughout Denton County. When County Judge Mary Horn took office during her first term in 2002, she caught the bridge preservation bug, and the commissioners court began working cooperatively with state and local organizations to save more.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told the county in 2002 that it was time to replace a number of its old, one-lane bridges for safety reasons. Denton County took advantage of TxDOT’s Bridge Replacement Program to address the problem. Through the program, which continues today (see sidebar), the county provided 10% matching funds to address bridges needing attention. The state provided 10% and the federal government paid the remaining 80%.

The city of Denton had already helped the county preserve its turn-of-the-century County Line Road Bridge over Denton Creek by adopting and moving it to North Lakes Park in 2001. There, it became a pedestrian bridge situated over a willow-lined creek beyond earshot of nearby Windsor Road. The tranquil setting makes the 1920s bridge a perfect spot for a shady picnic. According to a newspaper report from the time, Hawk got the ball rolling, with the city, the historical commission and the country working together on the project. Denton paid $131,000 to move the 41,000-pound structure.

After that success, Horn thought it was time to see what other partners might want to adopt bridges to keep them off the scrap heap.

We had scheduled (historic) bridges for replacement in 2003 and 2004 and I thought, there’s all this construction of new facilities across the county - new schools, new city halls - maybe somebody could use one or more of these bridges in their landscape, Horn said.

The county offered several historic bridges for adoption to municipalities, school districts and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which owns some of the land adjacent to county waterways. The "adoptive parent" needed only to pay the cost to move the bridge, make it accessible to the public in its new location and pay to erect a county historical marker at the site.

County staff provided valuable assistance and coordinated with the bridge’s new owners to help get them placed. The cooperative effort lead to 13 of the county’s old bridges finding new homes, said Beth Stribling, Denton County Historical Commission chair.

Without the commissioners court’s action, we wouldn’t have any of those bridges, said Stribling.

Taylor agreed. We’re all very lucky and grateful that Judge Horn and the commissioners court have stood with us on this effort to save these bridges. We’re very fortunate.

Serving New Purposes

Person walking on a bridge

A few of the adopted bridges removed from county roads are awaiting placement at new parks and other facilities that are soon to be developed, but 10 bridges are now easily accessible to the public.

One of those is the 80-foot-long Pratt through-truss style Rector Road Bridge which was built in 1907-1908 to carry travelers over Clear Creek outside Sanger. The Denton County School District adopted the structure, which now bears the foot traffic of Guyer High School students and teachers crossing an environmentally sensitive area between the school’s main campus and its athletic facilities.

Horn was impressed when she learned of the repurposed historic bridge’s expanded significance in its new home. "I was at the dedication of the historical marker for the bridge and the principal said ’we just got the prototype of our new yearbook. On the front cover is a picture of the bridge and that’s what their yearbook is called - The Bridge.’ (Symbolizing) the bridge between your high school years and the rest of our life," Horn recalled.

Believing that the county should also incorporate historic bridges into its own facilities, Horn proposed moving two small, steel bridges to the new Denton County Administrative Complex. The white painted iron trusses of the 1903 Donald Road Bridge, which once spanned South Hickory Creek near Krum, and the 1923 Gregory Road Bridge, which once crossed Duck Creek near Sanger, now provide a focal point in the 41-acre Denton County Administrative Complex in Denton. The historical commission will dedicate Denton County Historical markers for each this spring.

The two small bridges - both just over 50 feet in length and laid end to end - span a landscaped waterway behind the County Health Department. The area features native grasses, Black-eyed Susans, roses and picnic tables. The bridges and a crushed granite trail connect the department to other county offices.

The two at our facility add to the beauty of the complex and give it some character that otherwise wouldn’t be there, Horn said.

Tracking Down & Sharing History

Three Women from Decades Ago on a Bridge

Stribling said preservation efforts now focus on preserving the bridges’ histories and sharing their stories with the public. The histories of many of the moved county bridges hadn’t been documented. "I was very concerned," she said. "I knew the bridges were being dispersed throughout the county and no one was keeping track of their history."

Old bridges that remain on rural county roads and on private land are also being catalogued and added to the commission’s list for preservation, Stribling said. She’s received help pinpointing their exact locations from Denton County GIS Manager Rachel Crowe.

Commission volunteers dig through historic records not only for details about a bridge’s construction and its architectural significance, but to uncover its importance to the particular county residents who used it.

Efforts to designate county historical markers for a few of the adopted bridges are on hold until those structures land in their permanent homes. We’re hoping that within a year we’ll have the county historical markers for all of them, Stribling said. Eventually, we’ll create a new brochure that shows the historic bridge trail in the county showing where the bridges were and where they are now.

Meanwhile, the commission’s brochure, The Historical Iron Bridges of Denton County, provides a good overview of 17 of the county’s historic bridge bounty. Since its publication, the county has identified three other old bridges to add to the list. Information about the bridges is also available from the commission’s website. Two of the bridges featured remain in their original locations and are accessible to the public, although they are long-since retired from service to trucks and cars.

The Elm Fork Bridge is one. When FM 428 was widened in 1990, the 1922 Elm Fork Bridge was decommissioned but remained in place as vehicle traffic was re-routed over a new concrete bridge built a stone’s throw away. The 250-foot steel truss bridge, which traverses the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, is now a striking landmark along the Ray Roberts Lake State Park Greenbelt. The county historical commission submitted an application to the Texas Historical Commission in 2013 for a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark marker. The main span of the two-lane bridge is a 100-foot-long Pratt through-truss. Its east and west spans are Warren pony trusses of 70 feet each.

Old Alton Bridge

The county’s oldest remaining Pratt-truss iron bridge, Old Alton Bridge was built in 1884 over Hickory Creek at Copper Canyon Road and that’s where it remains today. The roadway was rerouted in 1997. The 145-foot bridge once carried travelers on the main route from Denton to Dallas. Harkening to its earliest days, it now bears the feet and hooves of hikers and equestrians enjoying a trail that connects parks in the Lake Lewisville area. Old Alton Bridge joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and also has a Recorded Texas Landmark designation from the Texas Historical Commission.

Capturing this history and sharing it with the public in the growing county is paramount to preservationists. The county’s historic bridges help newcomers to Denton County connect with and learn about its roots, Taylor said.

It helps to understand how the county developed, he added. You know what the bridges were used for and how important they were to the county. They share a little bit of history you can actually touch and see.

Practical reuse of the historic structures is an added benefit.

People appreciate when you can recycle things from the past for use for the future and maintain their integrity and beauty, Horn said. It’s just a nice thing to see.

Bridge Preservation Resources

Rehabbing a historic bridge - or taking it out of service and repurposing it - can cost millions of dollars. A limited amount of federal and state matching funds are available to counties that have bridges that qualify for attention under the federal Bridge Replacement Program, administered through the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

TxDOT inspects every bridge in Texas once every two years. "We evaluate the condition of the bridges and determine which ones are eligible for the Highway Bridge Program," said Michael O’Toole, TxDOT’s director of Project Development in its Bridges Division. Through the program, about 130 bridges considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete receive attention each year.

The agency works with local governments to help them to safely maximize the use of a bridge before replacing it. We’re designing a prototype management plan based on national guidance to help the county governments understand what they can do to extend the service life for their bridges, said Bruce Jensen, supervisor of TxDOT’s Historical Studies Branch of the Environmental Affairs Division.

While the Texas Historical Commission (THC) doesn’t have a bridge preservation program per se, it treats bridges just as it does other historical resources, said Linda Henderson, a historian with the THC’s History Programs Division.

"THC hopes to work with TxDOT in reaching out to counties to help identify the bridges that are most important to the local residents and in helping them determine what opportunities there might be for protecting them," Henderson said. "We are hoping to develop a guidance document, webinar and other forms of training specific to bridges."

Resources to assist with historic bridge preservation

Details about the Denton County Historic Iron/Steel Bridges Project and lessons learned by the county historical commission are featured on THC’s blog.

Highway Bridge Program: Improving the Safety of Texas Bridges and flowcharts showing the process for determining the best use of a historic bridge are available by request.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned on the Preservation and Rehabilitation of Historic Bridges (PDF), by The National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

The Historic Bridge Foundation

Author’s note: Sources used for this story include historical marker research narratives provided by the Denton County Historical Commission; "Marker, plaque to be dedicated at Guyer High School," Denton Record-Chronicle, April 4, 2006; "Historic iron structure is relocated from western part of county to Denton," Denton Record-Chronicle, May 10, 200; A Guide to the Research and Documentation of Historic Bridges in Texas, Texas Department of Transportation, Environmental Studies Division, Historical Studies Branch, 2004; E Dale Odom, "DENTON COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 10, 2013, published by the Texas State Historical Association.

This article originally appeared in the Jan.-February 2014 issue of County magazine, published by the Texas Association of Counties.

Denton County Historic Bridges
Submitted by Tracey Silverman on Monday, April 1, 2013 - 10:28 am


Statewide Preservation Plan

Old Alton Bridge from Far Away

Old Alton Bridge. Photo by Denton County Historical Commission.

Denton County Historical Commission has embarked on a project to identify, catalog information and history, and promote their iron and steel bridges; educating owners, residents and tourists on how these structures are important clues to the county’s cultural landscapes and heritage. We learned about this project through Denton County Historical Commission’s annual report, which tracks their previous year’s activities, projects and impact, and which all County Historical Commissions are required to submit to the Texas Historical Commission. Read about this fascinating project that advances Goal 1: Survey and Online Inventory and Goal 2: Emphasize Cultural Landscapes of the Statewide Plan.

Project Name: Denton County Historic Iron/Steel Bridge Project

Location: Denton County
Region: Lakes Trail

Project Description

The Denton County Historic Iron/Steel Bridge Project was designed to provide a comprehensive collection of information about the county’s historic iron bridges. Of the 17 historic iron bridges in the county, 15 were replaced with new bridges and relocated to other parts of the county or region, and 2 have been left in place and converted to use as pedestrian, equestrian or bike trails in park settings. Two additional bridges were discovered during the survey effort. Phase I of the project we developed an updated report for all historic iron bridges in Denton County remaining at original sites or relocated to new sites; and provided Denton County Historical Commission (DCHC) marker information to custodians of each eligible bridge. In Phase II, the focus shifts to heritage tourism. The bridge project’s final goals will be to develop a brochure that will announce the trail of historic iron/steel bridges in Denton County with two maps, one that will track the original locations over Denton’s creeks and one that now directs the public to the new setting for the bridges.

Using a list of bridge relocations and ownership provided by Denton County Road and Bridges staff, we developed a list of contacts in which each new owner received a letter informing them of the project, a survey form for them to complete, and a DCHC Marker brochure and application. The purpose of the letter and survey was to gather information about the new site, photos of the bridge at the site, any history in the area, and to ask if the owner would sponsor a DCHC marker. If needed, DCHC marker committee would provide assistance with the research and historical narrative. The 2 bridges that have not been moved may be eligible for an Official Texas Historical Markers, one of which - the Old Alton Bridge - has already received a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL) designation and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. DCHC markers have already been purchased for three of the relocated bridges. All bridge owners will be invited to an informational meeting in 2013, giving them an opportunity to learn more about all of the bridges of Denton County, how a historical marker can be used to educate the public about the county’s early transportation history, and to provide an opportunity to connect with other cities and towns who now own historic bridges.

What community needs/issues did your project or program address?

Elm Fork Bridge

Elm Fork Bridge. Photo by Denton County Historical Commission.

We knew the historic iron/steel bridges had been saved but did not know where they were relocated and very little about their history, save for the creeks they crossed and road names. The county commissioners court and county staff were involved in this process and were already saving the physical bridges, but saving the history became important. As we saw that many of the historic Denton County bridges were being moved and placed in new locations, we became concerned that the DCHC did not actually have a list of these bridges, their new address and that within DCHC files, we did not have any documented history in the form of a written historical narrative on each specific bridge. We knew little about the people that lived on the roads and how the bridges served the communities. Also, we needed to learn more about the bridge structures. Plus all of this research should be readily available to the public. We also wanted to know about the bridges in their new settings.

In our files, we did have National Register nominations for Old Alton Bridge, Rector Road and Gregory Road Bridges. Gregory has since been removed from the National Register list due to failure to follow procedures for relocating the bridge. We will resubmit the application when the site at Denton County Administrative Complex is finalized. This was another concern for the marker committee, that Gregory Road lost the National Register listing due to lack of clear identification of whose role it was to save this bridge.

The marker committee recognized that there were some things we could do for our bridges. We could keep track of the bridges, provide education through the marker program, focus on the concept of a Historic Bridge Trail, inform the public about the Denton County Historic Bridges and bring together the custodians of these bridges through at least one initial meeting. In 2012, the committee formalized the bridge project by setting goals. Our bridge project prior to this had been sponsoring the RTHL application for the Old Alton Bridge (2010). The marker committee has a small budget but we were able to sponsor and pay for the marker from our funds. Most recently we added a second National Register plaque on the bridge, closer to the RTHL marker, paid for by the marker committee.

Who were all the partners involved? How did they contribute to the project’s success?
This project would have never occurred without the leadership of Mildred Hawks, now deceased, who was a longtime member of the Denton County Historical Commission and an advocate for the preservation of the bridges. The leadership of the Denton County Commissioners and Judge Mary Horn were instrumental. We were helped with this task by Denton County Commissioner Andy Eads and Road and Bridges Project Coordinator Robyn Davis, who provided us with a list of the adopted bridges. Rachel Yeager, project coordinator, is on the marker committee and is also Denton County GIS Manager. Her access to information has been a valuable resource for us. She was responsible for contacting and sending packets to the bridge custodians and any required follow-up.

How did you fund this project?
Funding for makers come from many sources, between the Denton County Commission, the DCMC, and cities and towns that own bridges. We are meeting with bridge owners and asking for their sponsorship of the markers. Funding the brochure will possibly come from hotel-motel funds. We will also develop a website for the bridge trial, part of the Denton County Historical Marker website, which was a project of the Marker Committee.

What challenges did you encounter? How did you overcome them?
Part of the success of this project is dependent on finding funding sources for the markers. We have found that the towns and cities who have the bridges are very appreciative and have pride in being a part of the preservation of the history of Denton County. In addition to finding funding, a problem for us is finding researchers and writers for historical narratives. We would like to develop a group of volunteers with these skills.

City governments do not move very fast. Some of the parks where bridges are to be relocated are not even developed. This will not stop us from producing print pieces highlighting the bridge trails but we will be slowed down. Our time frame will be extended beyond the year of 2013.

Based on your experience with this project, what tips or pieces of advice can you share with the preservation community?Unidentified bridge in Denton County

Unidentified bridge in Denton County. Photo courtesy of Denton County Museums.

The most important thing is to remember to be patient. You will learn a lot about your county’s history - whatever the project. All of the bridges represent so much of Denton County’s history and it is exciting for us to learn about the communities they served, the people who lived on the roads near the bridges and how the bridges are now are serving new communities with new uses. When telling this story, we believe it is important that people learn about where the bridges were originally located. That is the message that the Denton County Historical Markers and THC markers will bring to the public. With the brochure, we want to connect the iron bridges trail in the county, giving the public access to the maps - one showing the new location and one showing their original crossings over Denton’s Creeks.

Just do it!

For More Information

Contact Name: Beth Stribling, Denton County Historical Commission Chairperson
Email Beth Stribling
Organization: Denton County Historical Commission
Website Historical Commission

Visit the Historic Iron Bridge Tour page.