Townsend is getting its bridges back slowly but surely as workers started construction on the second surviving swinging bridge in town.
A crew from Herrco Inc. Construction Services began adding steps down to the swinging bridge near Kinzel Springs on Tuesday, part of a larger effort to restore the entire bridge for pedestrian use this fall.
Herrco Vice President and Project Manager Seth Herrera was working behind caution tape on the side of East Lamar Alexander Parkway on Wednesday, cutting new parts for concrete stairs leading down to the bridge.
“We’re here just to do the stairs, railing and landing,” Herrera said. His father, Fernando Herrera, the construction company’s owner, stood on the bridge with employees Oscar Gonzalez and Isaiah Navarro.
The crew had been working on the nearby “Townsend Sunshine” covered bridge, a project that has captured the city’s attention and is set to officially open to walking and biking traffic before the year is out.
Seth Herrera said his crew received a call from Assistant Highway Superintendent/Engineer Chico Messer as they wrapped up work on the covered bridge.
Messer wanted the crew to bring their expertise less than half a mile up the highway.
The crew is building the concrete steps before the weather gets a chance to worsen conditions. Previously, wooden steps lead down to the bridge, but highway officials said the soil and the steps didn’t work well together and, like much of the rest of the bridge, have succumbed to heavy weathering and rot.
But the Blount County Highway Department is well on its way to reversing that.
“There will be a new composite of board going down and a bit more cabling. Safety things,” County Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick said in a phone interview.
He said the stairs are only the first step in the repair process.
“That’s going on there on-site. Off-site, back here at out operations center, we have started getting the rest of the material in and we’ll be fabricating the new design of the ... planks that go across,” Headrick said. “But they’ll have a better design to them. They’re safer and they’ll last a whole lot longer.”
Construction on this northernmost swinging bridge comes more than three months on the heels of repairs that reopened the Dark Island swinging bridge in the middle of the town. It also had been closed for safety concerns.
After outcry from the community and careful assessment from the county, the popular bridge got the care it needed: several new planks, repaired guard fencing and a few other tweaks.
The Kinzel Springs bridge will take more effort and more materials. It is higher above Litter River waters and repairmen will have be harnessed to the bridge with two cables, Headrick said.
Repairs on the bridge have started, but when will they be finished?
Provided the weather stays clear and there are no significant hitches in the process, Headrick said he hopes the bridge will be finished by Thanksgiving.
Getting to this point has not been easy. Officials are still digging through county records, trying to figure out precisely who owns what land and what that will mean when the bridge is open to foot traffic once again.
But optimism outweighs complications, according to Headrick, and with Sunshine quickly on its way to a ribbon cutting, Townsend will have gained back just a few of the seven bridges it has lost to floods and age over the years.
“If we could get the weather and everything to fall into place, what a great story to be able to turn it over to locals and any travelers who want to come to visit on Thanksgiving,” Headrick said.
Though the bridges may be less vital to public transportation than the constant road repairs the county has been managing this summer, Headrick agreed the bridges and their upkeep represent an ongoing relationship with Townsend.
“I really, really appreciate the patience of the folks in Townsend,” Headrick said. He said this was especially true in the case of the covered bridge project. “I was very candid, up front and honest with them: I intend to make this happen. But I can’t rush into it. And I apologized for that ... but it’s got to be done right.”
Headrick said safety was his top priority in bridge repair, second only to the longevity of the final product.
Some citizens have called for the swinging bridge to become an officially recognized historic location.