Madison Monday: Blowing stuff up

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Last week in Madison there was a festival-like atmosphere down by the river, before the festival season has even kicked off.  All that was lacking was food and good beer.  But if you’d stumbled onto this gathering, you might have wondered why everyone was staring at the bridge.

View from a boat on the river

The Madison-Milton bridge (whether you call it Milton-Madison or Madison-Milton kind of depends on which side of the river you’re on) was built in 1929.  You can see footage from the original bridge dedication ceremony here, including the wonderful footage of the parade that happened down Main St.  The Milton-Madison bridge is the only way to cross the Ohio River for a 26 mile stretch.  Upstream, the nearest crossing is the Markland Dam and downstream, you have to go all the way to Louisville.  The bridge provides the shortest distance route between Indianapolis, Indiana and Lexington, Kentucky.

What makes a bridge beautiful?  I remember the first time I saw the Milton-Madison bridge, I was mostly unimpressed.  It’s certainly not the Golden Gate Bridge.  Nor is it the Roebling bridge which I grew up admiring in Cincinnati.  Many folks think the Roebilng bridge looks like the Brooklyn Bridge, but it’s actually the other way around.  The Roebling bridge was built first, and then Roebling’s son built the Brooklyn Bridge later.

The Milton-Madison bridge is not a suspension bridge like the Roebling or the Brooklyn bridge (it’s a truss bridge), but it grows on you.  It has going for it a beautiful location.  It’s certainly not pretentious.  Thankfully, no one’s suggested painting it blue or purple or yellow.  It looks beautiful seen from a boat on the river, and gorgeous when you’re coming around the bend down into the river valley from Milton on the Kentucky side.  And in the end if you live in Madison long enough, it becomes your bridge, a lovely part of the landscape of the river valley.

New structure being built on Kentucky side

It is a bridge that after almost 200 years needs some work.  Essentially, though the bridge pilings are okay, the infrastructure on top of the pilings is in bad shape.  It’s a narrow bridge by our modern standards (especially with SUV’s and Hummers) and has no room for pedestrian traffic.  In 2010, two years after a 2008 study began to figure out what to do about the bridge, the Indiana Department of Transportation and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet gave the contracting bid to Walsh Construction.  Originally, everyone thought the bridge would have to be closed for almost 2 years while it was being fixed.  Two years with no easy way for folks to go back and forth from Indiana to Kentucky would have been a very bad thing for people on both sides of the river.  And then like magic, Walsh came in and told us they could fix the bridge with only 10 days of closure.  Ten days, folks!  What magic is that?

Well, it is kind of magical what they’ll be doing.  Check out this video of a similar bridge project in Vancouver that involves a “truss slide.”  This “design-build” method will result in the fastest built modern-day bridge across the Ohio River.  Here’s a video which shows exactly how this will work, including the coolest part, the “truss slide.”

Basically, the contractors will build the new superstructure on temporary pilings right next to the existing bridge.  They’ll repair and widen the existing pilings and then use computer-controlled hydraulic jacks to pull the superstructure across onto the existing, renovated piers.  It’s all very complicated, but here’s what I know for sure: it’s going to be very cool.

I know this because the first part was already cool.  Over the last few months, they’ve been building temporary ramps up to the bridge.  Last Wednesday, they blew up the existing ramp onto the bridge so that they can connect these temporary ramps to the bridge.  So, there was an explosion.  Several explosions, in fact, but the most impressive was at around 1:15 Wednesday afternoon.  Hence, the gathering of people hanging out down by the river staring at the bridge.

Originally, the explosion was supposed to happen between 8 and 10, and then at noon.  I went down around noon, and the rumor in the crowd was that there’d be a siren, then ten minutes later another siren, and then, KABOOM!  Well we waited for a siren and eventually, a woman with a walkie-talkie who looked vaguely official held up her hand and said 2 minutes.  This was after the mass exodus of all the construction workers we could see.  I guess I don’t have a particularly good sense of how long 2 minutes is, and I thought there’d be a siren or something, so I was actually talking to my husband when there was a colossal, well, KABOOM!  So, I’ll confess that I didn’t actually see the bridge fall, but luckily this was captured by many cameras, including one view from a local tv news helicopter.  You can see some of this footage here, here and here.

As far as Madison events go, this was up there with watching the courthouse cupola burn a few years ago, but much less depressing and scary.  This was controlled destruction, and a prelude to an exciting new bridge whose walking path will allow me to walk across the bridge to the Dairy Queen in Milton.  Now, that’s exciting.  Originally folks in town thought there’d be money to be made on the ferry service that would have to take the place of the bridge for the year when it was closed.  Right now, I see a huge money making opportunity in the crowds of folks who will gather to watch various things get blown up and eventually, the truss slide.  So calling all hot dog vendors, ice cream trucks, lemonade stands.  And perhaps also, some beer?  You can find out all about the bridge plans at this web site, which includes a live bridge cam or by following the project on Facebook, here.

Also happening in the Madison area, today was the first day of a Food and Society class I’m teaching with my good friend in philosophy at Hanover College.  The class will be posting on our blog, here, about their experiences planting stuff, milking goats, baking bread, making pasta, making goat cheese, taking a tour of a local farm and visiting the farmer’s market.

My friend Jane’s footage of the demolition:

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