KEENE TOWNSHIP — Someone set fire to one of Michigan’s oldest covered wooden bridges early Sunday, completely destroying the span that has stretched across the Flat River south of Belding since the shortly after the end of the Civil War.
The Ionia County Sheriff’s Office said it was alerted about 5:10 a.m. to the fire on the Whites Bridge in Keene Township, southwest of Belding. That was about two hours after neighbor Grant Young said he awoke to an explosion and walked outside to find the span engulfed in flames.
“It pretty well lit the sky up,” he said. He said he regrets not immediately alerting authorities.
“I figured somebody had already called so I didn’t bother calling,” said Young. “Now I wish I had called.”
By the time firefighters arrived, the bridge had fallen into the river, sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Seinen said in a statement. He asked for the public’s help in tracking down anyone responsible for the fire.
Belding fire Chief Gregg Moore said it will be tough to determine what caused the fire, because of the location of the debris.
“Usually when they come out, the first thing we’re going to look for is, can we determine the origin?” he said. “With all that laying in the river, that’s going to be pretty hard.”
Moore said the fire was suspicious, “because there’s no reason that the wood bridge should catch fire.”
The destruction of the bridge, which was built in 1869, was devastating to members of the community.
“Your heart just sinks,” said township resident Bonnie Closson, who came with her husband, Steve, to see the damage. “People don’t understand when they do something that there are consequences, how people around here are affected by this.”
Closson said she and her husband went kayaking from the bridge site Saturday.
The bridge was repaired after a woman drove her car through the side in 2010, Closson said. She said the county started lighting “our community bridge” during Christmas and said the bridge was a popular spot for area high-schoolers to take senior photos.
“How could someone do this?” she asked. “It’s historical. Go burn something else.”
According to a historic marker, the bridge had hand-hewn trusses covered with rough pine boards, held together with wooden pegs and hand-cut square iron nails. The cost at the time was $1,700, the marker says.
“It’s not something you can replace,” said Debra Scheffler, of Grand Rapids, putting into the river with a kayak. “You can put up another bridge, but it won’t be the same.”
People are asked to avoid the area. The Ionia County Road Commission set up alternate routes around the area Sunday morning.
Anyone with information about the arson is asked to contact the Ionia County Sheriff’s Office at (616) 527-5737 or Silent Observer at (616) 527-0107.
The Ionia County Sheriff’s Office was assisted at the scene of the fire by the Belding Fire Department, the Ionia County Road Commission and Ionia County Central Dispatch.