KEENE TOWNSHIP — Alma resident Howard Larsen could recall several memories of various trips he made in crossing the original Whites Covered Bridge, be it by car or on foot, before the bridge burned and collapsed into the Flat River on July 7.
Larsen said he was heartbroken when he first heard of the bridge’s destruction, which was officially declared a crime of arson.
On Monday morning, Larsen, along with approximately 20 other volunteers, strapped into his fishing waders and steadily walked into the Flat River, approaching the last charred and burnt pieces of the bridge that remained in the river, lodged about 300 feet downriver from the bridge’s original location. Together, the volunteers successfully removed the two remaining piles of the bridge by uprooting and dragging boards to shore where they were then removed by a large excavator.
“No ifs, ands or buts about it, this is all worth it,” Larsen said. “We just decided it’s time to get it done.”
Larsen said it was an emotional moment pulling board after board from the water, searching for any engravings or carving that might have survived the fire, knowing this would be the last time the original wood from the bridge would be near its original site.
“You think about the amount of years that it stood there,” he said. “I drove on it many, many times. It was a piece of history.”
The volunteer effort was part of an organized grassroots effort through the “Rebuild Whites Covered Bridge” group that has created a mission to one day rebuild the bridge.
Group organizer Paul Phenix, a disabled veteran from Alma, watched the efforts of the volunteers from the north shoreline of the Flat River.
“It’s very humbling, I’ve found myself getting choked up a couple of times,” Phenix said. “There’s so many people involved, putting in their time and money.”
According to Phenix, Eco Demolition from Holland, Mich., donated time, a semi truck, trailer and excavator to assist with the removal of the bridge.
As volunteers removed pieces of the bridge from the river, the excavator removed the wood from the shore and placed it into the trailer. The final large section of the bridge was towed out of the river with a steel cable connected to the claw of the excavator driven by owner Scott Tucker.
“This bridge has always been a draw to the community,” Tucker said. “I grew up in a community just like this, I know what it’s like to lose something that’s part of the community.”
Phenix said the total bill waived by Eco Demolition approached $40,000, a generous gift he never expected to receive.
“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this bridge is going to stand again,” he said.
The removal process took approximately one hour and 30 minutes, and, according to Larsen, it wasn’t an easy process.
“Fighting the water has been the hard part,” he said. “Those large, water-logged pieces are very heavy. They just about knock you over. If you don’t have good footing, you’re going down.”
A few volunteers happened to slip while working to remove the lumber, but no one complained during their efforts.
Group member and Belding organizer Tonya Goodrich said it was an emotional experience holding the last remaining pieces of the bridge in her hands.
“It’s very emotional, touching the wood, pulling on it,” Goodrich said. “Every piece that we pick up, we’re just looking for memories. We’re saving every piece that we can and making what we can out of it.”
According to Phenix, the wood that was collected will be stored at a private location with much of it later auctioned off to raise money with a goal to rebuild the bridge.
Estimates from the Ionia County Road Commission have the rebuilding process budgeted at approximately $850,000, with many unknown variables such as state and federal funding options.
The Road Commission is financially handcuffed right now with repairs needed on as many as 16 bridges throughout Ionia County after flooding this spring damaged many of the county’s crossings.
But Phenix said he believes it will cost much less to rebuild the bridge in its original state and hopes to have a new bridge in place within one year of the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the bridge.
“I have received an estimate from private engineers that is substantially lower,” he said. “I can’t reveal that information yet, but I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised.”
Until then, Phenix said he is continuing to work toward establishing the group as a non-profit 501 C 3 organization, which would allow the group to act as a non-profit and accept donations toward rebuilding the bridge.