KEENE TOWNSHIP — The mission to rebuild the historic Whites Covered Bridge is one that will undoubtably take time, effort and money that will go well beyond the foreseeable future.
But for those who are leading the charge to see a crossing again connect the banks of the Flat River across Whites Bridge Road, there is no lack of passion to accomplish the feat.
“We’re going to do what we set out to do,” said Jeff Christensen. “After four months of red tape, meetings, time, sweat, freezing cold, and everything else that had to be accomplished, we are moving forward.”
Six months ago, when the covered bridge was destroyed in an early morning blaze on July 7, 2013, Christensen was like so many others who were desperately searching for a way to make sense of the arson.
Now, he finds himself as chairman of the newly established Friends Rebuilding Whites Bridge Executive Board, which has a mission to see a replica bridge built in the former bridge’s stead.
The original bridge was constructed in 1867, spanned 120 feet, and was the oldest covered bridge in Michigan that still carried vehicle traffic.
“I have an extreme passion to see Whites Bridge rebuilt,” Christensen said. “I realize the canvas will not be original, however it will be a fresh to start a whole new canvas to paint for many generations to come.”
On Monday evening, the board held its monthly board meeting where members discussed how to move forward with their goal of rebuilding the bridge.
Before the board was formed, Christensen said efforts were chaotic and rushed, leaving things in a disorganized state.
“When we started, the cart was way ahead of the horse,” he said. “Now we’re able to get some ideas on the table and act on them.”
Those ideas range from preparing to fundraise at the upcoming Lowell Expo on March 22, to approving plans provided by civil engineer and Vice Chairman Tom Byle to move forward in submitting a bridge application to the state.
Rebuilding the bridge
For Byle, the project holds a special place in his heart, even though he had never visited Whites Covered Bridge before it was destroyed.
In 1980, the Ada Covered Bridge was destroyed by fire, and Byle was one of the engineers who lead the charge in helping to see that bridge rebuilt.
“I have been through this once before,” Byle said. “I was the bridge engineer for the Kent County Road Commission in 1979.The Ada Covered Bridge roof collapsed in the winter. They rebuilt the roof in the summer of ‘79, but in October of 1979, somebody lit that one on fire and burned it.”
Byle said a number of organizations coming together, as well as several donations, helped to see the Ada Covered Bridge rebuilt.
“I was involved, I was the project manager,” he said. “We had a man with a passion, John Westra, leading the effort. We had a large donor step up in Amway. We went through the township to raise funds. I’ve done this once before.”
Byle said he believes it’s only a matter of time before similar results are seen with Whites Covered Bridge.
“That’s the way we did it in 1980, and it will work just fine here,” he said.
Byle’s current estimates put the cost of building a replica bridge between $300,000 to $400,000, but the board is hoping to only have to raise a quarter of that if it can successfully seek out monies from state and federal grants.
“I’m about ready to put together the plans,” Byle said. “As soon as I can turn over those plans, I’ve got two contractors that are willing to put an official estimate together.”
Whites Covered Bridge was originally constructed with white pine, which is no longer available in Michigan. Tom said a new bridge would likely be built with douglass fir, which is what was used in the rebuilding of the Ada Covered Bridge.
Once enough funds are raised, the money would be delivered to the Ionia County Road Commission, which would then seek bids for construction firms to build a new bridge.
Raising funds, collecting donations
Before anyone can begin to take action on building a replica bridge, the money will first need to be raised.
As of now, two recent donations have put the group at more than $6,000 in collected funds, and spirits are high.
Aside from a few local fundraisers, in which the group has sold T-shirts, hats and coffee mugs, efforts to seek larger donations have been kept on hold until the board was set in place and properly organized.
After approving the board’s bylaws Monday evening, the board will now seek official status as a non-profit by applying for a 501 C3.
In the meantime, the board has partnered with both the Fallasburg Historical Society, which is a non-profit organization, and Keene Township, which is serving as the board’s fiduciary.
“We just need to get it out there that people can donate through the Fallasburg Historical Society,” Christensen said. “We are a legal partner with the Fallasburg Historical Society. We are using their 501 C3 as we attempt to get our own.”
Board members are also hoping to pursue government grants and seek possible larger donations from area organizations.
“Don’t get me wrong, but this is a rural, low population township,” Byle said. “There’s no major business headquarters like Amway here to step up like they did in Ada. We’re going to have to look outside the township.”
To donate to the rebuilding efforts of Whites Covered Bridge, visit www.friendsrebuildingwhitesbridge.org online.
Police investigation continues
In July 2013, the Ionia County Sheriff’s Office officially declared the bridge’s burning as a crime of arson.
A reward of $7,000 was established for information toward those responsible and that reward stands firm today.
“It wasn’t a bolt of lighting or fireworks. There was help setting that fire,” Ionia County Undersheriff Charles Noll said.
Noll said while no one has been arrested in connection to the arson, the investigation is continuing and has had moments of progress as detectives work to analyze every lead that is presented to them.
“It has not fallen by the wayside, but investigations like this take some time,” he said. “We’re working closely with the prosecutors office on this case.”
An Orleans Township couple was arrested in July after they were caught stealing metal from the former Whites Covered Bridge, but they are not believed to be connected to the arson.
Noll encouraged anyone with any information to contact the sheriff’s office at (616) 527-5357 or Silent Observer at (616) 527-0107.
Road commission’s hands tied
The Ionia County Road Commission was already dealing with several collapsed bridges throughout the county due to historic flooding in the spring of 2013 before Whites Covered Bridge was destroyed.
The major damage to bridges, as well as a harsh winter, have left the department with little funds to work toward rebuilding Whites Covered Bridge.
“We’ve got a lot of bridges in the county that all need work,” Managing Director Dorothy Pohl said. “We’re waiting to see what the volunteer group comes up with because we know we don’t have money for it.”
According to Pohl, four total crossings in Ionia County were lost in last year’s floods, and two of them remain closed.
Combined with what Pohl described as “the most expensive winter since 2008,” and funding for road projects is scarce.
The fact that Whites Covered Bridge only averaged traffic of 50 cars per day, combined with a weight limit of only 3 tons, limiting it to almost only car and light truck traffic, have put the priority of rebuilding the bridge low on the list.
“I’d like to see something happen as far as rebuilding,” Pohl said. “We’re definitely willing to work with anybody that’s going to help us make that happen.
Looking beyond the bridge
Friends Rebuilding Whites Bridge Executive Board Treasurer Nancy Stroosnyder said she believes the board will serve a greater purpose than only seeing that a replica bridge is built in the future.
“We want this to go beyond rebuilding this bridge,” Stroosnyder said. “We need to prepare for the eventual upkeep and protection of history.”
As the remaining scorched pieces of the bridge that were pulled from the river by board members and other volunteers sit in an undisclosed location, Stroosnyder said those boards serve as a reminder that precautionary measure need to be taken.
She said she believes the board to be proactive in making sure that once a bridge is built, that nothing like the morning of July 7 ever happens again.
“That’s why our group is looking beyond getting the bridge built, we’re looking to be a permanent entity,” she said. “The bridge needs to be showcased, it needs to be protected. Once it’s built, we’ll continue to fundraise.”