RIDGEFIELD — It’s been nearly 60 years since the Sevier family last used a hand-pulled ferry to move hay and equipment to their cattle on the other side of Lake River.
That taxing chore went away in 1960 when the family built a modest $40,000 wood bridge, wide enough for a single vehicle. The bridge linked different parts of the family’s land, five years before the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge was established.
Several members of the Sevier family were on hand Monday to witness the opening of a two-lane concrete bridge over Lake River. The $8 million project will improve access for 130,000 visitors a year who take the auto tour through the refuge’s River S Unit.
Unlike the old bridge, which has an at-grade crossing at the busy BNSF Railway tracks, the new bridge goes over the tracks. Once the project is complete, train engineers will no longer blast their horn four times as they approach what will become a former road crossing.
Besides the Sevier family, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Western Federal Lands Highway Division, members of the Ridgefield City Council and local residents gathered Monday to mark the bridge’s official opening.
“It was our property,” said Doug Sevier, an Arizona resident who was a student at Washington State University when the wooden bridge was built a half-century ago. “We were the ones who were pulling that barge across.”
“We did have a bull swim across the river and get hit by a train,” said his sister, Jacki Logue, who has lived her entire life in the area. “We ate him.”
The first vehicle to officially cross the new bridge Monday was a school bus carrying 25 fourth-graders from South Ridge Elementary School.
The Ridgefield School District youngsters got out of the bus and cut two strips of caution tape stretched across the bridge before proceeding to a tree-planting project in the refuge.
There were short speeches before the school bus showed up. Eric Anderson, acting project leader with the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, mentioned that the bridge was 11 years in the making as he put on his glasses to glance at his talking points.
“If we had built this 11 years ago, I wouldn’t have needed the glasses,” he said.
Construction started in March on the replacement bridge. Western Federal Lands, part of the Federal Highway Administration, planned and designed the project.
Anderson thanked the Western Federal Lands staff for delivering a project on budget and three months ahead of schedule.
The bridge isn’t quite ready for use seven days a week.
Ceccanti Inc., the project’s Tacoma-based general contractor, still has to finish some final items on the bridge, which will provide a platform for demolishing the old wooden crossing. For that reason, the new bridge will be closed Monday through Friday and open only on the weekends for the next eight weeks.
All work is expected to be finished by Feb. 1.
The replacement bridge is 527 feet long and 27 feet wide. It is supported by three concrete piers, each 10 feet in diameter, plus abutments at both ends of the new structure.
The old bridge is 332 feet long and 17 feet wide. It is supported by 44 wood pilings driven into the ground and the river bottom.
“Will anyone miss the smell of creosote from the old bridge?” Rich Barrows, Western Federal Lands construction branch chief, asked rhetorically before the new bridge opened.