Forget all about the luxury excursions, private planes and bespoke organic mattresses with built-in lock boxes (!) up for grabs in the annual Neiman Marcus holiday catalog’s gleefully/offensively over-the-top Fantasy Gifts section. This year, one of the country's most distinctive holiday gifts is being offered by a most unusual source: the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Said gift is historic.
It’s “full of character and charm.”
It’s 90 feet long.
It’s the old State Route 508 South Fork Newaukum River Bridge.
Sure, an antique bridge might normally qualify as a big-ticket item. But the span in question, erected in 1930 near the tiny unincorporated community of Onalaska in southwestern Washington, is actually being given away by WSDOT free of charge.
Built in 1930, the South Fork Newaukum River Bridge is one of only a handful of surviving pony truss bridges remaining in Washington state. (Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation/flickr)
Described on the WSDOT Blog as “the perfect present for someone who has always wanted their own bridge, but didn’t know quite where to start,” the South Fork Newaukum River Bridge isn’t entirely free. While WSDOT hasn’t affixed a price tag to the "structurally deficient and functionally obsolete" structure itself (included are two rare, riveted-steel pony trusses weighing 23,000 pounds each but not the bridge deck or substructure), it’s completely up to the bridge’s new owner to foot the bill for the removal and relocation of the trusses.
What’s more, the bridge beneficiary must ensure that the surrounding environment is fully protected during the move. A structural engineer must also be independently hired to assess the bridge and make sure that everything is up to snuff prior to relocation.
Other than these legal and financial responsibilities, this hulking “piece of state transportation history” is all yours.
Transportation officials make it clear that relocating and repurposing antiquated bridges is a costly endeavor and that recycling this particular “historic gem” will prove itself to be “no easy task.” So there's that.
And given that the South Fork Newaukum River Bridge comes equipped with enough severe rust and corrosion to make one’s heart skip a beat, why doesn’t WSDOT just demolish it?
Lewis County, Washington's South Fork Newaukum River Bridge is indeed being given away for free ... with some heavy lifting and formidable relocation costs involved. (Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation/flickr)
They just might. But because the 86-year-old bridge — it’s one of only 13 pony truss bridges over the age of 50 remaining on Washington’s public roadways — is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Preservation Act requires WSDOT to try and find it a suitable new home before the dreaded “D” word enters the picture. The bridge’s historic plaque will be archived at the Lewis County Historical Museum no matter its fate.
If no one comes forward to claim the free bridge, transportation officials will commence the process of demolishing the state highway-carrying artifact. In the meantime, a temporary single-lane bridge erected in January 2015 directly over the aging structure carries roughly 1,400 motorists across the Newaukum River each day. Once the old bridge is demolished — or, ideally, relocated as part of the craziest Christmas gift ever — work will begin on a modern concrete girder replacement bridge with an estimated price tag of $8.2 million. That new permanent bridge is slated to open to traffic in 2018.
Speaking to the Centralia Chronicle, WSDOT spokesperson Tamara Greenwell notes that at least one “serious party” has expressed interest in repurposing the bridge.
Hello corrosion! Described as 'piece of state transportation history,' the South Fork Newaukum River Bridge is showing its advanced age and then some. (Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation/flickr)
Until the old South Fork Newaukum River Bridge is relocated or demolished, a temporary Bailey bridge instailled over the old bridge carries traffic along State Route 508. (Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation/flickr)
So how, pray tell, does one even go about repurposing a rust-covered steel truss bridge that’s decidedly seen better days?
WSDOT is confident that with a whole lot of spit and polish the old South Fork Newaukum River Bridge could enjoy a fruitful second life at a golf course, on a hiking trail or even serving as “garden art” on private property. Tongue firmly planted in check, WSDOT calls the bridge "a memorable gift for that special someone who's hard to shop for."
But seriously, can you imagine?
I know you wanted a gazebo and a koi pond out back, honey, but I’m seriously thinking about adopting a historic highway bridge that's at risk of being demolished.
Giving your loved ones that gift of obsolete infrastructure is certainly one way to get the plates flying this holiday season.