Neighbors to celebrate Chatham Rocky River bridge’s 100th anniversary

Posted 6/16/21

‘We don’t want to replace it’

Along Chatham Church Road about 12 miles south of Pittsboro, a one-lane steel truss bridge looms over the Rocky River.

On one side, there’s pavement; on …

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Neighbors to celebrate Chatham Rocky River bridge’s 100th anniversary

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Along Chatham Church Road about 12 miles south of Pittsboro, a one-lane steel truss bridge looms over the Rocky River.

On one side, there’s pavement; on the other, gravel, while the bridge itself wears a light coat of asphalt. As cars inch across, you can feel the bridge rumble beneath you. And if you’re lucky, you might just see a river otter splashing around in the river or a bald eagle soaring overhead.

Installed in 1921, the Rocky River bridge is one of Chatham County’s oldest — and this summer, it’s turning 100 years old, an occasion a few nearby residents have plans to celebrate with a big white banner and small neighborhood barbecue.

“There’s a little clearing edge on-site here,” said Asbury resident Stephen Lee, who’s lived right next to the bridge for the past four years. “I’ll probably make some hot dogs and have some music, and just do something down here.”

But he and other residents don’t just want to celebrate the bridge’s birthday; they also want to ensure the bridge sees many more. Lee, his wife Maggie, plus a few other nearby residents, have spent years working to preserve the bridge — some more than 20.

“It’s constantly being threatened over the past 50 years to be torn down and replaced with a modern bridge that is two-lane and not an antique,” Lee said.

“It just seems to kind of cycle through the Department of Transportation’s priority list every few years — every 10 years, every 15 years, I really don’t know,” added local artist Beth Goldston, who’s lived in the area since 1996.

To break that cycle, Lee, Goldston and others hope to have the bridge placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government’s list of historic sites and structures deemed worthy of preservation. Achieving that, residents say, would afford the bridge “additional protection” from demolition. As of now, it’s only on the N.C. Dept. of Transportation’s North Carolina Historic Bridge Inventory.

“The Department of Transportation — I mean, at some point, they look at a bridge from its physical attributes and try to decide if it’d be better probably to build a newer bridge that will require less monitoring, less maintenance,” Lee said. “But if we have it on that Historic Register list, then there’s a lot more it takes to come in and take the bridge down.”

Every year, Lee said, officials come and take measurements; he’s even heard talk that there may be plans to tear it down soon yet again.

“Honestly, if we had a two-lane bridge, we’d have gravel trucks running up and down here,” he said. “We’d have all kinds of traffic, so you know, we like the quiet country lifestyle. It’s a historic bridge, and we want to try to keep the neighborhood that way.”

‘We don’t want to replace it’

The Rocky River bridge — officially known as Chatham Bridge 147 — was born in 1921, and the Atlantic Bridge Company of Charlotte, plus growing industry, were its parents.

According to newspaper archives, the bridge served the Oakland Township, which in the early 1900s had been an industrial area full of iron furnaces, grist mills and coal mines.

“This bridge was used to support that,” Lee said. “The community between the rivers has always been isolated. … For water and electricity back in the day, they didn’t cross rivers and stuff like that very well, so being between the Deep and the Rocky, that bridge was super important to get access to Pittsboro.”

In March of 1921, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners collected bids to construct a steel truss bridge in a time when the county still managed local roads. Ultimately, the board granted the contract to the Atlantic Bridge Company, and the bridge first opened in late July.

According to a Chatham Record story, the Oakland community held a day-long barbecue to inaugurate the bridge on July 21, 1921 — a barbecue Lee hopes to emulate.

Since then, the county and later NCDOT have regularly maintained and inspected the bridge. In 1959, they even rehabilitated it, replacing everything but its metal frame. About 23 years ago, though, DOT and the county began to consider taking the bridge down and replacing it with a new one.

“With time the bridge does age, but it has a unique benefit that its foundations are not in the river,” Lee said. “So, there’s not been any required damage to it to replace it. They’re replacing the bridge over the Deep River right now on 15-501, south of Pittsboro, and that’s because the foundations are actually in the river and the logs jam up behind it and have damaged it.”

The DOT first proposed replacing the bridge in 1998 — and met with a wall of local resistance led by Beth Goldston, who’d just moved to the area about two years earlier.

“When we bought this land out here, I just loved this place so much,” she said. “It was such a draw to me, this beautiful place, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of it being destroyed, being a two-lane highway with gravel trucks coming by (at) 65 miles an hour.”

To prevent that, she and other residents rallied together and presented a petition against NCDOT’s proposal to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. Goldston and others also wrote their congressional representatives.

“We just did everything we could,” she said.

Ultimately, the board granted them a public hearing.

“We actually sat out here and counted cars a few times to show that there wasn’t that much traffic,” Goldston said. “And I think because we just rallied together to show that we wanted to keep it, they scheduled the public hearing. I don’t think they would have had the public hearing had we not done that.”

Her own son, Jon Spoon, then 11 years old, spoke at the hearing, too, and played a video of a few river otters he’d captured on tape. He’s now the chairman of the Chatham County Planning Board.

And finally, one day not long after, Goldston remembers, they received a letter notifying them that DOT had decided not to tear down the bridge; instead, they were going to improve and repair it.

“And they actually asked us what color we wanted to paint it,” she said. “They gave us a couple of choices, and we went around and polled the neighbors, and we all chose this kind of turquoise color.”

Yet, just 18 years later, the same threat reemerged. In 2016, DOT proposed a $2 million project to replace the bridge, but Goldston and other residents ultimately defeated that, too.

“We had to go before the county commissioners again,” she said. “We did another petition, and the county commissioners just decided to put it back on the back burner, (as in) ‘We don’t want to replace it. There’s enough other things that we need (to do).’”

She’s heard some residents complain about the old bridge, she said; some would like the bridge paved, while others would like a two-lane highway. To that, however, she pointed to an alternate route that people can take just half a mile away.

“It takes less than a one-minute difference to go either this way or go over and get on the highway, so you know, I just don’t feel like we’re holding up progress,” she said, adding, “There are endangered species in the river here. It would mess with the water quality. … I mean, in my humble opinion, there’s no need to do that. It wouldn’t serve progress in any way.”

‘It adds to my quality of life’

Artist Kim Stout has lived in the Asbury community since 1999, and for nearly eight years, she’s been taking photographs of the Rocky River roughly once a week from the very same spot on the bridge.

“I just love to watch the changes on the river, the seasons, the quietness when you walk down here, the animal life that even you don’t experience at the top of the hill,” she said. “There’s animals that move along the river corridor that you’re not going to see at the top of the hill, and I think that’s part of why it’s a draw for people. It’s just very serene down here.”

She’s also part of the group working to preserve the bridge, which she calls “a friend to the community.”

“That’s what it feels like to me,” she said. “I think everybody feels an emotional attachment to the bridge, most everybody that lives in the area.”

Her daughter got engaged on the bridge. And one time, she met a Sanford resident filling in little potholes at the end of the bridge, the place his mother loved to visit and where she asked her ashes to be spread.

There’s a lot to love about the bridge, she and others said, and a lot of reasons to fight for it.

“It’s the usual community stuff,” Lee said. “A lot of people love the bridge. People can take pictures.”

“People on the road walk out here in the evenings, you know, to take their exercise strolling,” Goldston added, “and you know if this was paved, nobody would do that anymore.”

It’s not just about saving a historic structure, she said; it’s about preserving a “natural place,” full of heron, otters, beavers and even owls. While crossing the river years ago, Goldston and Stout remember locking eyes with an owl perched on top of a sycamore tree.

Those kinds of interactions, they say, are what make the bridge special and worthy of preservation. Removing the bridge won’t take the river away, Goldston said, but it would take away their ability to truly enjoy it — and that’s why they’ll keep fighting for it.

“It adds to my quality of life,” Stout said.

With a smile, Goldston added: “It definitely adds to mine.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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