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HISTORIC HAPPENINGS April 2010

Of Weddings, Wagons, Cows and Fire
by Vicki Barker


Erin Cooper and Max Forgensi wedding on the Dewey Bridge.

Lashing, slashing winds are the bane of boatmen on the Colorado River in April; winds often so strong that they push rafts upstream in the oarsman’s losing battle with nature.

It was a fierce wind of early April that ensured a small brush fire turned into a conflagration that raced upstream two years ago, devouring everything in its path in a matter of hours, including the majestic Dewey Bridge.

It was a sad day for many. Devastating news. April 6, 2008 an icon had fallen. The Dewey Bridge, completed in 1916, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, replaced by a new bridge in 1986 and re-dedicated in 2000, had been brutally gutted.

The 502 foot-long wooden span, soaked in creosote and painted bright white, was a mighty feast for the fire. The blaze blackened trees and burned brush to the ground along a swath from a campground about a mile downstream, then swooshed up a clump of tamarisk tickling the underbelly of the bridge on the south. The historic structure, ironically hanging over a river swollen with winter runoff, was too far gone for firefighters to save by the time they raced the 30 miles along Highway 128 to the site. The monument burned and smoldered throughout the night, and by April 7, only the towers, cables and anchors remained.

But that was something. Private donations began to trickle in. Grand County formed a committee to explore the possibility of restoring Dewey Bridge. The Grand County Historical Preservation Commission used previously donated funds to determine feasibility of rebuilding the decking, and a handful of devoted volunteers began barnstorming strategies to raise $850,000 to bring Dewey Bridge back to life. The remaining superstructure was deemed safe to support a new deck alluring to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. However, it is never again expected to support the weight of six horses, three wagons and 9,000 pounds of freight as it had before.

Hard times in America slowed the fund-raising effort. As costs of living skyrocketed, few people seemed willing to fork out funds for a recreational project -- despite its historic value -- some saying you can’t restore history. Charitable giving shifted toward schools, a new hospital, feeding and housing the underprivileged and newly unemployed. The Dewey Bridge committee went dormant, but with spring came a vital sign that Dewey Bridge wasn’t dead.

Without fanfare and in wait-and-see mode, the committee accepted donations ranging from $20 to $1,250 over the past two years and is close to accumulating the amount needed to purchase engineering plans and construction drawings. At that point, major fund raising efforts begin.

In hopes of gaining community support and inspiring contributions, the Dewey Bridge Restoration Committee conducted a “Memories of Dewey” oral-history night in 2009, videotaping stories about people’s remembrances and experiences at Dewey Bridge. More taping sessions will follow. Snippets of some of the first session are shared here.

Little Red Wagon
Jan McPherson Mefret, Moab: “My parents had a cattle ranch, all my growing-up life, and they had a little cow camp there at Dewey, and I literally lived most of my winter months at Dewey when I was little (from 6 months old to age 7). Mom used to take me across the bridge in my little red wagon to get mail, when they delivered the mail to Dewey Bridge. And then, later on, when I got my driver’s license, I remember going out there with my dad in his cow truck…and so I went across the bridge, my first experience, to drive across the bridge in the truck.”


Erin and Max wedding day on the Dewey Bridge. Photo by Marylou Lopez

Wedding Over Water
Erin Cooper (Mrs. Max Forgensi), Moab: “I have a lot of Dewey Bridge memories, a lot, you know, when we were young, driving across in our camper, ripping the mirrors off the side. Being a boater -- it was a great stopping point along the river when we’d do Westwater trips. And two weeks before we were getting married, we still hadn’t picked a place to get married and we were driving out to do Westwater and we came around the corner and it was just like, ‘Wow! Well, duh!’ And we even wrote the Dewey Bridge into our vows (May 11, 2006). It was such an amazing place to be in. We even had chairs out on the bridge and everything. It was fun.”

Big Yellow Bus
Oliver Harris, Blanding: “I’m a graduate of Grand County High School (class of 1958), so I’ve known the Dewey Bridge since the late ‘50s. In the late ‘70s, I was asked to take a bus load of (18-20) kids from San Juan High School in Blanding to Grand Junction for a yearbook conference…and as soon as I got that assignment, I wondered if the bus would fit on the Dewey Bridge. And so when I turned off at Cisco…I said, ‘We’re taking the scenic route.’ And so I eased this big ol’ bus onto the bridge, and if I watched very carefully, my left mirror would clear the structure by about a half-inch, but my right mirror wouldn’t. It was very quiet on the bus as we crossed the bridge. I think they were uneasy. It almost didn’t fit. We just filled up that whole thing. And I don’t know if that was wise, but I was young, and that’s my excuse.”

Dewey Bridge with cattle
Dewey Bridge often bulged with cattle crossing in the early days of ranching. Here D.L. Taylor of Fisher Valley Ranch and his horse, Ransom, herd them across.
Photo courtesy of Joe Taylor

Dance and Bounce
Bette Stanton, Moab: “My great-grandfather helped settle the area in the 1880s, my grandfather had Professor Valley Ranch for awhile, and my father was born at Professor Valley Ranch. When they finally went out in 1916 and they christened the bridge, they danced all night on the bridge, and…people came in wagons and on horseback from all over, and they brought the children, and the children all stayed at the ranch with a babysitter while the adults went out and danced all night on the bridge till sun-up. And of course, every time we’d come to visit, I remember the Dewey Bridge and how I loved that thing. Dad used to tell stories of when they would take cattle across it, and …they had a hard time pushing the cattle on, but once they got ‘em going, that bridge would just bounce up and down, and so it’s been some really, really fun stories about it brought down through the ages.”

Gripping Bridge
A. J. Rogers, Thompson Springs: “I worked for the Utah Department of Transportation, the past 26 years. We had to do a lot of maintenance on the bridge because frequently loads that were too wide and too heavy for the bridge would try to use the bridge. Motor homes, for instance. And if an extra-large motor home got out in the middle of the bridge, it would tend to sink down and the side rails of the bridge, which were called the parapet walls, tend to move in like a vise and clamp that motor home in there, and then he’d be stuck, unless he really gunned it. So we were frequently going down there to pull chunks of aluminum and insulation and stuff, and mirrors and things like that, off the bridge.A lot of times we’d have to go down there and replace some of those timbers on those parapet walls. Well, that was an OK job to do, but every time a car would come, we’d have to crawl up over the wall and hang out over the river whilethe traffic went by, and then crawl back over and go back to work. Did that quite a few times. It seemed like especially in the summer when the tourists were coming through, it was at least a monthly occurrence.”

 
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