Restored and repurposed: The Houck Iron Bridge

Putnam County, Indiana, is so rich in old bridges that when my friend Dawn and I set out to tour them four years ago, we couldn’t fit them all into a single day. Most of Putnam County’s old bridges were well used and needed a little maintenance. A few of them had fallen into such disrepair that they were closed to traffic. One of those was the Houck Iron Bridge.

The Houck Iron Bridge

This bridge may look like it was in the middle of nowhere. There’s a lot of middle-of-nowhere in Putnam County, which is mostly rural. But this bridge stood just three miles north of downtown Greencastle, the county’s largest town and home to DePauw University.

The Houck Iron Bridge

Built in 1913, the Houck Iron Bridge stood here for 99 years and carried traffic for most of them. But in 2012, it was dismantled. A new concrete slab bridge was built slightly downstream.

The Houck Iron Bridge

The pieces were trucked north to Delphi in Carroll County, where volunteers worked for two years to restore and reassemble this bridge over the Wabash and Erie Canal on Delphi’s extensive trail system. It opened in July, and so Dawn and I spent some of our annual road trip this year driving up there to visit it.

The Houck Iron Bridge

I can’t imagine all the straightening and sandblasting the job must have required. But the volunteers in Delphi are tenacious. They’ve built a very nice park along the canal, which is a few blocks north of downtown. You can rent a paddle boat and take a lazy trip along the canal, or rent a bicycle and ride the trail system, or bring a picnic and eat among a number of log cabins built nearby, or tour the museum and interpretive center.

The Houck Iron Bridge

But we were there to see the bridge, which was the sole focus of my photography.

The Houck Iron Bridge

Now that this bridge has found a new home, it has been renamed the Gray Bridge. Two other restored old truss spans have been placed along the trails surrounding Delphi, too: the Red Bridge and the Blue Bridge. You get one guess per bridge what color they are painted.

The Houck Iron Bridge

Walking across the new deck, I was surprised by how many boards were a little loose and how some of the boards weren’t flush. The decks on bridges I’ve seen restored for vehicular use are tight as a drum. Perhaps a pedestrian bridge has lesser requirements.

The Houck Iron Bridge

But otherwise the volunteers did a great job giving this bridge new life. Everything that used to be bent or twisted is now straight.

Normally I prefer historic structures to be restored in place. But I think in this case that this great old bridge will get much more use and enjoyment in its new home. Kudos to the volunteers in Delphi for making it happen.

I love truss bridges. They’re art in steel.


6 responses to “Restored and repurposed: The Houck Iron Bridge”

  1. Mike Avatar

    Your fine pictures are a good reminder that something is always lost in the process of restoration.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s an interesting point. I like to think about such things in terms of good, better, best. Best to me is that a historic resource can be reinforced in place, its patina perhaps left intact, and used for its original purpose. Better is that it’s left in place and bypassed or structurally altered so it can continue to be used. But good is that the resource is reused somehow. That’s what we got here. I feel sure that Putnam County lacked the funds for a restoration but could get matching federal dollars for a replacement, and so felt compelled to go this route.

  2. pesoto74 Avatar

    I am always glad to see pictures of surviving bridges. I can remember so many bridges of this type from when I was a kid that are now gone. I remember that sometimes I could hear the sound that a car made crossing the wooden planks for miles.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It is a distinctive sound! If ever you feel nostalgic, road trip to Putnam County. The joint is lousy with old bridges.

  3. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    Hi, Jim, long time no see. Changed jobs again and don’t feel comfy using their system to check my morning feeds so finally bit the bullet and put DTR on my phone. :)

    I think Mike’s right. Something’s lost in moving a structure from the context that gave it meaning. But I’m sure he’d agree when I muse that something’s gained too when it’s saved from falling apart in relative anonymity and celebrated. I wish the bridge could gave gotten a second life where it was but there was probably little call for it. But now it has its second wind, and we need to tip our hats to the folks who made it happen.

    Looks like they gave the bridge the right name. ;)

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