Road Trips

The Wabash River bridge at New Harmony

New Harmony is a small village in Indiana’s southwesternmost county, right on the Wabash River. It’s surprisingly remote. You won’t pass through it on your way to anywhere else — especially since the bridge to Illinois was closed.

Closed: New Harmony bridge

Opened in 1930, the Harmony Way Bridge was built by a private concern and later managed, by no less than a 1941 act of Congress, by the White County (Illinois) Bridge Commission, to which three commissioners were appointed. Inexplicably, in 1998 Congress repealed part of that act that provided a mechanism for appointing commissioners. When the last commissioner resigned or died, there would be nobody to manage the bridge.

Closed: New Harmony bridge

I got to drive over this bridge once each way, in 2006, when I took my sons on a Spring Break tour of interesting and historic Indiana sites. We meant to spend a day in New Harmony, which has a fascinating history, but it rained hard when we got there with no end in sight. We drove around New Harmony in a few minutes. I decided we’d see if anything interesting was on the Illinois side of the Wabash. Naught but farm fields, for miles.

Closed: New Harmony bridge

It cost two dollars to find that out — this was a toll bridge, a dollar each way. The funds paid for regular operations with a little left over. But bridge maintenance costs serious money, and over time serious structural problems formed that the bridge commission couldn’t afford to fix. Indiana and Illinois officials closed the bridge permanently in May of 2012.

Closed: New Harmony bridge

The bridge carried about 900 vehicles a day, mostly farm vehicles and vehicles related to the farm service industry, plus some Illinois residents who worked in nearby Evansville, Indiana. Today to reach New Harmony from Illinois you have to drive up to Interstate 64 and then 14 miles down to this little town, or down to a bridge just west of the town of Mt. Vernon and then 22 miles back up.

Indiana SR 66 eastbound

The Welcome to Indiana sign by the closed bridge sure seems superfluous.

Some efforts have been made to reopen the bridge, but so far none have succeeded. While we visited New Harmony we saw posters for a proposal to reopen it for pedestrian use and as an outdoor event center. But the Federal law governing the bridge blocks action. The House of Representatives has passed H.R. 6793 (text here) repealing the 1941 act, creating the New Harmony Bridge Bi-State Commission, and transferring control of the bridge to the new commission. Here’s hoping the Senate takes it up and passes it as well.

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21 thoughts on “The Wabash River bridge at New Harmony

  1. fascinating – how can one not love transport archeology? Looking at Google Maps i first wondered why the diagonal alignment in a square-with-the-world town (why not at the end of Church?) but then thought of your comment about flooding – bridge ends positioned above the common flood plane? And you can still start to drive across the bridge on Google Maps….

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  2. Well I guess I have learned my daily fascinating fact before 6 am. I had no idea that there was a bridge at all, let alone its fascinating backstory.

    This may be a good test for whether our currently hyper political Congress can work together on basic mundane matters.

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  3. This bridge was shown in an episode of “Connections 2,” by James Burke. The episode was called “New Harmony.” It showed not only the bridge, but the history of the town in the process, sorta. It was originally produced in 1994.

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      • DougD says:

        I love James Burke! We watched Connections 1 in Engineering & Society class back in the early 90’s.
        For the bridge I will quote you from Peter Egan’s January 1992 column “The Bridge at Leedle’s Mill”
        “It occurred to me that we may be the first generation in the history of this particular state without the funds of the governmental know-how to keep a useful road open and repair a simple bridge”
        I guess not much has changed in almost 30 years :(

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        • In this case, it’s just funds. And red tape. We have the know-how. I don’t know how this bridge got opened privately as it did, as it sure seems like a link important enough for state governments to have intervened.

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  4. Pat F Chase says:

    Don Blair came to New Harmony, a recent engineering graduate of the University Of the South – Sewanee. He was an employee of the Nashville Bridge Company and his job was to build the bridge over the Wabash at NH. And while he was doing that he met my mother’s cousin Bettie Frances and married her. The NH bridge authority then hired him to manage the operation of the bridge and that is what he did until his death in the 1992. He would be very sad to see the condition of the bridge situation in NH today. On our visits to NH Don would take us young boys on boat excursions up and down the Wabash and look at the underside of the bridge. Don was also a great historian/preservationist and did a lot to save many structures in NH. Don wrote a small history of the town and I believe they still sell his booklet today. I sure hope they figure out a way to restore this wonderful structure.

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    • Oh fascinating that the bridge builder is in your family! I look forward to the legislative issues being cleared up so something productive can be done with this bridge.

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