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.
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 Inexplicably, in 1998 Congress repealed part of that act that provided a mechanism for appointing commissioners.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.