First To Cross

Published 3:54 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012

HIGH BRIDGE – The highlight of High Bridge Trail State Park officially opens on Friday but for one family the chance to cross the historic bridge that stretches across the Appomattox River from Cumberland into Prince Edward County came a few days early.

Rod Vance and his wife, Patty, brought along their daughter and two grandchildren for the memorable walk on Wednesday afternoon.

Vance is a member of the model train High Bridge Railroad Club and one of his 18 purchased fundraiser tickets matched the winning one drawn by Francis Wood, of WFLO. He won the chance to be the first to cross High Bridge. The Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park sponsored the fundraiser.

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“We're not real sure with who came up with the idea,” said Eric Hougland, High Bridge Trail State Park manager, on Wednesday about the original idea. “Why don't we offer the opportunity for donations to come in as an opportunity to be drawn as the first to cross High Bridge. As a park staff, we thought it was a wonderful idea and it has been a great fundraiser for the Friends group… That funding led to the purchasing of the 1914 glass negatives…that the Friends are going to be donating to the park for state park archives. It was a real positive project in so many ways and it is truly a celebration to open High Bridge for public use.”

Hougland has been at High Bridge Trail State Park since the beginning, for four and a half years, and he can finally answer the most asked question about when the bridge will be open.

“I can finally answer that question about when the bridge is going to be open with a definite answer and it's so nice to be able to do that,” he laughed while standing on the River Road portion of the trail in front of the High Bridge gate.

Under sunny skies and seasonably warm temperatures for this time of year, Vance and his family stepped out onto the newly rehabilitated High Bridge and led the way across.

“It's a big deal. It's been a long wait,” offered Hougland at the opening, “for this bridge to be open and available to the public. For Rod to be selected as the first individual to get to cross it-it is truly a big deal.”

According to Vance, his wife was the one that first purchased six tickets as a Christmas present.

“The winning ticket wasn't in there, unfortunately, but it was because of that that it peaked my interest in the project and contributing to the preservation of the negatives,” said Vance. “…When I first learned about it when we first moved down here in 2008 I went looking for anything I could find on High Bridge…My thanks to, of course, the Friends group for making this so special…and the park department.”

Vance said he remembers walking the trail and going up to where the fence divides the trail and the bridge and looking out.

“I remember pressing my nose up against the chain link fence that said you couldn't go any further,” he said, “and wondering if you would ever be able to go out on the bridge and it was a dream of mine and I just never expected to be the first one.”

The opening of the bridge couldn't come at a better time for Civil War enthusiasts, either.

Friday is the 147th anniversary of the first battle of High Bridge and Saturday, April 7, is the 147th anniversary of the second battle and burning of High Bridge.

On April 7, 1865, the second battle for High Bridge was fought, resulting in the burning and destruction of four spans.

“This timing worked out well to be able to open this weekend on those anniversaries,” Hougland said, “and there is a lot of other activities going on in the area at Sailor's Creek, the (Appomattox Courthouse) National Park, with the new Museum of the Confederacy, and there is a little bit of everything for our Civil War buffs in particular.”

“This is fantastic,” said Vance after crossing the entire bridge.

When asked how it felt once on the other side, Vance said, “It was great and to have an overlook over the piers-the views are even more than I expected.”

“This is the highlight for this year,” he later said on the way back across.

According to Hougland, the High Bridge rehabilitation project took 13 months from start to finish.

The original steel-constructed bridge was erected in 1914 and the former bridge's piers, which were also utilized by the railroad and burned a few years after construction in 1965 by retreating Confederates during the Civil War, can all still be seen from overlooks when crossing.

In 1852, the chief engineer spoke about the great span of the original bridge in the Norfolk & Western Magazine and excerpts can be found in Today and Yesterday In The Heart of Virginia.

He said, “The bridge is 3,400 feet long, varying in height from 60 feet at the abutments to 100 feet near the river; the clear spans are 105 feet each. There have been higher bridges not so long, and longer bridges not so high; but taking the height and length together, this is, perhaps, the largest bridge in the world.”

In 1914, a new bridge was built next to the older bridge by the Virginia Bridge And Iron Co. from Roanoke measuring approximately 2,500 feet and in July 2005 the last engine ran along the bridge when Norfolk Southern abandoned the rail line running from Burkeville to Pamplin.

The Bridge Opens Friday

While walking across the bridge on Wednesday, Hougland took time to remind visitors of High Bridge Trail State Park about some of the park's guidelines, especially now that the bridge is open.

“We don't want bikes and horses on the overlooks,” said Hougland about the overlooks built on either side of the bridge. “We are a day-use park so we're open daylight hours, whatever that might be, depending on the time of year.”

Horseback riders looking to cross with their horses will have to dismount and lead their horse across and mounting blocks have been provided at each end of the bridge.

Common trail courtesy is very important, Hougland reminded.

“Horseback riders do have the right-of-way on a multi-use park,” he said. “Bicyclists are next and hikers yield to the other two groups. Common sense goes a long way in making it a good experience for everybody that's using the trail (and bridge). Making sure that someone on horseback knows that you are behind them and that they are ready for you to pass or riding single file when you are passing other park users.”

The bridge is 10-feet wide and can accommodate multiple users all at the same time, added the park's manager.

“We ask for people to be respectful of the adjacent private land and not trespass on those because we have so many adjacent landowners,” he said.

For the opening on Friday and this weekend, Hougland encouraged those wishing to bicycle to begin riding from Farmville or Rice.

“It's a little farther ride but we feel like, we think, the River Road parking lot, even though it's the closest, is going to be pretty busy,” he said.

Or carpool if they are coming to the River Road access, he said.

“We want to accommodate everyone that comes,” he added. “We just know that our parking is limited there.”

There is also municipal parking in Farmville that can be utilized and the Osborn Road access parking lot is another area where visitors can park and access the trail and get to the bridge.

According to Hougland, there are also two programs scheduled for the opening weekend.

A hike and walk is scheduled on the completed bridge at 10 a.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday.