The bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) due to its association with Route 66 and design.
AFTON – Horse Creek Bridge has been a part of old Route 66 and the welcome gateway to Afton for 82 years, but the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) has plans to replace the historic bridge.
A group of Afton residents wants to save the bridge built in 1936 by Pharaoh & Co. as part of the Public Works program during the Great Depression. The bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) due to its association with Route 66 and design.
“It's unique because it has two pedestrian walkways protected by concrete guardrails,” Kenda Bynum said. “ODOT wants to replace it and of course the town doesn’t want to replace it. We want to keep it as is because of the historical significance. I think as word gets out we’ll get even more support.”
Bynum lives on old Route 66 and encounters numerous tourists traveling the famous route.
“They travel that old highway and they want to see these places,” she said.
A group of Afton residents gathered last week to raise public awareness and bring together efforts to save the structure.
“We’re down here today trying to save the bridge. This is the last bridge connected to Route 66 that has the pedestrian walkway on each side. It is a very important piece of history. It is protected on the National Historical Registry and the State Registry,” Afton resident Cindy Todd said.
To reach the town of Afton on Highway 69/60 travelers must cross Horse Creek Bridge, a three-span concrete structure with a total length of 143 feet.
The bridge is crossed by a steady flow of traffic both vehicular and pedestrian throughout the day and night. The traffic counts were estimated in 2016 by ODOT to be roughly 7,000 vehicles per day and this number was expected to increase.
The bridge is on ODOT’s Eight Year Plan for replacement, according to ODOT spokesperson Kenna Mitchell, and the project is currently scheduled to be let for bid as early as this fall.
“The bridge’s historical significance was something we certainly took into consideration and as part of this. We’ve worked with the State Historic Preservation Office, Route 66 groups, preservation groups, and we have involved them in this process, so we made them aware,” Mitchell said.
ODOT held public meetings on Sept. 21, 2016, at three locations in Afton to give residents an opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback regarding the proposed $3.2 million bridge improvement project, according to Mitchell,
ODOT considers Horse Creek Bridge both structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. It is on a narrow two-lane highway with no shoulder.
“It’s extremely narrow. If you get a large truck on it that’s the only thing that’s crossing over the two lanes,” Mitchell said. “With the design, if we tried to go modernize it or fix it, we would end up having to replace the very things on it that make it unique, and make it historic.”
The project is moving ahead and Mitchell said there is now no way to stop the bridge from being demolished, she said, “At this point no. We’ve settled on the alternative, which is the replacement of it. I’m not sure if they were involved when we had the public input in 2016, but at this point, we have to move ahead with the design that we’ve selected.”
Demolition work will commence depending on the length of the timeline of the bid process and following consideration by the Oklahoma Transportation Commission for bid selection. Following bid approval, construction typically starts in three to four months, according to Mitchell.
Afton, like all towns, has identifying landmarks and points of interest and Horse Creek Bridge identifies and helps make the town unique.
“When they went from east to west it was a double lane highway, and when they got to this part, the ribbon road that’s a one way because they ran out of money because they could either finish the project with one lane or do half the project with both lanes. That’s’ why it’s only one lane and why it’s even more important,” Bynum said. “I would like to see it repaired. I am sure, as with anything built in that era, it needs upkeep. We would like to see it repaired and refurbished and stay a part of this hometown. I grew up here and when we hit that bridge we knew we were home.”
The Afton residents said the economic impact of losing the historic bridge would be detrimental to the town as well, which sees thousands of tourists from across the U.S. and international travelers as well touring across old Route 66.
“They come to see these important aspects of Route 66. If they can’t see that then we lose tourism dollars,” Bynum said. "It’s important for the shops and restaurants here, the impact that has, economically this is devastating.”
Many of the town’s people have family members who helped build the bridge and others have stories surrounding the bridge over the span of its existence. Three generations of Afton residents Cindy Todd, her mother Sandra Powell, and her daughter Hadley Todd are joining the effort to bring awareness to the bridge’s pending demise and are fighting to save the old structure.
Powell’s grandfather worked on the bridge’s construction crew.
“Thousands go through here from every country in the world,” she said. “We need this business in our town. All our history is disappearing, and once it’s gone it’s gone. There’s no sense in tearing that bridge down – they can go around it. Will Rogers said this Ribbon Road was the longest sidewalk in America. I think the bridge should be made a walkway. ”
Powell said Afton was a booming town with the only railroad turn around nearby.
“It was a big circle, it was amazing to see them turn those cars around. There was a dam down on the north side of town where the railroad got its water,” she said.
Heather Bible says she remembers playing in Horse Creek near the bridge while her grandfather worked nearby, and she has seen numerous travelers and locals stopping to taking photos at the site.
Bynum’s 7-year-old son Gage is a homeschool student and has studied the bridge’s history. He wants to see the special bridge saved for his generation and for others to come to preserve history.
“This is a piece of history for all of us, and kids like me would not know the history if they tear this bridge down,” Gage said. “We’ll never know Route 66 existed on this bridge when we grow up. The history is just so great and I do not want them to tear this bridge down.”
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.