A small crowd of onlookers gathered on the banks of Richland Creek in Waynesville Monday afternoon to witness a moment of history: a 100-foot-long steel footbridge dangling from a crane en route to its final resting place.
The bridge is a symbolic milestone in the long-held dream to expand the popular greenway all the way from Waynesville to Lake Junaluska.
“This is the first piece of the puzzle to create a continuous greenway to Lake Junaluska that people will be able to enjoy for future generations,” said Elizabeth Teague, Waynesville Development Services director. “This was the very critical linkage we needed to one day make that happen.”
While that goal is still years away, getting across the creek was the first challenge — a $440,000 challenge that’s now been achieved.
For now, the bridge will unlock access to a new nine-acre tract on the other side of the creek. The new addition to the the Waynesville Recreation Park will be home to a circular walking path, exercise stations and picnic facilities.
The bridge was made possible thanks to local philanthropist Philan Medford. Medford jumpstarted the bridge project with a $100,000 donation a few years ago.
A public fundraising campaign that netted an additional $20,000 in donations. The town covered the remaining price tag for the bridge using its windfall of federal COVID stimulus dollars.
“This is a day we’ve worked very hard for for many years. It’s involved a lot of planning, fundraising by citizens stepping up and commitment from the town to make this possible,” Teague said.
The big moment
A 10-man crew busied about the bridge site Monday morning making final preparations for the structure to be lowered into place.
The bridge was fabricated off-site in two pieces. They were brought in on trucks, lowered to the ground with a crane and then joined together.
“We’ve done a ground splice with bolts and plates to hold it together. Now we’ll rig it up as one entire piece, harness it up to the crane, pick it up and lower it into place,” said Charles Bryson with Owle Construction out of Jackson County. “We’ll swing it out, boom it up and ease it back down. We’ll control it with guy wires to keep it place.”
As the big moment arrived, the gathered crowd fell silent and fired up their phones to capture video of the historic moment.
“This is a vital link to get across the creek and connect the greenway,” said Kristen Hammett, whose mother Doris Hammett made a substantial donation for the bridge. “Greenways are such an important way to foster the community, encourage people to get outdoors and exercise, and protect the environment.”
Bryson said the project has been a particularly rewarding one.
“The bridge has a good story with the local community supporting it,” said Bryson, whose firm built the bridge. “So much of our work as a concrete and bridge contractor is something you drive over and forget about. This is a visible project that people can use and appreciate to get from point A to point B when using the park and the greenway.”
New park in the works
The new pedestrian bridge over Richland Creek at the Waynesville Recreation Park leads to a nine-acre tract on the opposite bank that will now be developed into a new public park.
Town leaders seized the opportunity to add acreage to the otherwise landlocked recreation complex by purchasing the tract for $80,000 five years ago.
Thanks to the bridge coming to fruition, the town will now move forward with a master plan for the additional property. Those plans entail a circular walking path, benches, exercise stations and picnic facilities.
The town received a $230,000 grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund earlier this year to develop the new park area.
So-called passive recreation — greenways, walking trails and open space — has topped public surveys in recreation master planning conducted by the town and county in recent years.
“At the end of a long day, people want to come and unwind and be outdoors,” said Luke Kinsland, interim director of Waynesville Parks and Rec.
Demand for greenways, greenspace and parks has skyrocketed in recent years, with an uptick in public use of the rec park even before COVID led to a renewed appreciation for getting outside.
“This offers a pressure relief to provide more space for people to enjoy,” Kinsland said. “It’s also another link in the chain for a larger greenway system.”
The bridge footings are 25 to 30 feet deep and sit far enough back from the creek bank to ensure they aren’t susceptible to scour during high water. The bridge also had to be engineered around flood plain regulations.
The steel bridge features a natural rust patina, chosen for its longevity.
“It is specifically design to rust to a certain depth and then stop, and that rust acts as a protective coating, whereas a paint would chip and have ongoing maintenance of having to repaint,” explained David Howell with Bell Engineering, the firm that designed the bridge.
The bridge can handle a 10,000 pound load.
“It’s exciting to see it go in,” Howell said. “A lot of times, an infrastructure project gets buried, but this is a project people can see and enjoy.”
The bridge isn’t ready to use for a while longer. The bridge decking will be poured with concrete. Then, an earthwork ramp with block retaining walls will be built on both sides leading up and onto the bridge.
Bryant Lindsey was among the spectators watching the bridge get lowered into place. Lindsay said it’s a day that countless people have worked toward for decades to expand urban trails.
“If you think out 50 years from now, Waynesville is going to want to have trails that maximize the beauty of this creek from the top of Richland Balsam to Lake Junaluska and on down the Pigeon River,” Lindsay said. “This bridge to the other side enables that vision.”