Graying bridge will be replaced City to build span on Paper Mill Road for $11.4 million

August 02, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

For more than 75 years, cars, trucks and wagons have rattled over the steel grates of the Paper Mill Road Bridge, ferrying commuters home and to work across the Loch Raven Reservoir.

But in 19 months, the elegantly arched bridge -- one of the few of its kind in the country -- will fall silent, except perhaps for the soft tread of footsteps or the squeak of bicycle tires.

Contractors for Baltimore have started work on a $11.4 million bridge that will carry the nearly 10,000 cars that drive on Paper Mill Road each day. When the 669-foot-long span is completed in February 2000, it will be wider and stronger than the old one and will have a pedestrian sidewalk.

"I think it's time to see a new one," said Thom Walters, who passes over the bridge each day to go to work at Hunt Valley Golf Club. He says the approaches to the bridge are sharp and can be treacherous when it rains.

Still, he is glad the old span will remain for recreational use. "I like the architecture," he said.

Although outdated and covered with flaking gray paint, the steel Paper Mill Road Bridge was a marvel when it was built in 1922 as part of the city's mammoth Loch Raven Reservoir project.

At that time, Baltimore raised the Loch Raven Dam to increase its water capacity for a growing population. The higher waterline required new roads and bridges across the Gunpowder Falls, which feeds the reservoir.

Distinctive design

The original, 459-foot-long Paper Mill Road Bridge was built of steel manufactured by Bethlehem Steel Bridge Corp. in Steelton, Pa., for $110,969.50, according to Anne Bruder of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Although other steel bridges were built, including the one that crosses the reservoir at Warren Road, the Paper Mill Road Bridge design was distinctive.

Designer Herschel Hethcote Allen, a principal in the John Greiner Co. engineering firm, modeled the bridge after Hell Gate Bridge over New York City's East River. Only a few other bridges based on that model still stand.

While unusual, Allen's bridge was not the first over the Gunpowder Falls. Records show bridges crossing the river at that location dating back at least to the 1770s, when gristmills dotted the riverbanks.

The rolling woodlands around the bridge first were granted to Benjamin Rogers, who called the land Benjamin's Hills and Valleys. Rogers operated a gristmill and alerted local authorities in 1773 that two Irish servants had run away from the plant.

The Marble Vale Paper Mill was built by John Hunter in 1850, imparting its name to Paper Mill Road. The mill burned in 1888, but its stone foundations can be seen when the reservoir is low.

Time and age have taken their toll on the Paper Mill Road Bridge. It was closed for repairs for several months in late 1990 and reopened with a 3-ton weight restriction. The county's heaviest firetrucks must detour around the bridge when responding to calls. Maintenance is costly, and the bridge's lanes are narrow.

Weighing options

Baltimore, which owns the bridge because it is within the reservoir watershed, considered several options to improve the Paper Mill Road route over the reservoir.

They included repairing the bridge; using it for one-way traffic and building a new bridge for traffic traveling the opposite way; or replacing the bridge with one that would provide safer access and a pedestrian walkway.

After much debate with community groups and preservationists, the city opted to build a bridge and give the old one to Baltimore County for recreational use.

"We really wanted to see a way of keeping the existing bridge so it could be adaptively reused in a creative way," said Judith S. Kremen, director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust. "It took a couple of years to get it all worked out."

The new bridge designer, Gary Miller, senior vice president of Johnson, Mirmiran and Thompson of Sparks, said he had to consider the forces of nature and history. His challenge was to build a structure that would not harm the fragile Loch Raven Reservoir and would complement the old arched bridge.

Wider lanes, more approach

His solution was a two-lane bridge with an elegant, 99-foot-high curved arch reminiscent of the old bridge. The new span's price tag is more than the cost of the original Loch Raven Reservoir construction project.

The work will be done by Kiewit Construction Co. of Omaha, Neb. When construction is complete, drivers will have more approach to the bridge and wider lanes. Pedestrians also will have a sidewalk on the bridge's south side.

During construction, traffic is expected to flow normally on Paper Mill Road, city public works officials said.

Kremen said she is pleased with the new bridge's design. "We thought the arch was very nice and [had] simple lines," she said.

The future of the old bridge remains uncertain. The city will turn the bridge over to the county, which is considering opening it to foot and bicycle traffic or using it for a fishing pier.

"What we would like to do is work with the zoning commissioner and the Department of Public Works to do a feasibility study," Kremen said. "But we're very happy with where we are now."

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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