A new use for an old span

Plan: Baltimore County wants to restore the Old Paper Mill Bridge, making it accessible to hikers and bicyclists.

July 22, 2003|By Alyson R. Klein | Alyson R. Klein,SUN STAFF

The bridges crossing Loch Raven Reservoir at Paper Mill Road are a study in contrasts -- one sleek and functional, the other, no longer used, so ornate that it looks like something out of a Grimm's fairy tale.

Baltimore County officials have been trying to decide what to do with the latter bridge for the past three years. Now plans are being developed to make it accessible to hikers and bicyclists.

"Around here, some people say it's almost as beautiful as the Brooklyn Bridge. ... It's in a beautiful part of the county, and it will give people a good place to go out to on a nice day, if only for a couple hours," said David Fidler, spokesman for the county Department of Public Works.

At 6:30 tonight, the department will hold an informal meeting at Cockeysville Middle School, 10401 Greenside Drive, to discuss a plan to build a spur from the North Central Railroad Trail to the Old Paper Mill Bridge. If the community supports the plan, which is expected to cost about $200,000, work would begin within a year, and take another year to complete.

Running parallel to Paper Mill Road in Cockeysville, the trail would make the bridge a scenic destination. At present, there is no parking near the bridge, making it difficult for anyone to enjoy it.

"It gives future generations a glimpse back into history. We want to provide a safe place where they can take a little side trip," said Michael Rothenheber, vice president of Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, the Sparks engineering firm hired by the county for the project. Designed in 1922 by the J.E. Greiner Co., which built many of the bridges in Baltimore during the last century, the Old Paper Mill Bridge was one of several across the country modeled on the Hell Gate Bridge over the East River in New York City.

Rising about 70 feet above the reservoir, the old bridge sports beams decorated with diamond-shaped holes crisscrossing the high arches. The floor is steel grating in an open triangular pattern, beneath which the brown water of the reservoir can be seen.

"All of that gingerbread is complicated and expensive to maintain," said James Arford, chief of structural design for county public works.

The task of keeping the bridge safe and clean became more difficult as it got older. Eventually, officials decided the bridge had become functionally obsolete; it could not hold enough weight to meet traffic demands, and in 2001 the new bridge was built.

Rather than demolish it, however, the Maryland Historical Society recommended it be put to a new use.

The current proposal calls for the bridge to be cleaned, repainted and made safe for children and pedestrians. The floor of the bridge would be covered with timber, creating a smooth surface for strollers, and the guardrails would be replaced. The existing guardrails have large gaps through which children could fall.

Historic plaques would be placed, detailing the history of the bridge and Baltimore's water system, and explaining the unusual architecture of the bridge. Pointing to one of the lower arches, Arford said, "That archway over there, it doesn't really support the structure. It's just there for show."

That kind of aesthetic indulgence wouldn't fly if the bridge was built today, said Arford. In the 1920s, materials were expensive, but labor was cheap.

The new bridge requires no complicated maintenance. It is supported by a simple arch. The structure of weathered steel rusts to give the bridge its uniform, deep-red color, making painting and cleaning unnecessary.

"When you compare the two bridges, you can really see the changes in engineering over the last century," Arford said.

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