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THE LEAPING BRIDGES OF THE PARKLANDS

A good bridge will span more than water. It will connect earth and sky. It can help us remember and honor family and old friends. It enables its designers to turn vision into arching steel and massive stone. It will allow its builders to share in the pride of that achievement. It will leap across history.

It will even tell a good story.

And so it goes with the “leaping bridges” across Floyds Fork in the Beckley Creek section of The Parklands of Floyds Fork. Each bridge links the land, the families that once lived on that land, innovative design and a prideful path into the future.

One of bridges, in particular, links what had been the old Oesterritter farm off Beckley Station Road with its two families and 13 children and the Bell property at their End of Lane farm off Gilliland Road where Bob and Nancy Bell raised horses and enjoyed their grandchildren.

For the Oesterritter children, their farm already was a park. They lived, fished, played and held family outings on it for many years. On the hillside below what is now the Gheens Foundation Lodge and the PNC Achievement Center for Education and Interpretation lay an old children’s bicycle that had been rescued from the bridge excavating – did it once belong to one of those 13 children?  Even more poignant and evocative was an image captured by Parklands photographer John Nation; a smaller, rusting, mud-soaked bicycle a few feet beneath the clear waters of Floyds Fork.

Across Floyds Fork the bridge lands on the old Bell farm; the landowners an elderly, energetic, welcoming couple who died together in an auto accident on Shelbyville Road. Their house is gone now, but the old barn where they kept their horses, where their grandchildren played, remains in the distance – with a long promenade of welcoming trees to be planted on the property in the future.

But the almost serendipitous history of The Parklands of Floyds Fork and this leaping bridge has an even more distant connection. It goes back to 1950 when a University of Louisville freshman named David Jones had a job as “traveling night man” for a chain of six Louisville gas stations owned by Surety Oil Company.

The hours were 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.; the job was to work as relief for the regular night man who worked the other six nights.

“It wasn’t as tough as it sounds,” said Jones, who would go on to found Humana Inc., with Wendell Cherry and become a driving force in The Parklands. “There was little traffic after midnight so I could study and sleep with the door locked and if someone wanted gas they would knock on the door and waken me.

“One station was located at 10th and Jefferson Streets and its manager in 1950 was Jim Thornton.”

New Albany High School graduate Jim Thornton would go on to found Thorntons, Inc., one of the largest privately held companies in Kentucky with more than 160 gasoline stations and convenience stores across the Southeast.

That two young men with local roots would meet by chance working nights in a gas station and later go on to found multi-billion dollar corporations in Louisville – and remain life-long friends while giving back to their communities –  is yet a larger bridge to ponder.

With one more chance meeting yet to come.

And it was this friendship that would someday help fund the Parklands of Floyds Fork – but before we get into that this story moves on to a man named Jim Walters, president of the Bravura architectural firm of Louisville.

A native of Elkhart, Indiana, the son of a tool-and-die maker, Walters was the first in his extended family to go to college. He began his career designing hospitals, the complex process of melding patient’s needs with technical and medical services. He began working with the booming Humana Corporation in 1973, and has worked for and with the company – and David Jones and other officers – ever since.

His name – or that of Bravura – is quietly attached to a remarkable number of Louisville buildings and projects beyond hospitals; the Humana Building; the Kentucky Center for the Arts; the converting of the old riverfront Belknap buildings into the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church USA; the Waterfront Development Corporation; Waterfront Park Place; the Ali Center and the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage among them.

After discussions with many of the original designers and planners Walters – and Bravura – would play many roles in helping develop the Parklands of Floyds Fork, both in bringing together the disparate people and organizations involved, and in the practical design of a singular park along more than 20 miles of southbound winding stream.

“One of the big jobs was connectivity,” said Walters. “How do you bring it together?

“The Fork itself, that’s the one consistent thing, top to bottom. So that’s the unifying thing. Let’s respect that. Let’s connect the roads so that we can bring people to this land, and certainly the trails so that you can enjoy it through all these different environments.”

Walters talked about the imagery and materials of native Kentucky architecture – stone walls, dark-stained barns, vertical windows, beamed roofs – and the ways to bring all that into use along the sprawling park.

The park’s seven bridges, he said, would follow that theme but with the addition of some architectural kinetic energy: The road and trails would follow the terrain but the weathering steel bridges would “leap” over Floyds Fork. Bravura architect Nick Passafiume would work with that design; always with that animal imagery in mind.

Both men knew bike riders and pedestrians would invariably stop on top of the bridge to peer over the side, but the deepest water wasn’t always in the middle of Floyds Fork. The highest point of the bridge had to carry a little further toward one side. The bridge, in a sense, would have to “crouch” a little bit.

“It’s much as this deer is leaping over the fence,” said Walters. “That’s the idea of the bridge. It has this big muscular side that’s not an arch and it lands on the other side. There’s a sense of movement in the railings.”

Passafiume said Bravura worked closely with the HNTB engineering firm in Louisville translating the leaping bridge concept into steel. Walters joked he had to “twist the arms” of the structural engineers who wanted to do it the way they’ve always done it.

“We’ve never done bridges before,” he said. “That’s probably a good thing.”
He added that the builders did have some difficulty with the concrete work for the bridge’s barrier walls to which its stainless steel railings – designed as part of the leap – would be attached.

“This is a park bridge not a normal bridge,” he said. “We really wanted that (bridge crossing) to be an event, a moment.”

The side-by-side placing of the five 170-foot bridge girders during its construction provided initial moments all on their own. Each girder – laser cut like a ship’s hull by the Stupp Bridge Company at its Bowling Green, Ky., plant – weighed 80,000 pounds.

The finished bridge would be 38-feet wide. The girders came in two sections – and had to be carefully spliced together to make them look seamless as they stretched across the river.

A towering crane was set up on each bank of the river to lower the sections into place. As bridge workers walked along the top of steel girders twice their height, the crane operators carefully maneuvered the two pieces down into place – inch-by-inch – until they met and were bolted together as one.

Below the girders, massive rectangular blocks of limestone cut from a Bedford, IN., quarry had already laid in place along the river’s edge to provide stability – and heighten the visual effect.

The blocks – some eight feet long, five feet wide and almost five feet tall and weighing up to 16,000 pounds – also had been carefully inched into place on long cables. Limestone blocks would also be used alongside the bridge – and were randomly scattered about the landscape near the bridge – to add to its sense of place.

David Wright, bridge superintendent with the MAC Construction & Excavating Company supervising the bridge construction, could be found on-site in his pickup truck almost seven days a week co-coordinating all construction details.

Wright, 51, a direct, likable and respected 30-year-veteran in the construction business said most of what he knew about building bridges had been on-the-job training: “Basically when you start young, keep your mouth shut, watch and learn…

“And after you run a jackhammer for about 12, 14 hours a day for a couple of years you start to smarten up. And I got to where I was lead man, and, after a few years, promoted to foreman.”

Wright said he left his home in Ekron, KY., about 5 a.m., would get to the work site about 6 a.m. to get his thoughts together, examine the blueprints and paperwork and get his crew scheduled before attending a safety meeting at about 7:30 a.m.

“I usually get home around 5:30 to 6 o’clock unless we’re pouring concrete and we should have to stay a little bit later,” he said. “And then I’m usually home about seven or eight.”

The leaping bridges, he said, are unlike any he had ever seen: “They’re, in my opinion, what I call beefed up a little more…they’re designed better than most of the interstate bridges.

“They’ve got a lot of fancy stonework that goes on your wing walls and abutment walls and stuff I’ve never done before… I’ve never seen anything designed like it…I mean they’re just a couple of bridges of their own.”

A half-dozen laborers were working at one bridge site on a cool, quiet, sunny morning in January. One of them, Meade County resident Jerricho Ray, 36, a third-generation construction worker, was part of the crew setting the enormous limestone blocks in place below the bridge.

The work is all pre-engineered and designed by blueprint. It’s both a very simple and complex process – and eventually comes down to man, machine and hard hats:

The precisely-cut rock is trucked in from Bedford and hauled to the edge of Floyds Fork. Holes are drilled in the rock, flat plates with handles are screwed into the rock and each is lifted by a track hoe and moved toward the river where Ray and his co-workers, flashing subtle hand and finger signals to the operator, slowly guide and snug 16,000-pound limestone blocks into place alongside other similar blocks in horizontal rows; thus the bridge’s outer shell becomes a throwback to history.

Ray said he had already brought his wife, mom and dad to come see the bridge work – and would be bringing his friends.

“It’s just a lot of big rock going in and stuff,” he said. “And it’s a neat bridge.”

Corydon, IN., resident Joyce Seifert, 60, a mother of two, has worked for MAC for 17 years as a laborer. It’s a title she translates to doing “just all kinds of stuff….I mean just packing lumber, pouring concrete, helping tie rebar.

“…I’ll actually tell you my dad was a carpenter and I’ve helped build a lot of houses as a young kid growing up. Helped tear down a lot of housing. And I lived on a farm. We had chicken houses. We had tobacco patches. So I’m kind of quite a tomboy.”

She said she had been working with David Wright for about two years, mostly on restoring old bridges; the “leaping bridge” was her first new one.

“Oh, it’s marvelous,” she said. “It’s just top of the line…something like you’d see up in New York.”

Another Hoosier, Michael Hadley of Borden, was operating the crane on the track hoe used to lower the huge blocks into place one inch at a time.

He’s 28, has been operating heavy equipment since he was 16 and growing up on a farm. He’s been with MAC about five years – with more on-the-job training.

“I had a foreman at MAC that let me just move a pile of dirt a couple times…so I just kind of started on dirt and then got into everything else.”

That everything else eventually included maneuvering the limestone blocks – which eventually boils down to a matter of experience, confidence and mutual trust:

“You just stay calm and don’t get worried about nuthin’. Cause if you get nervous, then you might mess up. Cause, you know, a little bit of movement of the hand it could get real bad real quick for those guys standing there.

“And I guess, if you can do it you can do it. If not, they’ll tell you to get off.”

Driving across the leaping bridges gives proof to all that work and design. The road almost leans back – all you see is sky – and as you reach the top of the bridge the land suddenly reappears out in front – and Floyds Fork flows on both sides; the leap is real and visceral.

Jim Walters estimated the total cost of the bridge, road, stone work and bank stabilization at about $2.7 million.  It was named “The Thornton Bridge” in honor of Bonnie and Jim Thornton – the man who first met David Jones one night in a gas station 62 years ago – and would donate $1 million to The Parklands of Floyds Fork.

Jones said he first became re-acquainted with Thornton many years later after his U of L graduation, Navy service and receiving a law degree from Yale University when they accidentally met in the Wilson Wyatt law firm where Jones had just started work – and where Thornton would become his client.

“I’ve often wondered,” said Jones, “if he were as surprised to see me there as I was to see him!”

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