Tucked away in a patch of The Parklands of Floyds Fork woods, neighboring up with maples trees, buckeye, oaks and American beech, and rising above bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit and Christmas fern, the 60-foot arched Roman bridge at first seems like a surprise.
Like, “What’s THAT doing here?”
Then it doesn’t seem like a surprise at all.
It belongs here as part of the recently opened Moss Gibbs Woodland Garden. It’s a perfect fit with the nature, stone, creativity and surprise The Parklands already offers along its 20+ miles. It’s your reward for hiking up the woodland trail from the Ogle Foundation Woodland Pavilion parking lot below or coming down from the Big Vista Overlook.
A Roman arch bridge stretching 60 feet over a narrow Kentucky ravine built of Bedford and Napoleon Quarry stone from Indiana. Hundreds of tons of individual stones and eight-foot sculpted slabs laid in place by man and machine without one daub of mortar. A poetic bridge 11 feet wide, including a two-feet-high retaining wall on each side, rising about 20 feet above the ravine floor.
It’s all part of a looping trail that winds around to an angular wooden deck higher above where you can sit in 2019 and stare at ancient Roman history. Spectacular in form and function. Gravity at its visual finest dating back maybe 2000 years.
“Actually,” said Jim Walters, president of the Bravura Corporation architectural firm that designed many such Parklands projects – and a guy who showed up in knee-high rubber boots to monitor the bridge construction – “I have no idea how the Romans did it back in those days without cranes and stuff.”
Cecil Aguilar directs placement of the foundation stones for the Stone Bridge. Photo by Bob Hower/Quadrant
Cecil Aguilar has some idea. He and his crew, including his father, Jesus Aguilar, and brother-in-law, Felipe Mata laid much of that stone. All it took was good help, good hands, hard work, skid steers and that big white crane looming above the ravine.
The Aguilars have been working in the Parklands for nine years. They and their crew are creators of the hundreds of head walls to be found among its almost 4,000 acres; those long stacked-stone walls that distinguish and define its history.
Stone walls built by Aguilar Stone Masonry emulate those found on many Kentucky farms, including those that now make up parts of The Parklands. Photo by John Nation
The Romans had revolutionized bridge building with their arched bridges. Rather than just covering the surface below the bridge and building up – and thus impeding any water flow – they created those open, semi-circle shapes in which the downward force from the top of the arch would meet the equal force pushed up from the ground at the bottom of the arch. The bridges were so strong they could carry as much load as their own weight.
Off went the Roman Empire, stretching for ten centuries into Europe, Asia and Africa over 900 such bridges. Along with them came miles of arched stone aqueducts and viaducts that carried water and goods into what is now 26 different countries – and many of those structures are still standing.
Cecil Aguilar learned his stone art closer to home; the Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington, an organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the stone walls and buildings in Kentucky and to promote the ancient craft of dry stone masonry – all of that allowing gravity to do the work without mortar.
Cecil learned his craft there 17 years ago, which led to his Aguilar Stone Masonry company. He has applied that knowledge to all sorts of uses and when Parklands officials were discussing several options for a bridge over the ravine while doing the least amount of damage, Cecil had an idea: “Well, why don’t we build it with stone?”
A wooden arch provided support while building the bridge and was removed once the stones were in place. Top photos by Bob Hower/Quadrant; Bottom photos by John Nation.
Some bridge research and rough drawings were required, including digital detective work; not a choice available to the Romans. Steve Weber of Qk4 construction design helped with the project. Neil Rippengale, a Scotchman and veteran stone stacker, added his expertise.
The Moss Gibbs Woodland Garden in The Parklands was already a work in progress, including winding paths, outlooks, overlooks and about 47,000 new plants. Work on the Roman bridge site began in July of 2018 with shovels and heavy equipment used to work down through shale to bedrock to set the foundation.
Each foundation slab and arch stone required dead level placement, then a repeat performance, the crew working 30 feet down a steep ravine in summer heat. Cecil said the fun side was working with his father, Jesus, who at 69, still more than carries his load of rock. The same with his brother-in-law, Felipe Mata.
Mata spoke of working with family, the pride, satisfaction and on-the-job training that comes with carefully fitting carved, stones into place:
“We help each other. It’s a good job. There is something you can learn something every day. You look it over and every time you can do better and better.
“I like all the history. I mean these stones are going to be here forever, all the generations after us that will see them.”
Part of the process included building a wooden arch at the ravine bottom, a half-circle only intended to temporarily hold up the weight of the arch stones and not the entire bridge. The work on this day was to remove that arch, allow the final picture to emerge; a Roman bridge in a Kentucky Ravine.
“If it falls down,” said Cecil Aguilar of the bridge,” it will probably be my last one.”
It didn’t fall down. The crew first went to work sliding down the steep sides of the ravine, sliding tools and rope down with them. The men pried away at the wooden arch, removing it in pieces, slowly revealing the curved bottom of the bridge.
Photos by John Nation
Jim Walters, the Bravura owner in rubber boots, said the bridge’s base foundation was layered with those eight-foot stone slabs, each about four feet wide and eight inches thick. With a different ravine elevation on each side of the bridge, four slabs were required on one side, five on the other. Walters said the bridge placement team looked at five potential sites before picking this particular one to minimize damage to any nearby trees and plants.
“It’s a tough place to work,” said Walters. “The amount of effort they put in to get those holes dug for those foundations and get the timberwork in and put it all together is amazing.
“They had to hand-chisel those stones to within a quarter-of-an-inch. Each stone was about four or five feet long. Then they took a chisel and hand-beveled the corners about a quarter inch for the fit, and it took 188 stones to do the arch.”
The result is that the bridge itself is “alive” – the stones can and will slightly shift and swell over time and seasons but, as with their Roman ancestors, they will long outlast any current users.
The final touch on the bridge, which opened to the public on May 10, was thin metal curves about one-foot high done in art-deco garden fashion across the top of the stone sides.
Its repeating pattern will stretch all 60 feet on both sides of the bridge, adding texture while not competing with stone and the woodland colors, a nice fit for Mother Nature, another salute to the ages.
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.
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