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A BRIDGE OF MANY PIECES BY BOB HILL

Despite its graceful charm the bridge might soon be taken for granted as one of the many that arch over Floyds Fork.

Once it’s concrete decking is poured, the bulldozed landscape around it reworked to fit the seamless mission and the red-twig dogwoods rooted into the river bank, the hikers and bikers will pause on the bridge to look down at the water – then move on to the next stop.

But it wasn’t that easy. It was all about assembling the necessary pieces and programs in proper order; the construction drawings, the iron workers, the machinery, the knowhow – and maybe the brains of a pet English bulldog.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork was years in planning and development; the attention to detail involved in creating this modern, meandering almost 20-mile park from woods, weeds and water is mind-boggling.

The 153-foot bridge connecting park bottomland to its Prairie Preserve and Big Beech Woods was specifically designed of Cor-Ten Weathering Steel; durable and flowing, its rusty look will never need painting.

It was fabricated in West Virginia and trucked to Louisville in three pieces on flat-bed trailers that extend way out to accommodate longer sections; the “OVERSIZE LOAD” signs a redundancy.

It’s upper beam is about five feet high on one side, and rises to about ten feet at the other end, giving it a soaring look and feeling that so matches the surrounding landscape.

Fabrication issues had delayed the bridge’s arrival for weeks. Then there was the matter of dumping tons of stone into the wet bottomlands to create a long winding road to the river’s edge so two towering cranes could lift the sections into place – stone that would all have to be dug up and hauled away to restore the land; details, details, details… another end, giving it a soaring look and feeling that so matches the surrounding landscape.

On a sunny, very cold morning in January the last of the bridge sections was sitting on its flatbed truck on a narrow graveled road near the edge of the Prairie Preserve below the park’s Big Beech Woods in Pope Lick Park.

There it was, utterly incongruous: A long, laser-cut section of angular steel parked on a truck alongside a decaying wooden barn near a big sloping field tall of yellowing grass.

It was parked near the lead of a long a parade of pickup trucks owned by the men who would place the bridge across Floyds Fork; the crew dressed in faded, well-worn work boots, work pants, hooded sweatshirts and hard hats.

The bridge parade headed slowly past spindly trees and along the rutted stone road toward the river – a huge, bright yellow

The white concrete abutments designed to cradle and support the twelve-foot-wide bridge were already in place – the signature pieces of cut and manufactured stone fronting them along the river. Louisville Paving Company Track Hoe bringing up the rear.

The plan was to unload this 38,000-pound section of the bridge from its flatbed trailer, then go around to the other side of the river where the other two sections weighing a total of 64,000 pounds would be bolted together while on the ground.

One 300-ton crane on the north bank would pick up the bolted section, the other 300-ton crane on the south bank would pick up the single section and the pieces would be carefully mated over Floyds Fork as steel workers with big wrenches would climb out on the bridge to bolt them together.

Then 102,000 pounds of bridge would be lowered to it final resting place. To make it all work the steel anchoring plates on each abutment had to be precisely 153 feet apart; that survey and installation work done long before the sections arrived; three inches off would be too much.

It was a good day for vivid colors – and memories. The northwest wind was cold. The sky overhead was bright blue with whips of white. The big construction cranes – which came at a $50,000 rental fee – were bright black, red and white. The thick nylon lifting straps were a bright orange.

Once the flatbed truck was parked the single bridge section was carefully lifted off the flat bed truck. It hung silently 20 feet in the air as the truck slowly backed away beneath it; the ground crew looking up at it, dwarfed by their work.

The sunlight was fading to bitter cold as the crew made its way to the other side of Floyds Fork to bolt the other two sections together as they lay on the ground.

Long slabs of half-inch steel were used to join the pieces, with hundreds of bolts – each 7/8ths of inch thick and two and one-half inches long – hand-cranked tightly into place.

Other bolts – 3/4ths of an inch thick and eight inches long – would be used in different areas.

The sunlight disappeared before the work could be finished. Rain, sleet, black ice and freezing temperatures were forecast for the Louisville area the next day as the men returned to finish the preliminary work and – weather permitting – to hoist the now two sections up over Floyds Fork to make them one.

It was gray, windy and damp at about 2:30 p.m. – but the ice on the bridge sections had melted – when they were were slowly hoisted up from both sides of the river to be set in place.

The man in charge of the heavy lifting – the guy in brown work boots, faded jeans, blue jacket, orange sweatshirt and race-car baseball cap – was “Uncle Joe” Deck, owner of Javier Steel of Vevay, IN.

“I am Javier Steel,” he explained, somewhat kidding.

He had begun working steel in 1969 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati: “I was out of high school and looking for a job.”

He started his own business in 1977. He had a seven-man crew with him on this bridge job. Some of them had been with him about 15 years. Two of them – his sons “Little Joe” and Josh – have been with him as employees about eight to ten years, but Little Joe has been around the work a lot longer than that.

“Ever since he was about three years old,” said his father, “he wanted to go to work with Daddy.”

Uncle Joe said he got his nickname when he began playing Santa Claus for everybody about 30 years ago. His constant companion on any work site is his English bulldog, Beauregard Willard Deck III, whom he often refers to as the smartest creature on the job.

His bulldog also added credence to the theory that dogs and their owners soon begin to look alike.

“I take that as a compliment,” Uncle Joe said.

Bolting together two dangling sections of a bridge with a crane parked at each end and several men on the bridge using pry bars and wrenches involves a considerable amount of multi-tasking.

By late afternoon ¬ with ice clinging to the edges of Floyds Fork – the two bridge sections had been partially joined in the center, but the connecting rectangular pieces had not totally slid together; the fit was not tight.

Viewed from the bank the two sections did not form a perfect arch; each dipped down slightly in the middle putting a lot of downward pressure on the joint.

Standing below the bridge, looking up at the problem while leaning slightly into the job, Uncle Joe spoke to one crane operator over a small, hand-held walkie-talkie: “Cable up…cable up…cable up…left…left…cable up…”

One section inched up ever so slightly, but the two sections still didn’t fit.

The steelworkers up on the bridge – two with their legs wrapped around the upper steel beams like men riding a horse  – tried without success to force the pieces together with iron bars, the clangof their metal tools echoing across the water.

For a half-hour Uncle Joe tried a few more gentle lifts and on-the-job ideas, shouting directions to the men on the bridge between speaking to the crane operators.

At one point it seemed as if the sections would have to be hoisted up and swung back over to the ground so the orange nylon cables could be adjusted to produce a better angle.

The problem was solved when Uncle Joe called over a huge Caterpillar Track Hoe to have it use its bucket to gentle push down on one end of the still-dangling bridge as the other end was held firm.

A few minutes of downward pressure forced the middle of the bridge up enough to have the rectangular slabs slide into place. Once there, all the bolts were tightly fastened and the completed bridge was eased down onto its anchor bolt plates.

It formed a perfect arc  –  just as designed  – with the concrete deck, metal reinforcement, landscaping and park users to follow.

“I’d never done that before,” said Uncle Joe. “The bulldog told me to do it.”

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

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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