WATERVILLE, Ohio —The Ohio Department of Transportation has a bridge it’d like to sell you.
Except that under ODOT rules, the Roche de Boeuf interurban railroad bridge over the Maumee River near Waterville officially hasn’t been a bridge since 1983, because its poor condition makes it unsafe for even a pedestrian to cross.
And if nobody steps up during a June 30 auction to take the historic, but decrepit, concrete-arch structure off the state’s hands, ODOT plans to proceed with demolition.
The auction of 5.67 acres in Lucas and Wood counties that includes the bridge is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Maumee Rotary Pavilion in Side Cut Metropark, 1025 W. River Rd. in Maumee.
“Our duty to the public is not being met in two very significant ways with this bridge,” Patrick McColley, ODOT’s district deputy director in Bowling Green, said in a statement announcing the auction.
“ODOT’s mission is to safely move people and goods from place to place, and at one time, this bridge supported that mission,” McColley said. “The bridge now, however, serves no purpose for transportation, and in its deteriorated state poses a risk to the public.”
Among those likely to attend the auction is Jon Gochenour, the city administrator in Waterville, whose city seal includes a rendering of the viaduct. But he said he only expects to be there to observe.
“It’s a community landmark on the National Register of Historic Places — an iconic symbol of Waterville,” Gochenour said. “[But] being that we’ve seen the cost to restore it, it’s beyond our ability to afford it…. There’s a lot of support in the community for keeping it, but the money involved is astronomical.”
During a public meeting in November, 2019, ODOT officials estimated the cost to restore the bridge — which they said basically meant rebuilding it — at about $15 million, while tearing it down would cost about $2 million.
Gochenour said there had been “discussions back and forth” between Waterville, Lucas County, and Metroparks Toledo, but none bore any fruit. The structure might be “a nice addition to Farnsworth Metropark,” he mused, but that agency has other commitments.
“It’s just not something that we could justify,” said Scott Carpenter, the Metroparks’ district’s spokesman. “If we were to buy it, we would have to tear it down as well.”
What you get
An ODOT appraisal values the bridge and the land — a strip 66 feet wide of the former interurban railroad’s right-of-way from River and Forst roads in Wood County to the Anthony Wayne Trail in Lucas County — at $100.
Anybody brave enough to submit a bid will become fully responsible for the structure’s upkeep.
“The purchaser assumes all responsibility and liability for maintenance, management, securing, repair, replacement, or removal of the bridge structure,” ODOT’s notice reads in part. “ODOT will not retain any responsibilities or liabilities for or in connection with the bridge or associated property.”
The structure built in 1908 by the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad Co. is one of the region’s last vestiges of “interurban” railroad lines that once spider-webbed across northern and western Ohio and throughout the Midwest.
The term “interurban” referred to their function as extensions of the streetcar services that were the backbone of local transit during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rail lines often were built and owned by electric-utility companies and ran by electric propulsion, which gave those companies occasion to extend electric service out into rural areas that otherwise wouldn’t have been cost-effective to serve.
But while many of those power lines survive, the trains quickly succumbed to competition from private automobiles on publicly built roads. Most interurban railroads that survived to reach the Great Depression went bankrupt then, and the Roche de Boeuf bridge lost its trains in 1937.
Four years later, the former railroad structure got new life as a bypass for the Waterville Bridge downstream when one of the latter’s spans collapsed and, according to ODOT, couldn’t be replaced right away because of wartime steel shortages. The state bought the bridge in 1943 and continued to use it for vehicular traffic until 1946, when the Waterville Bridge reopened.
It has been officially unused ever since, and over time its concrete exterior crumbled, exposing the earthen fill inside to the elements and resulting in large concrete chunks breaking loose and either falling into the river or dangling above the water by strands of reinforcing steel.
The bridge was listed in 1972 on the National Register of Historic Places, and several years later a Roche de Boeuf Bridge Historical Society organized to spearhead an unsuccessful preservation effort. In 1983, ODOT proclaimed it no longer a bridge for inspection and maintenance purposes.
Its condition came to the fore in 2017 when James Bagdonas, then Waterville’s municipal administrator, wrote ODOT a letter citing its decay as a hazard to canoeists and boaters as well as to future users of the Maumee River Water Trail.
City officials said during the ODOT public meeting two years later that their hope at the time was that ODOT would cut down dangling concrete chunks before they broke loose. But the letter set in motion a deeper ODOT review of the situation.
Carpenter said he doesn’t envy the dilemma the state faces in sealing the viaduct’s fate.
“As much as we enjoy having it there as a landmark … it’s difficult to justify the cost when there’s no return to the taxpayer,” he said. “Thankfully the bridge has been there as long as it has” for interested people to document it in photographs and paintings.