Neighbors, history buffs want to save Swinging Bridge

Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide photo Jurt Dubbe of the Teton County Historic Preservation Board is part of the emerging effort to save the historic Swinging Bridge across the Snake River south of Jackson. “This structure is the last extent or remaining bridge that spans a large watercourse that is of this style,” he said. “If this bridge were lost, it's gone. It will never be replaced.”

JACKSON — At first Jason Dewey said that “more than half” of the reason he bought a property and built a home along a four-lane highway — five, if you count the turn lane in the middle of Highway 89 — was the view of Swinging Bridge just to the east.

Then he reconsidered: 75 percent.

Then he mulled how much the bridge had inspired the architecture in his house — like the corrugated steel and metal siding and exposed concrete. And about the shuffleboard he’d commissioned that was essentially an inverted swinging bridge.

And he went higher.

“Now that I’m saying it aloud, 90 percent of the reason I developed the land the way I did is because of this,” Dewey said. “It has factored into a lot of my house.”

And, with Teton County considering removing Swinging Bridge from its current location, or at least moving it, Dewey wants to see the bridge saved.

He’s not alone.

Mariam and Scott Diehl, landowners to the north of Swinging Bridge, also want to see the bridge stay where it is. Ditto a handful of other residents who assembled at the bridge last Friday with the Teton County Historic Preservation Board, an arm of county government, that is also advocating for Swinging Bridge’s preservation.

“I just hate to see another piece of Jackson go,” said Cindy Brackett, who has lived in the valley for 40 years, and spent 15 of those years living south of Jackson.

But whether and how the old structure will be preserved remains to be seen.

It will depend largely on what the Teton County Board of County Commissioners decides to do with the bridge, which in turn will depend on how much the project will cost, and whether the community has an appetite for fundraising to keep the bridge close to its current location.

Swinging Bridge provides a second access to Hog Island homes on the east side of the Snake River. Teton County asked the Wyoming Department of Transportation to help replace the bridge through a program that would see the state transportation agency fund 90 percent of the work, primarily with federal dollars, and Teton County pick up the rest of the tab.

The three-span, pin-connected steel truss bridge — to be technical about it — is scheduled to be replaced in 2023, but, in planning and design work, WYDOT determined that it could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its three truss spans were originally part of the Wilson Bridge built in 1915 that crossed the Snake River, connecting Jackson and Wilson. They were moved to their current location in 1960 and haven’t been altered much since, with the exception of when a truck hit the bridge in 2015, necessitating repairs.

WYDOT and county staff have presented commissioners with options to preserve the bridge, and the elected officials have decided that they’d like more information about one of the options: moving Swinging Bridge just downstream, repurposing it as a pedestrian and bike bridge, and building a new vehicle bridge on the existing bridge’s footprint.

Architectural history buff Kurt Dubbe, a Jackson architect and member of the Historic Preservation Board, supports preserving the bridge.

“This structure is the last extant or remaining bridge that spans a large watercourse that is of this style,” he said. “If this bridge were lost, it’s gone. It will never be replaced.”

But he questioned the need to move the bridge.

“This structure is not in imminent jeopardy of failure,” Dubbe said. “Its history of performance continues to serve all the users very effectively.”

Teton County Engineer Amy Ramage agreed that Swinging Bridge is safe, despite it being rated “structurally deficient.” The current Snake River Bridge shares that designation.

But she said that Swinging Bridge is missing “proper structural design elements” to withstand a seismic event — an earthquake, that is. That brings it out of line with current design standards, which require bridges to be built to withstand quakes. Ramage said the bridge is also old, and there’s been some degradation in one of its underwater foundations.

Plus it was hit in 2015 and, while it was repaired, Ramage said it still has bent members.

“It’s functional and safe for now, but this is part of the wear and tear,” Ramage said. “When steel members get fixed over and over, eventually we reach the end of their lifespan.”

While Dewey said his preference is to keep Swinging Bridge where it is, he told the News&Guide he was game for siting it on his property if it comes to that.

“To take that much space, whatever that is, 12 feet, and move it over here would not bother me a bit,” Dewey said, eyeballing how much space the access would take on his property.

Costs have yet to be pinned down for a potential relocation and, at a July workshop, commissioners didn’t seem excited about footing the bill for preservation.

A staff report prepared for that meeting estimated that preservation could cost between $500,000 and $1 million, and Ramage said Friday that she hadn’t gotten a clearer understanding of what moving the bridge would cost since July. Money would likely have to be spent on acquiring an easement to put one side of Swinging Bridge on Dewey’s property and the other on U.S. Forest Service land across the river, building new abutments and then, as Ramage said, “scooting the whole thing over.”

Once Teton County has a better picture of costs, it could turn to the community for fundraising support.

If that falls through the county will likely look at removing the bridge and perhaps preserving it elsewhere.

Andy Salter, a member of the Historic Preservation Board, was optimistic about the chances of a fundraising campaign, pointing to the Save the Block movement, which succeeded in raising $7 million from the general public to preserve greenspace in downtown Jackson.

“I’d like to think anything’s possible,” Salter said.

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