It's a bridge, it's art, and it's Beloit's
By William D. Behling
IT CAN BE SAID with certainty that Beloit's newest bridge is a work of art, not to mention a structure inviting community use and enjoyment.
This bridge is made for walking, not for driving across in the family car. There are five other bridges for that sort of traffic. Actually, a new-old bridge, the span whereof we speak is a plank-floored, steel-railed cross-river pathway for bikers and walkers and for fishing and picnicking and for relaxing upon while watching the river's flow and contemplating the meaning of life.
Using a little imagination, one can see the eight big platforms accommodating such activities as art shows, dances and so forth.
At 11 o'clock Saturday morning, the Wood Family Fishing Bridge is to be dedicated. The ceremony, at the east end of the bridge on the RiverWalk, is open to the public. On hand will be city officials, members of the Wood family, the artist who designed the bridge, the contractors who built it, and members of the Beloit 2000 organization, whose RiverFront Project comes nearer to completion with the opening of the bridge.
STEVEN P.J. WOOD, former president of Warner Electric Brake and Clutch, Co., made the fishing bridge project possible. His $600,000 gift covers the cost. No public funds have been used. Wood joins a list of prominent Beloit industrialists and business people whose generosity has resulted in many of the RiverFront Project's amenities.
Wood will present the completed bridge to Beloit 2000 President Charles Hart, who will in turn present the facility to the people of Beloit, represented by City Council President John Murphy.
Let us briefly recount the events to be culminated by Saturday's ceremony.
SOON AFTER A group of business, industrial and civic leaders formed the Beloit 2000 partnership, a University of Wisconsin urban planner, Prof. Phil Lewis, was asked to suggest ways for Beloit to reclaim for public use some unsightly properties along the city's riverfront. Lewis envisioned a RiverWalk, leading from downtown north to Henry Avenue, and following both the east and west banks from the Portland Avenue area northward. He saw the old and unused wooden railroad trestle as a cross-river link for the walkway.
It happens that Alan McIvor, a Beloit College vice president, has a close friend and former McAllister College (St. Paul) classmate, who is an artist of world repute. His specialty is designing bridges that are public artworks that can be used by people. The artist is Iranian-born Siah Armajani. He came to Beloit to visit McIvor and at once pronounced the old trestle eminently suitable for supporting a fishing bridge.
ARMAJANI LIKES TO design things that connect people with their community, and the community's past with its future. The old trestle, built in 1928 and last used by trains in the early 60s, was made to order for the Armajani treatment. The bridge had been an important rail link for Beloit industry, and Beloit's Fairbanks Morse has been a major manufacturer of railroad locomotives. To honor that history, Armajani capped off his bridge design with an aluminum shell replica of an F-M built locomotive perched on a steel framework above the bridge floor.
Beloit 2000 commissioned Armajani to design the bridge back in 1993. The artist's work was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But, truth be told, Armajani's friendship with McIvor and his fascination for the bridge project as well as the receptiveness of the community to his public art, resulted in his doing the design work pretty much on a pro bono basis.
With the bridge design on hand, but no funds for the project, Beloit 2000 had to wait for an “angel.” Last year, Steve Wood stepped forward, pledging money for the project, in honor of his family.
ARMAJANI PREFERS TO work with local craftspeople, and he couldn't have found a better bunch than was recruited for the bridge project. He's taken a liking to Tom Gilbank of Gilbank Construction; Kevin Newman, builder of wood landscaping components; Ed Kipp of Elk II manufacturing, metal fabricators, Pete Gustafson of Gustafson Electric, and others who do fencing, excavating and the like.
These “country boy contractors,” all of modest size, have worked together on most RiverFront jobs. They cooperate willingly, help one another when necessary, and quite probably have put more time and effort into the bridge project than they intended, or are being paid for.
Making the bridge part of the RiverWalk system wouldn't have been possible without the wholehearted cooperation of Beloit Box Board Co. President Joe Chamberlain. The west end of the bridge is where Box Board's truck parking and pallet storage yard, not to mention a huge propane tank, had been located. To help the project along, the Beloit Corp. sold Box Board some land for a new truck yard. And Chamberlain agreed to clear the area so that a walkway could be built from the fishing bridge to the Portland Avenue bridge.
“WE COULDN'T HAVE done it without Joe's cooperation,” says Erv Zuehlke, who is the volunteer “clerk of the works,” on the bridge project. And, say the contractors and Chamberlain and Beloit 2000 officials, the job probably couldn't have been done without Zuehlke.
“Erv is an absolute gem,” says Jeff Adams, who has been Beloit 2000 coordinator since Day One. “He's kept the inevitable loose ends tied together. The contractors respect him. They're all friends and they work well together, anyway, but Erv's involvement as a volunteer has been a huge help.”
Gilbank, a Clinton based general contractor, has been a key participant for Beloit 2000 all along, as have Newman and Kipp. Their pride in having had roles in making Beloit's riverfront a real showplace, is obvious.
Kipp and his crew (he says they're a family) have put together 15,703 pieces of metal, I-beams, two-inch railings and small pickets _ with a total of 125,624 individual welds, according to Kipp's calculations. The metalwork on the bridge weighs better than 100 tons. The steel framework is fastened to the railroad ties and stringers of the original trestle, whose 16-inch pilings are sunk deep into the river bottom and will be there a long, long time.
ONTO THE STEEL framework, Newman's woodworkers have placed a network of 2 by 8 stringers. Fastened to the stringers with 56,000 three-inch wood screws are treated white pine planks, giving the bridge and its eight fishing platforms a 13,000 square foot floor. At either end of the 720-foot bridge are steel-frame “gates” that never close, centered over a tree at the east end and a boulder at the west end, in keeping with Armajani's design.
Pete Gustafson and his crew of electricians have had one of the more challenging roles in building Armajani's bridge.
The bridge's lighting system is high-tech stuff _ no bulbs. Teacup-size plastic luminaries mounted on the railings get their light via fiber optic strands from hidden light-source boxes. Revolving discs change the colors to make the bridge more interesting to look at and walk upon at night. The bridge-top locomotive also will be bathed in changing-color light that is conveyed by fiber optic strands from a computer-controlled source.
BESIDES HAVING NO bulbs to burn out, the lighting system consumes a mere 3,500 watts, less than the oven in a kitchen stove.
With the new bridge, Beloit becomes the repository of more and better “public art” than many large cities can claim. And it all started nearly 20 years ago when we were feeling rotten about our town and the private-sector Beloit 2000 group launched the RiverFront project.
It's been a great ride, and it's not over yet.
William D. Behling is Editor Emeritus of the Beloit Daily News.