- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - For decades, about the closest look you could get of Yankton’s Meridian Bridge was through the window of your vehicle as you crossed over the Missouri River.

Much of the admiring of the unique double-decker design and criss-crossed beams had to be done from afar.

But after it was closed in 2008, when the Discovery Bridge opened a half mile to the west, the locals were itching to get on that bridge for a closer look.

At least most of them were. Some balked at the $4.8 million the states of Nebraska and South Dakota spent to fix it up so it could become a pedestrian bridge.

“There was some sentiment before the bridge was upgraded to meet trail standards, ‘Why spend money on an old bridge?’” Todd Larson, Yankton’s director of parks and recreation, told the Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/1af5wIr ).

But since the bridge, built in 1924, reopened for recreational uses on Nov. 23, 2011? That sentiment seems to have changed.

“A lot of those naysayers have become users,” Larson said.

The bridge, long a Yankton icon, has become a popular part of the city’s trail system. From his house a block or so to the west, Jake Hoffner, sees the constant traffic across the bridge. Runners. Walkers. Cyclists. Parents pushing baby strollers.

“I’ve seen people with walkers going over that bridge,” said Hoffner, whose dog, Charlie, is a huge fan of their frequent walks on the bridge.

Rain or shine, there’s almost always someone on the bridge.

“It does get used quite a bit, even when the weather isn’t nice,” Larson said.

Where else can you walk outside and have cover from the weather? The bottom deck offers shade and protection from the elements. The top deck offers an even better view of the surroundings. Already rich with trails along the riverfront and throughout town, Yankton added another dimension when the Meridian Bridge became part of the system, which local officials hope to continue to expand along the river.

“We’ve created a different type of trail system,” Larson said. “It’s quite a different look at the river when you’re standing over the water rather than when you’re standing on the river bank. It’s just a completely different experience.”

You can get a close-up look at bald eagles roosting in the trees along the river, see ducks and geese paddling along, and watch boaters and kayakers down below.

You can stop and look as long as you want.

And take pictures - lots of them. Engagement photos. Wedding photos. Family photos. Senior pictures. Selfies.

“Pictures galore. People are always taking pictures on the bridge,” Larson said.

Want to get married on the bridge? You can rent one of the decks and have your wedding there. The Yankton Area Arts Association rented lower deck to host its fundraising dinner last summer. The city shot last year’s Fourth of July fireworks off the top deck.

More than a landmark, the Meridian Bridge has become a social gathering spot. Plans are in the works to create a pedestrian plaza with a water fountain, water spray jets and sculptures in the former spot where upper-deck traffic came off the bridge onto Walnut Street.

It’s become an attraction. Hoffner and his dog run into out-of-towners in Yankton for baseball tournaments or other events checking out the bridge all the time. The visitors want to experience that walk over the river.

“It’s just a win-win for Yankton,” he said. “We’re so fortunate to have it. It’s only going to grow.”

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