- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - Imagine the Yankton skyline without the Meridian Bridge.

Nearly a decade ago, that was a very real prospect as work began on the Discovery Bridge as a replacement.

However, the Meridian Bridge was ultimately saved thanks to a push by its citizens and a commitment by the City of Yankton for the bridge’s upkeep.

Five years ago, it opened to the public as a walking bridge, the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan (https://bit.ly/2fvr7DJ ) reported.

Yankton resident Jim Means was a part of the effort to preserve the bridge as a pedestrian bridge.

“When they decided to build a new bridge, almost from day one, there were people in the community - me included - that thought, rather than tearing the thing down, it would make a great pedestrian bridge,” Means said. “There was kind of a constant push from some of us in Yankton. There wasn’t even a terribly organized group of people - it was just people who kind of came together and said, ‘We shouldn’t let this go. We need to save this bridge.’”

Means was part of an informal “committee” of residents who attended meetings of the City Commission and other meetings related to the building of the Discovery Bridge.

Yankton Parks & Recreation director Todd Larson told the Press & Dakotan that the Meridian Bridge came very close to demolition.

“There was money slated to demolish the Meridian Bridge,” Larson said. “There were discussions where they said, ‘Well, can’t we find some other money to rehab it and put that money that we’re going to use to demolish it in a bank so it’s there someday down the road if and when it ever needs to be demolished?’”

Originally opened in 1924, the Meridian Bridge was built solely using private funds and operated as a toll bridge for 29 years. It remained open to traffic through 2008 when the Discovery Bridge dedicated.

Working with various state groups in South Dakota and Nebraska, the city eventually came up with a deal.

Means said one of the most important steps dealt with what happened after the transition.

“In the negotiations, of course, nobody wanted to be responsible for it,” he said. “They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll save it, but then who’s going to maintain it and take care of it?’ One of the big things was when the City of Yankton’s City Commission agreed that once it was vacated and fixed up the City of Yankton would take the bridge over and be responsible for it.”

Even before its closure, Larson said the bridge’s condition was already somewhat of a concern.

“In that year leading up to when it got closed down, they were having some issues with rust and the support structure on that bridge,” he said. “They had closed the bridge and done some repairs just to allow vehicles on it.”

This meant a lot of work would need to be done between closure to vehicles and opening to pedestrians, he said.

“If you have a pedestrian bridge and it’s heavily used, you could have a lot of bodies per square foot on that bridge and you can have more weight on that bridge than if you had big vehicles on it,” he said. “Even though they said, ‘Hey, this is going to be a pedestrian bridge,’ there was still going to have to be that work done to make sure all the joints and supports would handle weight when it was a traffic bridge.”

Additionally, railing and historic lighting were added along the bridge to make it safe for pedestrians.

The project cost around $5 million with 70 percent paid for by Nebraska and the remainder by South Dakota.

When it opened to foot traffic in 2011, it didn’t take long for the newly opened walking bridge to catch on, Larson said.

“The first day it was open, I think it was kind of slow going, but as people got on it, walked on it and word spread, by Thanksgiving weekend, it was getting use,” he said. “It’s just so unique -you get out above the river. You can stand and take your time. . It was well received as soon as it was opened.”

Means said that while opinion of the revitalization may have been split in the community, he feels that residents overwhelmingly have come to accept the bridge in its new role.

“I’ve had different people tell me, ‘You know when they were talking about turning this bridge into a pedestrian bridge, I wasn’t too excited about it, but it really is a nice deal.’” he said. “At the time, I’d say the town was pretty evenly split on whether it should be saved or not saved. Friends of mine said, ‘I think it’s just a waste of money. I don’t think we need it. It’s just an old bridge.’ You don’t hear very many of those comments anymore.”

Since its opening, the Meridian Bridge has seen a number of changes. Benches have been added to the paths and Meridian Plaza has been built at the end of Walnut St. on the bridge’s north end. The city also purchased the former Stern Oil property to the west of the bridge and used it for Music at the Meridian this past summer. Larson said the city is still looking into potential development of the property.

Across the Missouri River, the Meridian Bridge RV Resort formally opened earlier this year immediately east of the bridge on the Nebraska side. The RV resort itself has even preserved some of the bridge’s history - developers bought large sections of the bridge’s original railings which had been removed in the 1970s and have lined pathways in the resort with the railings.

The bridge has also been utilized for a number of events, such as the Rock ‘N’ Rumble motorcycle parade, Yankton Community Library story tours, an annual Yankton Area Arts Association dinner and a viewing spot for Fourth of July and Riverboat Days Fireworks. In 2014, due to wet conditions across the river, fireworks were shot off from the bridge deck itself on Independence Day.

Larson said there’s nothing quite like the Meridian Bridge.

“I think it’s been great for the downtown, and it will only get better as we continue to develop those types of amenities,” he said. “It’s a beautiful amenity and it’s very unique.”

Means said he’s happy to see the bridge utilized so much.

“Every time I walk across it, I’m thrilled,” he said. “A lot of times when I’m leaving work and I go down Second St. on my way home, I’ll look up and it always pleases me when I see people walking on it. I think it’s a great addition to the community.”

___

Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, https://www.yankton.net/


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