Recovering history: Bell Ford Bridge installation at Geist Park planned for late summer/early fall


More than 150 years ago, the Bell Ford Bridge allowed Hoosiers to cross the White River in the southern Indiana town of Seymour. It served its purpose for about 100 years before it was deemed unsafe. A storm later destroyed half the dilapidated structure. The other half fell into the river in 2006.

The pieces were fished out of the water and stored in Jackson County until Hamilton County officials negotiated in 2018 to bring what was left of the bridge about 75 miles north.

That kicked off a years-long restoration project that is coming to an end later this summer. Construction crews are in the final stages of putting the bridge together — using original and replacement pieces — next to the Fishers AgriPark parking lot, less than a quarter mile from the bridge’s future home spanning Fall Creek at Geist Park.

Matt Lee is the bridge program engineer for Hamilton County Highway Department. He said that while the original Bell Ford Bridge had two spans — the section in between the supports — the restored bridge will be a single span.

It will include almost 90 percent original iron castings from the 1860s and a significant amount of the original wood.

“There are about 25 members that are comprised, either partially or entirely, of original timber,” he said. “That is about 40 percent of the primary truss members.”

Webb said that getting to the point of assembling the bridge involved a team of designers and engineers who looked at historic information about the structure, figured out what fit where and came up with a plan to put it all back together again — kind of like a big puzzle, but with lots of pieces missing, broken or mangled.

“A lot of these (iron) bars were kind of all tangled up and really bent,” he said. “It almost kind of looked like a a bird’s nest. They would come down and get the members that they felt they could restore and then took them back to their shop to do the restoration work on them. It was a lot of straightening.”

Webb said the original timeline for the project called for the bridge to be installed in September, but it is moving along faster than expected and that installation could be as soon as August. The timing doesn’t depend solely on completion of the bridge, though.

“There are some utility lines that you see around here,” he said, pointing out the overhead power lines along Florida Road. “Some of these utility lines are kind of low.”

And a tall, covered bridge moving down the road would snag those lines.

When the time comes, the road will temporarily close while trucks and cranes maneuver the bridge into place. Webb said he’s heard from neighborhood residents who have been watching the progress and want to know the exact date ahead of time. They want to help celebrate the moment.

“They’re kind of planning some deck parties to watch the moving of the truss,” he said, adding that the bridge is the only combination-post truss remaining in the nation. “Most of the time, it’s exclusively steel, iron or timber. You don’t always have this combination.”

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Once completed, the restored covered Bell Ford Bridge will be installed for pedestrian use over Fall Creek next to Geist Park on Florida Road. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)

The new bridge also is the final piece needed to complete the Geist Greenway Trail. The City of Fishers recently completed its portion of that 5-mile pedestrian path running north and south from 96th to 131st streets

“The new Geist Greenway offers pedestrians and cyclists a scenic and accessible way to travel across east Fishers, while also fostering a culture of health in our community,” Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness said. “Our partnership with Hamilton County to restore and install this piece of Indiana history along the greenway makes this more than just a trail, but a destination in our city.”

The Bell Ford Bridge project cost about $7.5 million. Webb said the county received nearly $3 million in federal funding toward the project’s costs.

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Iron pieces of the restored Bell Ford Bridge are original to the historic structure, along with some of the wood beams. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)

Indiana’s covered bridges

Dan Collom is one of the contractors working on the Bell Ford Bridge restoration. He specializes in covered bridges and said he’s worked on 42 in his lifetime, starting when he was a teenager.

“I think mostly just because it’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s always a challenge and I enjoy timber work.”

Collom is from Indiana’s Parke County, which bills itself as the covered bridge capital of the world.

According to the Indiana Historic Bureau, there used to be between 400 and 500 covered bridges in Indiana, with the first built in 1835 in Henry County. There are about 100 remaining and 31 of those are in Parke County.

The Bell Ford Bridge will be the second in Hamilton County. The other is at Potters Bridge Park, another Hamilton County-managed park, at 19401 N. Allisonville Rd. The only covered bridge in Marion County, Traders Point Bridge, is on private property.