Engineers study Stow Street bridge out of an abundance of caution

The lanes of the Stow Street bridge in Kent have been narrowed to prevent further damage after the county engineer discovered minor degradation. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

The Stow Street bridge in Kent has a fresh row of orange barrels to slow down what the county engineer’s office called “localized deterioration” discovered last fall.

But the spots of rust, found on a beam just under the railing, is not currently a structural concern, and officials say there’s nothing to worry about. 

“It’s just a small spot of deterioration and we’re looking to have it repaired,” said Portage County Bridge Engineer Bill Vermes. “The rest of the bridge is in good condition. It’s still strong for truck traffic.”

Initially, the engineer’s office added road striping to keep traffic away from the edge, but that wore off this winter, Chief Deputy Engineer Larry Jenkins said. So they added the barrels.

Even with the barrels, there is “plenty of room for two-way traffic,” Jenkins said. “Really we just don’t want cars driving right up next to the curb there.”

The rest of the bridge superstructure is fine, he said.

The engineer’s office in the process of finding a consultant to develop options and determine which will be most effective and cost efficient. No word on when, and no need to stress, Jenkins said.

“There is no imminent danger to the bridge. It’s what we feel is necessary to ensure there’s no danger,” he said.

The ultimate fix may be no fix at all.

“Do we need to do anything? Maybe we don’t. But what we don’t want to do is err on the side of doing nothing for a long period of time. That’s probably irresponsible,” Jenkins said.

Pedestrian traffic will not be affected as the sidewalk is on the upstream side of the bridge and the barrels are on the downstream side, Vermes said.

When bridges fall

If Kent seems excessively cautious, it may be because the city is no stranger to bridge collapses. 

Built in 1896, the then-two lane Crain Avenue bridge was closed briefly in the 1960s “after a three-foot wide rusted out hole running the entire width of the bridge was discovered on the roadway,” according to a Portage Pathways article penned by the late Roger Di Paolo.

The bridge reopened, but disaster struck the morning of Dec. 18, 1964.

“The iron bridge gave way under the weight of a gasoline tanker truck that weighed more than twice the posted eight-ton load limit. The span collapsed, sending the truck and an automobile following it 25 feet into the Cuyahoga River,” Di Paolo wrote.

The truck driver, along with teenagers Ronnie Swiger and Don Porter, who happened to be crossing the bridge on their way to Kent’s Theodore Roosevelt High School, survived.

Another teen, Keith “Johnny” McBride, was hailed as a hero for jumping into the icy water and pulling Porter to safety. A “human chain” of Kent police and spectators rescued Swiger, who ultimately lost a finger.

“The driver of the automobile, 72-year-old Shockley Graham of Stow, who had driven his wife to Streetsboro, where she was a teacher, was killed instantly,” Di Paolo wrote.

19th century collapses

The 1896 bridge wasn’t the first at that location to collapse.

Di Paolo writes: “The first bridge, erected in 1803, was a crude affair constructed by settlers from Hudson and Ravenna. It was replaced in 1826 by a span that was in use until 1868, when it collapsed under the weight of a stone-laden wagon.

“Its successor lasted only a little more than 20 years until it was condemned in 1890. It took six years for its replacement to be installed — and that was the bridge that served for nearly 70 years until one week before Christmas 1964.”

FunFact: When the “new” bridge was received in January 1896, it turned out the contractors had made it a foot and a half too short, so back it went to the iron works, notes Karl Grismer in “The History of Kent.” The new span was received March 18 and was installed within a week.

Kent’s iconic Main Street bridge, completed in September 1877, replaces previous spans, including one that washed away in a massive flood in 1832. It was succeeded in 1837 by a covered bridge that remained in use until February 1877.

The history of the Stow Street bridge

The bridge, built by King Bridge Company, spanned 144 feet and was 24 feet wide, including a six foot sidewalk. Photo by Arthur Trory/Arthur J. Trory Photograph Collection at Kent State University

The original Stow Street bridge was a “wooden structure that had been in use for many years but had finally become so rotten and shaky that it was dangerous for anyone to cross it,” Grismer wrote. A “new” suspension bridge went up in November 1897. It was 24 feet wide, including a six-foot sidewalk, notes amateur photographer Arthur Trory, whose images are archived at Kent State University.

Then came the Great Flood of 1913, which swept away 70 bridges across the county, including one across Plum Creek south of Kent and another in Thorndyke in Brimfield.

“A span in Aurora, near the Erie Railroad, collapsed, taking out a cheese house with it. Scores of other pedestrian bridges throughout the county gave way as streams were swollen to the size of rivers,” Di Paolo wrote.

Breakneck Bridge on state Route 59 was covered by four feet of water, he wrote, and people were being rescued from their second-story windows.

The flood destroyed the old dam and canal lock in downtown Kent (both were repaired in 1925), but the Stow Street bridge survived, thanks to 60 loads of stone piled at the bridge’s east end.

The old bridge finally collapsed on July 25, 1987, when supports for the walkway rusted through. According to a Daily Kent Stater report at the time, three people were seriously injured and a dog was killed. 

The new bridge, the one in use today, was completed in 1988, the Stater reported.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.