Old Tahlequah bridge puts residents, businesses and preservationists at odds

Friday, July 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) -- An old Illinois River bridge considered too unsound to walk or drive on has put some Cherokee County residents, business owners and historic preservationists at odds. Developers recently asked county commissioners for a lease on the structure so they could build a water park next door. But residents fearing renewed business traffic around the bridge will encourage traffic on the structure oppose such a move.

Others say it can't be demolished because it is historic and an important scientific area. "You've got competing interests here," District Attorney Dianne Barker Harrold said.

The bridge once served as the river crossing for Oklahoma 51. It was closed to automobile traffic when a new structure was built in the mid-1980s. Couples and those wanting to dive off the bridge into the river made the structure their destination until the county permanently closed it about 10 years ago.

Business owners Hassan and Barbara Ziyada recently asked the county if they could lease the bridge at the edge of their proposed water park. Bed-and-breakfast owner Al Herrin was one of the first to oppose the lease. "My concern is if the county turned it over, it would be open," Herrin said. "Structurally, it's not safe. (An engineer) says it's dangerous, and it's going to fall down someday."

County officials estimate it could cost up to $1 million to repair the bridge supports. The Ziyadas have been asked to get estimates on those costs before reporting back to city and county officials. Herrin just doesn't believe the expense is cost effective. "As a citizen of the county, I'm responsible for what happens," he said. "Since the bridge belongs to the county, all citizens of the county are liable for the financial lawsuit I fsomebody is seriously injured or killed."

Built during the first half of the century, the Old River Bridge is considered a state historical structure. The county cannot sell it to private interests or tear it down. "It just means it's here, and you can't touch it," Barker Harrold said.

The U.S. Geological Survey also uses the bridge area as a sampling station, and there was concern that moving the station upstream to the current bridge might upset the consistency of the data, said Ed Fite, Scenic Rivers Commission administrator. The agency now says the station can be moved, Fite said. The Cherokee County Board of Commissioners will resume discussion about the bridge at its July 17 meeting.