Connections made by the Hazen Bridge

Here I sit on my folding lawn chair, down beside the Hazen Bridge, sipping on a pale ale and marveling at the old steel structure that has connected the Hazen Bridge together over the Sangamon River for more than 120 years.

The last red embers of a dying fire glow brightly as the last light of day fades away.

My mind wanders as I ponder the things bridges connect.

Even though it doesn’t exactly look it, I’m quite busy making sure that our huge bonfire of burning bridge timbers burns to nothing. Earlier today had been a Hazen Bridge workday, hosted periodically by the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy that for a few hours connected seven of us volunteers together in our effort to improve and beautify this historic site.

Today we had been picking up and burning the old rotting bridge timbers that we had stowed under the bridge a few years back. High water had scattered the timbers hither and yon and we didn’t really want them flowing down the river channel. These timbers were soaked in creosote to preserve them and we’d rather not have them in the river.

We had removed and replaced the bridge timbers during work days a few years back. These rotting, creosote soaked timbers (about a third of the ones that made up the bridge decking) were replaced with white oak timbers custom milled to the exact width and height dimensions of the old timbers. The new ones are working out great and the white oak, we’re told, should last another 100 years, and without the creosote.

So we had lit this fire earlier that morning and were burning the old timbers away.

While one team was burning, I worked on a two-man team hauling large old bridge abutment stones from where they had been piled up near the west end of the bridge down to the river’s edge where we later set them down the short but steep (and slippery when wet) bank down to the river to make it easier to launch canoes and kayaks from there (an ongoing USRC project). The launch here connects this site with the Sangamon River Forest Preserve upriver and Lake of the Woods downriver.

Previously, these stones had made up the west end abutment to the bridge, which was removed and pushed aside when the new bridge was constructed connecting County Road 2600N over the Sangamon River.

The new bridge, not nearly as architecturally distinctive as the old bridge, is a slick two-lane job that, except for the small concrete railings, is indistinguishable from the road leading up to it. To cross it, one probably wouldn’t ever make the connection that they were crossing a 240 mile river that Abraham Lincoln once paddled. Heck, one probably wouldn’t even slow down and take time to ponder the historic Hazen Bridge.

A drive-by automobile racing across the new bridge certainly wouldn’t make the connection to Horace Hazen, one of the original settlers of this area who is buried in the cemetery across IL 47 just a few miles away from his namesake bridge.

And they certainly wouldn’t make the connection needed to thank Hank Karzmarski of Mahomet for being one of the leaders in the movement to save the Hazen Bridge from the wrecking ball and the scrapyard in 1993, nearly 100 years after it was constructed.

It’s hard to save old bridges, and the Hazen, one of the few iron truss bridges left in the county, is unique among such bridges. It’s long western raised approach takes it over bottomland floodplain so that the bridge might not be affected by the Sangamon’s frequent high-water events.

As part of the effort to save the bridge, the Champaign Preservation and Conservation Association, of which Hank was a member, had taken ownership of the property immediately surrounding the bridge in a generous donation from Jack Richmond. Richmond later donated his entire adjacent 160 acre plot to the University of Illinois. Jack is the same guy who made a major donation to rebuild the clock tower in downtown Urbana, gargoyles and all (Jack apparently was fond of old clocks and gargoyles, and the Hazen Bridge).

The U of I Foundation later sold Richmond’s tract to millionaire Bruce Artwick, the original mastermind behind Microsoft’s Flight Simulator – which he developed the initial technology for while at the University of Illinois. Artwick moved from Silicon Valley back to Champaign County to build a stunning multi-million dollar mansion on this property along the Sangamon.

Speaking of connections, my Dad down in Jacksonville, Fla became a huge fan of Flight Simulator when it came out. In fact, it was one of the first video personal computer games ever created and that he ever owned, on one of the first personal computers ever produced by IBM back in 1981, which was, incidentally, also his employer.

It’s certainly an idiosyncratic connection that I should be sitting beside a historic bridge by a dying fire, drinking a pale ale, across the Sangamon River from the 160 acres that was owned, up to a couple years ago – by the creator of my Dad’s favorite computer game. He’s long passed, but somewhere he’s smiling about it too. Connections.

The Hazen Bridge, particularly its long western approach connecting to high, dry land was a key reason that PACA applied for – and received a designation placing the Hazen Bridge on the National Register of Historic Places, which was another big plus in the effort to save it from the wrecking ball and the scrap heap.

Bridges connect both things and people: volunteers on a workday, Horace Hazen, a 240 mile river, Abraham Lincoln, Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve, Bruce Artwick, gargoyles on a courthouse clock tower, Hank Kazmarski, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jack Richmond, PACA, my Dad and me.

And with that thought, I watch as the last embers of the dying fire fade to white, evening fades to dark, I drink my last swig of pale ale, fold up my lawn chair and head home. Making my connection back to a life not so far away from the historic Hazen Bridge.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, April 20, 2017 by Scott P. Hays

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