Chesterton Tribune

Photos: Dunn's Bridge officially opened as Porter County park

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Dunn’s Bridge dedicated: Dunn’s Bridge, possibly built from the steel from the world’s first Ferris wheel, spans the Kankakee River in Pleasant Township. The deck and stringers have been replaced, and railings have been added. The bridge and surrounding property is now opened to the public as a unit of the Porter County Parks Department. In attendance at Friday’s dedication ceremony were (in lower photo) Charlotte Read of Westchester Township and Harold Erwin of Liberty Township. Read was a member of the original county park board that planned the bridge restoration. Erwin is the current park board president. (Tribune photos by Margaret L. Willis)

Ribbon cutting: Participants at Friday’s dedication ceremony of Dunn’s Bridge prepare to cut the ribbon officially opening the bridge to foot traffic. Shown (from left to right) are Porter County Parks Superintendent Ed Melendez, Historical Society of Porter County President Brian Roeske, South Porter County Commissioner Carole Knoblock, engineer Peter Kohut (behind Knoblock), Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission Executive Director Lorelei Weimer, and County Park Board President Harold Erwin. (Tribune photo by Margaret L. Willis)

 

By VICKI URBANIK

More than 50 people traveled to the southernmost tip of Porter County on the glorious fall afternoon Friday to celebrate the official dedication of Dunn’s Bridge along the Kankakee River.

Rich in history, Dunn’s Bridge is said to be built by farmer J.D. Dunn in the late 1880s as a way to get his farm equipment from one side to the other along the Kankakee. The bridge ultimately fell into disrepair, and county park officials began planning its restoration nearly 20 years ago.

The bridge, located on County Road 500 East in Pleasant Township, has now reopened as a unit of the Porter County Parks and Recreation Department, which offers fishing, boat access and picnicking at the three-acre site. It is the only designated public access site to the Kankakee River in Porter County.

Friday’s dedication ceremony celebrated not just the efforts that went into restoring the bridge, but the history and folklore of the bridge itself.

Brian Roeske, president of the Historical Society of Porter County, said depending on “who you talk to” and which newspaper story is used, the bridge was built in 1894 or ‘95 by Dunn. But exactly where the parts came from remains unverified.

The most celebrated story is that the arched span came from the first Ferris wheel showcased at the 1894 Chicago Exposition and World’s Fair. The Ferris wheel, built by George Ferris, measured 264 feet in diameter and had 36 large cars, capable of holding about 2,400 people total.

The story is that Dunn bought parts from this Ferris wheel for his 180 foot-long bridge.

Another story, Roeske said, is that the roof girders in an administration building at the World’s Fair were the materials used in the bridge.

A third story is that the Porter County Commissioners at the time wanted a sturdier bridge along the Kankakee, since most of the bridges at the time were wooden. The commissioners hired a local company to build the steel bridge, possibly with parts from the World’s Fair Ferris wheel.

Roeske said maybe one day the truth will be known. Whichever story one uses, “you can punch holes in it,” he said. For example, he said that after the Chicago World’s Fair, the Ferris wheel was moved to St. Louis for the world’s fair there.

Porter County as a whole has a colorful history, Roeske noted. “This is one more story to add to it.”

The actual work that went into restoring the bridge site as a county park unit has some history to it as well.

Chesterton Tribune stories from the late 1980s mention the park board’s plans for the site. At one point in 1994, the project faced an obstacle, when the Porter County Drainage Board refused to grant its approval for access at Dunn’s Bridge, instead urging the park board to relocate the park site to property owned by the Kankakee River Basin Commission.

At another point, the park board learned that it was at risk of losing a $7,500 state grant awarded for the project without a signed contract. And, in 1998, the park board initiated condemnation proceedings in order to acquire an adjacent 0.9 acre parcel for parking, an effort that later led to a settlement between the park board and the property owner.

In 1994, the park board won a $500,000 federal grant through the Intermodal Surface and Transportation Efficiency Act for the project, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the project secured all necessary state and federal approvals.

Porter County Park Superintendent Ed Melendez, who was hired in 1999, said a great deal of work went into the bridge restoration. He joked that when he first saw the dilapidated bridge, he wondered: “What did I get myself into?’

The engineer for the project was Peter Kohut of the Butler-Fairman & Seufert firm of Indianapolis. Kohut commended U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky for securing the ISTEA funds in the 1993 Congressional transportation bill. “Without that bill, this would never have happened,” he said.

Additional praise went to Porter County Highway Engineer Dave Schelling, who was instrumental in the grant application. Without Schelling, the grant would never have been received, said County Park Board President Harold Erwin.

On hand at the dedication was South Porter County Commissioner Carole Knoblock, who spoke of her own family’s experiences fishing with their daughter at the site. She took note of the abundant wildlife at the river, including the 2003 siting of a whooping crane and a bobcat.

Lorelei Weimer, executive director of the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission, expressed hope that Dunn’s Bridge will become part of a proposed ecology and heritage trail in Porter County linking environmental and cultural sites from the Indiana Dunes to the Kankakee River.

Many people are not aware of the ecologically significant sites in Porter County outside of the Indiana Dunes, Weimer said, adding that it’s the PCCRVC’s job to promote other aspects of the county.

Citing statistics showing that 55 million Americans are classified as geo tourists, that a majority of people want to preserve natural sites and that they are willing to pay more in entrance fees to these sites, an ecology trail in Porter County, she said, “is the right way to go.”

• To get to Dunn’s Bridge, take Ind. 49 south to State Road 8 in Kouts and turn east. Travel to C.R. 500 East, then turn south to the Kankakee River.

 

Posted 10/17/2005