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Henderson bridge reunites sister cities

NITRO, W.Va. -- Mary Jo Young is as happy as anyone that the Dick Henderson Memorial Bridge is back open.

"My hairdresser is in Nitro," said Young, who lives off Coal River Road in St. Albans.

The bridge, which links sister cities Nitro and St. Albans, reopened Friday after being closed almost 10 months to have a new deck installed. West Virginia Highways officials decided to rebuild the bridge on its existing piers to save money and cut down the amount of time the bridge would be closed to the public.

The three-lane bridge reopened ahead of schedule and at about 25 percent of the cost of completely rebuilding it at a different location, said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Manchin, one of the keynote speakers at Friday's bridge dedication, said Highways officials worked with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the state's congressional delegation to come up with a relatively inexpensive, efficient solution to replacing the Dick Henderson Bridge, which was erected in 1934.

"Common sense is not all that common in Washington," Manchin said. "We need to get more West Virginians up there."

State Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said the bridge project showed what can be done when government officials work together. Department of Transportation spokesman Randy Damron said it didn't hurt the project that Mattox grew up in Nitro.

Reopening the bridge couldn't have come soon enough for many business owners on both sides of the Kanawha River.

"It's been slow on both sides," said Aaron Diehl, the third generation to run Diehl's Restaurant in Nitro. During construction, residents wanting to cross the river to their neighboring community faced at least a 12-mile detour.

Diehl, who has a significant customer base in St. Albans, said his dinner business was not seriously affected by the bridge closure but that most people didn't have time to make the 45-minute detour for their lunch hours.

"Before," he said, "you had to take a small vacation to go around and fight all the traffic."

On the St. Albans side of the river, black block letters spelled out the words "WELCOME BACK NITRO" on the illuminated sign outside Dwight's restaurant. Dwight's manager Mark McCallister said regular customers from Nitro who used to show up all the time visited Dwight's maybe once a week while the bridge was closed.

McCallister, who commutes to work from Huntington, said he wasn't forced to detour because of the closure. "But it sure did clog up the interstate, with all the traffic trying to get across there," he said.

Nitro Mayor Dave Casebolt and St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway traded good-natured jabs at one another while simultaneously pointing out the bridge's importance to both communities. Casebolt said he was sure St. Albans residents would be happy the bridge was reopened so they could visit Nitro and sample the city's "fine dining, shopping and entertainment."

"You know where my office is?" Callaway said when it was his turn. "Come up and see me sometime.

"[The bridge] is a safe way to get to Nitro," he said. "More importantly, it's a safer way to get to St. Albans."

On a more serious note, both mayors stressed the importance of the bridge to the economic well-being and growth of both communities.

Visitors came from more than just St. Albans and Nitro for the bridge's reopening.

"I've had a lot of trips over this bridge," said Poca Mayor Jim Caruthers, who also attended the ceremony when the old bridge superstructure was blown up in March.

The new bridge is marked with pierced steel plates that can be read from the river and spell out "KANAWHA RIVER" in the center of the bridge and "NITRO" and "SAINT ALBANS" on the cities' respective sides of the bridge. The words are repeated in large letters on the inside of the bridge, where they can be seen by pedestrians and passing motorists.

The lettering is a nice touch, Caruthers said.

"It helps if you're inebriated," he quipped. "You'll know if you're on the right side."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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