By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer
I often read my hometown newspaper the Hammond Times, now simply known as The Times, online. This is the newspaper where I had my first paying job as a delivery boy at the ripe old age of 11 years old. I was the paperboy for a total of 88 homes. With the miracle of the Internet and Facebook, I have kept up with a lot of the news and happenings in Northwest Indiana.
A recent news story left me feeling particularly sad and nostalgic. I read the Indiana Department of Transportation (InDOT) is tearing down and demolishing the old Northern Hammond, IN landmark bridge. It may sound silly to some, but this bridge is a landmark for good reasons. It is a historical bridge that has nine spans measuring 2,117.2 feet in length. If you will, close your eyes and picture a tall, green, iron bridge made of trusses. Now, put nine of them together back-to-back and you can imagine the enormity of this bridge.
Commonly known as the nine-span, construction on the bridge began in 1935 and it was completed in September of 1937. Over the years it has been updated and rehabilitated several times. The purpose of the bridge was to cross Indianapolis Blvd. over the Gibson Rail Yard, which had hundreds of railroad lines.
InDOT has reportedly scheduled to close the bridge and start demolition of the landmark Monday, Jan. 14. InDOT says it would be too costly to repair the large, failing structure and will replace it with a new concrete structure that will have only eight spans.
I remember the bridge fondly from my childhood because it was such a big bridge. It was always a thrill to drive over it in the car. My older sister would always get scared, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In fact, I would always plead with my father when we were driving anywhere to go over the “big bridge.” It was much farther north than where we lived, and it was a rare occasion we would have cause to drive into North Hammond and cross the bridge.
There were occasions, though, when my dad would fulfill my request and we would take the long drive in his old Volkswagon Beetle and cross that big, rusty, green bridge, just he and I. You literally could feel the bridge vibrating, especially in the VW bug. If a semi came by in the oncoming lane, it would really scare you. Dad would always cross the bridge slowly and we would count together out loud the number of spans as we crossed.
I would hold the door handle tightly, stare out the window and look down into the rail yard below at the hundreds of tracks and trains.
When I got older, a friend and I decided to take a big adventure one day and rode our bikes up to Lake Michigan. We decided to take Indianapolis Blvd. and cross the nine-span, which did have a sidewalk/bike lane. In recent years it has been closed. As we made our way through all the traffic and eventually got to the ninth span, we both looked at each other and stopped for a break before crossing the bridge.
The stupidity of teenagers is sometimes unbelievable. When I look back upon that stunt we pulled, I realize that as a parent I would have never allowed my kids to do something that dangerous. My parents probably wouldn’t have let me either, but I figured at the time what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. My dad would probably be furious with me to this day if he knew I rode my bike across that bridge.
So we hopped on our Schwinn Varsity 10-speed bikes and began the steep incline, the vibration, the wind, crumbling concrete and the roar of the traffic was almost too much for us to take. When we got to the top we stopped for a rest, but we didn’t stay up there long because we were both scared to death.
Going downhill was much quicker, and I realized I did the same counting in my head as we crossed each span all the way to nine. It was the one and only time I EVER rode my bike across the nine-span. I about had a nervous breakdown in doing so.
The last time I drove a car over the nine-span was back in the late 1980s when I was working as a reporter at the Calumet Day newspaper. I covered the North Hammond area and would cross the bridge frequently for assignments.
Many people in Northwest Indiana have lots of memories of that famous landmark bridge and have shared them on the Planet Hammond Facebook page.
The nine-span Gibson Railyard Bridge is commemorated on historicbridges.org in detail. There are pictures, drawings and technical plans as well as videos of the bridge. There are even a couple of bumper-cam videos that offer a point-of-view of driving across the bridge.
Chicago, IL, has several historic bridges that have been repaired and upgraded that are even older than the nine-span in Hammond. They have been maintained properly and kept historically preserved. Several critics say InDOT should have followed the example set forth by Illinois and restored the nine-span bridge. I must admit it will be one thing I will miss for sure the next time I go to Hammond and Northwest Indiana.