The newly converted railroad bridge, a part of the Kickapoo Rail Trail, offers spectacular views. Its planked floor rises over the forested bottomland and spans the Middle Fork River. On a recent visit to the site a deer was spotted drinking from the river far below. Turtles were swimming in the clear water of the gently flowing stream and a red-tailed hawk was sharing the thermals with three buzzards above the river valley. A few bikers and walkers crossed the long structure. “This is amazing,” one woman remarked as she took a picture of her two companions near the center of the long structure.

The lady was right, it and the surrounding natural area are amazing. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources reports 250 species of birds have been recorded in the Middle Fork Valley where the bridge is located. The same survey recorded 40 mammal species and thirteen reptile species. There are also several species of fish in the stream that has its beginning in Ford County and flows for 77 miles from there to the Salt Fork.

The bridge is also located in one of the most historic areas of Vermilion County. The salines, where Native Americans and wildlife sought out the briny water long before pioneers came to the area were just south of the bridge. Early settlers dug wells and salt production became the first industry in what became Vermilion County.

The Old State Road Lincoln traveled when attending court in Danville was located just a short distance south of what is now titled the Kickapoo Rail Trail bridge. Little more than a stone’s throw to the northwest is the Salt Kettle Rest Area where the Pioneer Cemetery is located. Edward Wilson rests there. The patriot soldier fought in the War of 1812 and was present at the battle where Francis Scott Key composed the Star Spangled Banner.

He was an early settler in the county and Abraham Lincoln represented his family in court.

The 1921 structure replaced the bridge the pioneers erected in 1868 for the Illinois Bloomington and Western Railroad. That bridge proved to be a veteran, carrying rail traffic from1871 until the present bridge was built in 1921. Sandstone blocks from the original bridge are still viewable below the new structure. Further south, near the U.S. 150 bridge, is the foundation the street car bridge once rested on.

In its early years the IBW was saddled with the nickname “I Better Walk” railroad, but it eventually proved to be a reliable and valuable artery of transportation. In an Ilk family account book an entry notes “paid by railroad, $47.50, use of teams and labor, two weeks.” That was for work on the Illinois Bloomington and Western by Jacob Ilk west of the present village of Oakwood. The IBW gave birth to Oakwood.

The new bridge is celebrating it centennial year in 2021 and what better way to celebrate than with people once again enjoying crossing the Middle Fork on the majestic structure. The bridge is historic and unique because of its cold-rivet construction. Very few structures, if any of its size, are still in service that were constructed by that method. It was feared that method of riveting would not provide the strength large structures needed to carry the heavy loads they would be subjected to. The old bridge held up and defied those concerns.

When you visit the bridge, observe the super-structure beneath your feet. Thousands and thousands of rivets pierce the metal plates and girders. Picture men a hundred years ago assembling those girders as the structure rises from the bottomland. The ringing sound of metal meeting metal would have echoed up and down the Middle Fork Valley. Those veteran rivets have been tested and are still doing their duty, holding things together.

The Kickapoo Rail Trail bridge, a place with ever-changing views is well worth visiting.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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