A span for the ages
New Ironton-Russell Bridge opens to traffic
Cold and rainy weather did not deter crowds from coming out on Wednesday for the opening of the new Oakley C. Collins Memorial Bridge connecting Ironton and Russell.
A dedication ceremony took place at the Ironton entrance ramp, and hundreds packed into the event to see history made as the new span officially opened, replacing the 94-year-old span across the Ohio River a few blocks away.
The Ironton and Russell High School marching bands and majorettes warmed up the crowd as they filled a tent on Second and Jefferson streets for the festivities, emceed by Vaughn Wilson, the deputy director of District 9 for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Wilson thanked the dignitaries in attendance, which included U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, Lawrence County Commissioner Bill Pratt, Commissioner-elect DeAnna Holliday and Ironton Municipal Judge O. C. Collins, the son of the bridge’s namesake.
Following the presentation of colors by Boy Scout Troop 106 of Central Christian Church and the singing of the national anthem by Mike Reeves, the speakers took the stage.
The first was, Jim Barna, ODOT’s assistant director of transportation and chief engineer, who said the attendance exceeded the many dedications he has attended in his career.
“I’ve never seen one this large,” he said. “Ironton knows how to do it.”
Lyn Tolan, the deputy director of policy and communications for the Ohio Development Services Agency, told the crowd that the bridge would be one of the first to sport the new state welcome sign, with the message “Ohio. Find it here.”
“It’s a unique welcome and you’re among the first to see it,” she said. “It means that, no matter what you’re looking for, you can find it in Ohio.”
While the event celebrated the opening of the new, $81.3 million, 32-foot wide bridge, it also served as a sendoff for the old span.
“It has long been instrumental to the cities of Ironton and Russell, Wilson said. “It has served us well, but, as with any structure, time has taken its toll.”
Johnson said that he was not in Congress when construction on the new bridge began, but was honored to be in town to see its completion. He then addressed two special guests seated in the front row, Della Burton, 102, of Russell, and Verna Sloan, 102, of Ironton, both of whom could remember the area before the old bridge opened.
They were selected to ride in the final car to cross across the old bridge before it was closed off.
“You ladies were here when the first bridge was dedicated,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how many will be here when this one is replaced, but I hope it’s a lot of them.”
Johnson said the bridge served as an example of what can happen when officials at the local, county and state level work together.
“This is work that has long been championed by a lot of people,” he said.
The final speakers the mayors of the two cities connected by the span.
“We are so eager to see the opening of the new bridge,” Ironton Mayor Katrina Keith said. “We are so eager for a new day in Ironton.”
Keith welcomed to the stage former mayors Rich Blankenship, Bob Cleary and John Elam, and said the work they did in office was integral to getting the project completed.
She expressed her gratitude for the turnout, as the rain began to fall.
“Thank you coming out and weathering the storm,” she said.
Russell Mayor William Hopkins spoke of the anticipation for the opening.
“The bridge has been the minds of a lot of folks for several years,” he said. “Now, here we are, moments away from fulfilling our dream.
“This is a much needed connection for economic growth in Ironton, Russell, Ohio and eastern Kentucky.”
Following the speeches, the Ironton High School Varsity Singers performed two songs for the crowd. Then, people moved to the bridge, where the ribbon was cut by officials from each side of the river, along with Burton and Sloane.
The parade began with two police cruisers, one from Ironton and one from Russell, and vehicles containing Carol McKenzie, who won a raffle to be the first driver to cross, Keith and Hopkins.
Then, the Ironton and Russell bands led a parade of antique automobiles onto the span, as pedestrians lined the sides and watched.
Once the parade reached the Kentucky side, it continued down Bellefonte Street and crossed back to Ohio on the old bridge where members of American Legion Post 433 waited to escort them.
Finally, the last vehicle, carrying Burton and Sloan came down the ramp and ODOT workers blocked off the bridge, ending its near-century of service.
Sloane said the moment was bittersweet.
“I hate to see it go, but it’s due,” she said.
She said she was honored to be one of the last to cross.
“I like it,” she said. “Because my grandchildren and my great grandchildren can look back on it and see that they had something to do with it.”
Burton said she could remember taking the ferry from Russell to Ironton with her mother, to shop for clothes before the old bridge opened in 1922.
“It’s dangerous and it’s time to get rid of it,” she said. “I feel honored to see it come to an end.”
The new bridge opened to regular traffic a few hours later, after pedestrians cleared the area.
Motorists crossing into Kentucky will encounter a new four-way intersection, where traffic signals have been activated to control the flow of vehicles from the bridge, U.S. 23 and the Russell viaduct on Kentucky Route 244.
The aging viaduct is set to be replaced in about 18 months.
Signs dedicating the bridge in honor of Collins will be added a later date.