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  • Tom McWhorter

Centerline Bridge Walk: Vertigo

The old Centerline Bridge (sometimes called the Charlotte Bridge) was located where the Charlotte Road crosses the Grand River, South of Portland. The bridge was built in 1886, by the Buckeye Bridge Company and replaced in 2001. The old bridge was a Whipple Truss Bridge, originally built to carry horse and wagon traffic and later modified to carry one lane auto traffic. Whichever vehicle reached the bridge first had the right-of-way. The bridge was 177 foot long and the deck was 15 foot above the river. The height at the top of the trusses is unknown but perhaps 25 foot above the water?

One night when in 1967, when I was about 17, my friends “Daring” Dan and “Jumper” John suggested that we go out to the bridge to see if we could get close to and investigate the “Mink Farm” that was located just south and to the right of the bridge (coming from Mulliken). We were curious as to what the deal was with this operation as no one had ever heard of a “Mink Farm” before. When we tried to approach the mink operation on foot, we could hear what sounded like large dogs barking, and decided against any further exploration. However, my friends said, hey how about climbing the bridge! I was not keen on this idea as I have mild acrophobia (fear of heights) but both guys said that it was EZ. You just had to climb up a slanted beam and get onto the top of a truss and just walk over!

Apparently, my friends both had a head for heights and stated climbing while leaving me on the ground. My fear of heights had not caused me any real problems I just stayed away from roofs and ladders. Now, I had to either climb like the others or admit that I was afraid to go up there. It was dark that night but not pitch black. I could hear the water running beneath the bridge but could not actually see the river. Climbing up the slanted bean was very difficult although I think I had tennis shoes on (a bit of luck) and there were rivets in the beam that gave me at least a partial foothold. I could hear the others in the distance but was far behind, the plan was to cross over the top and then climb back to the ground on the other side. I did not really “climb” the slanted beam but more or less grabbed each side and slowing wiggled up to the top. At the top, I then had to stand up and there was nothing to hang onto. As if I was tightrope walker, I put my arms out to maintain my balance, my instinct at first was to crouch but this made it more rather than less difficult to keep my balance and keep moving. I did not want to be up there when my friends had crossed and started walking back on the deck. In addition, I was afraid that a car would come and the rumble, lights, noise would through me off balance. On the other hand, even worse the driver might see me, stop, and maybe even threaten to call the police. I really could not see my feet on the top beam but could feel the edges. I was of course afraid of falling, but for good or bad I had few visual ques and could not see how far up I was. I also felt that my best bet was to get into a steady pace and not stop – not too fast and not too slow. Fortunately, I wasn’t really dizzy but for sure had what you could call space-motion discomfort. I also was afraid that I might at any instant have sort of a panic attach and just freeze. I did think a bit about the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo!

As you may have guessed, I made it to the other side, not sure, what kind of excuse I gave for taking so long, although, I was so glad to get to the other side and without falling or anyone knowing how scared I really was, I didn’t care what they thought about me being so slow! This was my first, last and only bridge climbing experience!

HAPPY ENDING:As indicated this antiquated bridge was replaced in 2001 but was not destroyed. As a great example of the Whipple Truss Bridge, it was dismantled and moved to Battle Creek, where it is currently located in “Historic Bridge Park”. The reconstructed bridge goes over a small ravine and is for foot traffic only! The Old Centerline Bridge lives on!

Courtesy Photos.

This piece was originally written for the Portland Area Historical Society. Republished with permission.

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