Abandoned railroad bridge will remain standing -- for now

The abandoned Chicago and Erie Railroad bridge over CR 700N became the subject of debate at the Huntington County Commissioners' meeting on Monday, Oct. 5.
The abandoned Chicago and Erie Railroad bridge over CR 700N became the subject of debate at the Huntington County Commissioners' meeting on Monday, Oct. 5. Photo by Matt Murphy.

An abandoned railroad bridge in northern Huntington County generated a slew of contro-versy at the Huntington County Commissioners' meeting on Monday, Oct. 5.

Built in 1918 by the Chicago and Erie Railroad, the bridge, located on County Road 700N a half-mile east of Ind.-5, was slated to be demolished later this year.
County Highway Superintendent Troy Hostetler says that the bridge poses a liability issue, as the concrete wall supporting the bridge comes within feet of the roadway, creating a potentially dangerous situation for the nearly 150 motorists who pass under the bridge daily.

The bridge's removal was prompted by requests from farmers who wanted to use CR 700N to transport machinery between fields instead of using adjacent east-west county roads, especially CR 600N/Ind.-16.

But residents living along that portion of CR 700N were opposed to the bridge's removal, saying that it slows vehicles down along the road and that it doesn't pose a safety threat.

"There has been one accident in all these years, and that was because (the driver) didn't see the height sign," says Doug DeHaven, a homeowner on CR 700N whose property borders the railroad's right-of way.

Hostetler took a survey of local residents, and had signed statements from some who would like to see the bridge removed. Yet, many residents who live along the road do not want to see the bridge go.

"We bought the land for that bridge, so people wouldn't fly down there all the time," says Carol Carnes, a property owner near the bridge, referencing the high rate of speed on other county roads.

"We have people who want the road improved, and then we have people who say ‘Don't improve the road,'" Commissioner Kathy Branham says.

Part of the bridge issue involves discrepancies in surveying and land ownership. The former railroad that constructed the bridge purchased a 50-foot right-of-way on either side of the tracks. When the line was abandoned, the land then became the property of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. However, some properties bordering the railroad have deeds that list property lines that go only to the railroad's right-of-way line, whereas other deeds say the property lines are in to the center of the tracks.

Because the deeds saying that the properties extend go to the centerline are few, Hostetler says he thinks that a surveyor made a mistake in assuming that because the railroad was abandoned, the adjacent properties expanded.

But no matter who actually owns the land, Indiana Code 8-3-1-21.3 and 8-3-1-22 allow local governments to tear down bridges and other obstructions left over from abandoned railroads. The Huntington County Department of Highways began that process earlier this year, but stopped when neighboring residents started to complain about the removal.

The department removed a number of trees and brush from both sides of the bridge's embankment, but didn't replace any shrubbery or complete the job when the project was halted, say area landowners.

"You cut down 100 feet of trees, and then looked for who owned what," Tina DaHaven says.

"The high banks cause a lot of runoff and erosion without the trees," says Kay Lilie, who lives next to the former railroad. "It was beautiful, now it's just trash."

After hearing neighbors' concerns, the commissioners decided to halt the bridge project and focus attention on other road improvement projects.

"We're in no means trying to upset the people out there," Commissioner President Tom Wall says.

Several potential highway projects for the area around the bridge were mentioned that could be done instead of demolishing the bridge, including repaving Clear Creek Road and County Road 300W, and increasing visibility at the intersection of Ind.-5 and CR 700N.

That intersection is right after a hill in the 50-mph zone of Ind.-5, making traffic coming from the north impossible to see until the last second for drivers on CR 700N.

"700 North and 5 is a bigger liability than the bridge," Wall says.

Residents at the meeting agreed.

"I have a 16-year-old that drives that road," Carnes says. "I tell her, ‘If you cross (Ind.-5), go like hell.'"

Hostetler says he has contacted the Indiana Department of Transportation about the intersection, and will continue to do so. INDOT approval is needed because the road in question is a state highway.