Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Valley of the Moon's Bridge to Nowhere

During a recent outing in Claiborne County, Miss., my friend Chad and I took a side trip to a scenic rural area known as the Valley of the Moon. I’m not sure of the origin of the poetic name, other than that it alludes to a local plantation. A Google search shed no light on the subject, though it did turn up a place by the same name in California.

Claiborne County’s Valley of the Moon is a broad, gently undulating section of farmland northeast of Port Gibson along the Natchez Trace Parkway, where the landscape slowly descends from low hills to cypress brakes along Bayou Pierre. The valley is bisected by a minor road that leads, on the opposite side of the bayou, to the extinct village of Willows, aka Willow Springs.

This seldom-traveled route used to cross the bayou on an old iron bridge, which we found was no longer there, having been replaced a few years back by a nondescript concrete crossing.

We were sorry to see that, as both of us appreciate visual throwbacks to previous eras, and tend to be averse to anything that further homogenizes the landscape.

Also disappointing: The bucolic and historic old trace road that led from the bridge to Willows was in the process of being bulldozed
and its canopy of overhanging trees pushed into windrows as part of a major widening project. It was odd to see such a big project being built in the middle of nowhere. For someone who’s done a good bit of investigative research, it was, well… curious.

Government waste is obviously a big topic today, and it’s not surprising to find evidence that it extends beyond what’s popularly cited in conservative bombast -- that it sometimes encompasses projects, such as roads and bridges, that service local governments and contractors as much as, or even more than, local job markets. As often as not, local governments undertake such projects with state and federal subsidies, using dubious cost-to-benefit ratios, heedless of how they will be maintained later on. In some cases spending public money to build infrastructure makes perfect sense. In others, as is arguably the case with the Valley of the Moon bridge and what’s known as the Willows Road, it seems misguided, or worse.

Crossing the anonymous concrete bridge, I imagined that many people were glad to see the old bridge across Bayou Pierre replaced. Progress. The old bridge was narrow -- one lane wide, though that hardly seems an insurmountable problem considering the route handled only about 40 vehicles per day, according to a website that surveys historic bridges. The odds that two vehicles would meet on the bridge were slim. Viewed from the vantage point of an outsider, the “solution” – spending millions of dollars to accommodate those 40 vehicles, seems to be more of a problem, and not only because it resulted in the destruction of a quaint old bridge. Notably, the routes that connect with Willows Road at each end were not being widened, so what you had was a strangely isolated "improvement."

It's possible the old bridge was structurally deficient, beyond some bureaucratic designation aimed at justifying the expense of building a new one, but I didn't come across any evidence of that. On the contrary, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History observed in what was otherwise, ultimately, a meaningless historical review, that the bridge was “well-maintained, unaltered, and in very good condition.” Given the lack of true accountability for government expenditures, I've observed that projects of questionable economic value often proceed apace, with an elected official, contractor or large landowner acting as the driving force. Along the way, it’s not unusual for historically significant infrastructure to be sacrificed, such as happened to a row of 19th century storefronts in downtown Jackson, Miss., razed in the 1980s by the city’s redevelopment authority for a parking garage that was never built, or to the pretty little bridge across Bayou Pierre, which was both scenic and historic.

Remarkably, there are rarely repercussions for government agencies that undertake such dubious and destructive projects. A few people shake their heads, perhaps someone writes a letter to the editor, but the government and its contractors afterward move on to the next grazing ground. In the case of the Valley of the Moon bridge and once-lovely Willows Road, the result is, essentially, nothing. Here: You have this note.

"Major connector." In the map below, Willows Road runs southeast from near the center (marked as Willows) to the crossing at Bayou Pierre.

On the day that Chad and I crossed the new bridge we came upon a “Road Closed” sign, which (typically for us) we disregarded. We drove around the barricades and navigated the construction zone, where we were surprised to find crews working on a Saturday. We also noted that someone had set aside the more valuable logs of uprooted cedar trees that had previously shaded the road, of which there were many, for what would certainly prove to be a lucrative trip to a sawmill. One could only hope that the county had actually sold those saw logs to help offset the cost of construction, though that seems unlikely. Chad would later learn that the old iron bridge itself, as well as part of a similar structure upstream in the vicinity of Carlisle, Miss., had likewise been hauled off – also, no doubt, earning someone a hefty sum, considering the current high value of metal salvage. Again, who knows if the county’s taxpayers shared in the profits of the salvage. If I had to guess, I’d say the sale was considered part of the cost of disposing of the bridge. It would have been nice if they'd at least left the old bridge as a monument to the past, though I'm sure the argument would be that it would've been a liability.

It was disheartening to see so much beauty destroyed for what seemed no good reason, and the more I thought about it the more I wondered how, precisely, it had happened. Once I got home I set about googling, and found that the new bridge had been built at a cost of approximately $3.5 million and that the road widening project would cost another $1 million or so, which meant that the total cost of the work would be $4.5 million, for a three-mile-long route that, again, carries about 40 vehicles per day. Unless you’re among a handful of local residents with very specific travel plans, the road basically goes from nowhere to nowhere. The cost figures for the bridge, by the way, came from the website of one of the contractors, WGK of Clinton, Miss., which in 2006 received an industry award for its design of the new crossing.

Remarkably, I found that the old Valley of the Moon bridge was still listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a program designed to protect such properties from federally funded destruction, even though it no longer exists.

When I later contacted the state Department of Archives and History, which administers the National Register program for the National Park Service, I was told that, considering that the bridge had been destroyed, the agency might consider writing a letter to the Mississippi Department of Transportation to express their dismay. My thought, upon hearing this, was, oh, well.

While it is true that the damage is already done, the question begs to be asked: What would the failure to seek some sort of redress say about the National Register program? I was told that local and state governments often consider state-funded projects exempt from National Register guidelines, because the funding does not come directly from the federal government, although that is debatable. The Department of Archives and History has done a lot to preserve historic landmarks in the state, but in fact has a checkered history when it comes to enforcing the National Register guidelines, having been called to task by the Federal Highway Administration for attempting to use federal funds to take down a designated National Landmark house on a Civil War battlefield near Edwards, Miss., after which it (Archives) was compelled to rebuild the structure, known as the Coker House.

From my communications with Archives and History (which provided the black and white photos posted here), it was not even clear whether the Valley of the Moon bridge was still there at the time it was listed, though it had been under consideration for years. But say the destruction predated the listing by a matter of a few months; how could the county not know that the bridge was historic, and eligible for protected status? Clearly, the need to spend money had overwhelmed the need to preserve a piece of history. Archives and History learned about the bridge demolition in October 2005, eight months after the new bridge opened. Richard Cawthon, who retired as the agency’s chief architectural historian a few months later, responded to the news by dictating a memo to his own files, as follows:

“On Thursday, 27 October 2005, I received a call from Kenneth Ross of Claiborne County, who said he had gone in search of the bridge that we had placed on the National Register as the Valley of the Moon Bridge, but he couldn't find it. He was in the area, calling on his cellular phone, so I talked him through the directions to it according to the maps in our files, and he said that the bridge at that location had been taken down and replaced about a year ago. It was locally referred to as the ‘Willows Creek Bridge,’ and was not recognized as being the same bridge during the National Register nomination process. He will send me photos of the pilings that are all that remain of the old bridge, so I can match them to our photos. It would appear, however, that the bridge is gone and should be removed from the National Register.” For the record, the bridge remains on the list, and it spanned Bayou Pierre, not Willows Creek.

It’s all water under the bridge, now, I suppose, yet it’s hard to get past the fact that there, in the remote Valley of the Moon, a series of curious events had unfolded, almost totally off the radar. A huge sum of money had been expended for a road and bridge of questionable economic value, which had resulted in the destruction of a federally protected historic site. And it had happened without any repercussions.

As readers of these posts know, I am a strong believer in historic preservation, but I am also a journalist and investigative researcher, and for all those reasons the destruction of the Valley of the Moon bridge and Willows Road piqued my interest. If I were employed full-time by a large publication, or even if I were working a story on rather than being an unaffiliated, freelance writer, I could perhaps devote the time necessary to fill in all the blanks in the story, though I’m not sure many large publications would see the significance of this particular outcropping of government waste, which, in fact, is part of the problem. Sadly, as the print media collapses, there are fewer and fewer public watchdogs to monitor the potential for abuse of the public trust – a role the print media once embraced, almost solely, and which its successors in the blogosphere and corporate media franchising have shown little interest in evenly documenting. Despite the pervasiveness of the Internet, what happens in out-of-the-way places like the Valley of the Moon is in many ways less widely known than it was before, and government officials are no doubt aware of that. Still, what I managed to find out about the Valley of the Moon bridge through personal observation, websites, email exchanges and phone calls (not all of which were returned) proved revealing.

According to the records at the Department of Archives and History, the one-lane, wooden-decked bridge was built in the late 1920s and listed in the National Register in 2005. It was the site of a locally famous Civil War skirmish that, in much the same way the bridge replacement project serves as a microcosm of a bigger issue involving government spending, was one component of a much larger battleground -- the pivotal Vicksburg Campaign. Willows Road, which is mentioned in the state Scenic Byways Program, until recently remained much as it was at the time Union and Confederate troops fought over it. Today, notably, there is only one residence along it, a cluster of trailers belonging to a seasonal hunting camp.

The 1920s Valley of the Moon bridge was not the first to be sabotaged, as it turned out. According to a Union Army dispatch dated May 23, 1863, the Confederate Army, which had been routed by Gen. U.S. Grant’s troops during the Battle of Port Gibson, had attempted to burn the wartime bridge during their retreat, but the Union troops had extinguished the blaze “by considerable effort” and were able to repair and use it to continue their pursuit. “The rebels,” the dispatch continued, “commenced disputing our passage soon after we crossed the bayou,” and managed to slow the progress of the Union troops as they, themselves, sought refuge in Vicksburg. Among the casualties resulting from the bridge contest were one Union soldier killed and “two or three wounded,” and at least two hundred Confederates captured as prisoners.

A suspension bridge spanned the bayou during the war. I’m not sure what type of bridge existed during the six decades between the war and the 1920s, but the later bridge was documented by the Department of Archives and History before its destruction at the hands of the Claiborne County Board of Supervisors and its contractors.

Beyond the question of the economic justification for the project, it is natural to wonder how a National Register property (or even one that was eligible for listing) could be destroyed by a government agency using state and, likely, federal funds, without the knowledge of anyone who cared. I say “likely” because so much of what is considered state funding has its origins in federal allocations. It is also natural to wonder who the ultimate beneficiaries of the taxpayer funds were, and who, for example, owns the adjacent land, which might directly benefit from a bigger road and bridge. What were the connections between those contractors and elected officials?

Claiborne County Board of Supervisors president Charles Short was quoted in a news release about the WGK engineering award saying the project’s purpose was to provide “a major connecting point” for employees and suppliers of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. That seems something of a stretch, considering the nuclear plant is comparatively distant and is already served by four-lane U.S. 61 and numerous other local roads. Shorts also observed that residents “now enjoy a safer, more streamlined bridge… Not only is traffic flow improved but thanks to the overall design, the problems with flooding and erosion associated with the original bridge have been eliminated.”

All of which may be true; it’s hard to say. The newspaper in Port Gibson seems not to have covered the story, or at least has not published anything about it that can be found on the Internet, nor did the Jackson newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger. When I called the office of the Claiborne County Engineer, seeking more information, I found that he wasn’t a public official, nor did he live and work in Claiborne County. He was Jeffery Knight, a principal in WGK (he’s the K), the firm that had been awarded the project to design the $3.5 million bridge. As they say in Disneyworld, it’s a small world, after all.

The woman who answered the phone at WGK sent me to Knight’s voicemail, and I left a message explaining that I was trying to find out what had become of the old Valley of the Moon bridge. Perhaps not surprisingly, he did not return my call. I followed up once more, and asked the woman who answered the phone if I had, in fact, reached the Claiborne County Engineer’s office, to which she responded, “That would be Jeffery Knight, but he’s not in.” When I pressed her for information about WGK’s relationship with the county engineer’s office, she replied that WGK was both an engineering firm and Claiborne County’s engineering firm. I later found, on the WGK website, that Knight is also the county engineer for neighboring Jefferson County. Perhaps contracting out the job of county engineer makes sense to a cash-strapped local government, and is perfectly legal. But is it really logical to hire, as a government advisor on the building of roads and bridges, a firm that will design those roads and bridges, for millions of dollars?

On its company website, WGK noted that it had designed the bridges and approaches in the Valley of the Moon “to meet the design criteria of MDOT [the Mississippi Department of Transportation] and Federal Highway Administration,” and that the project had been completed a year ahead of schedule. Whether the project’s fast-track status related to concerns about the potential for controversy over the destruction of the old bridge is unknown; the old bridge isn’t even mentioned on the website, though it should have been part of the project’s environmental assessment, which WGK undertook. My plan is to request the complete documentation of the project from MDOT, which I will detail in a future note.

Early completion was one reason cited in the June 29, 2006, news release concerning the American Council of Engineering Companies of Mississippi’s presentation of “the Honors Award to Williford, Gearhart & Knight Inc. [WGK] for outstanding engineering projects in the State of Mississippi.” WGK published a photo of the new bridge (included earlier in this note) on its website; among the other contractors were Key Constructors LLC of Madison, Miss., and Dirtworks, Inc., of Vicksburg, Miss. WGK, according to the release, completed its design work in December 2004 and the new bridge opened in February 2005. The company was clearly proud of the work.

By this point in my research, almost anything concerning the Valley of the Moon was of interest to me, so I decided to find out who all the principal characters were. Who owned sprawling Valley of the Moon Plantation, for example? I don’t mean to imply that the landowners had any specific role in the project, or directly benefited from it, but this is a story about public money passing through the Valley of the Moon, so it seemed worth finding out. What I found is that Valley of the Moon Farms is jointly owned by William N. Cassell, Moon Planting Company, and James E. Cassell of Port Gibson. There is also a private, one-strip airport in the vicinity that goes by the same name, owned by Valley Aviation Inc., of Port Gibson, which appears to be used primarily by cropdusters.

According to the website of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, Valley of the Moon Farms has been “a top recipient” of federal farm subsidies – a staggering $2.75 million between 1995 and 2010. The funds, distributed by USDA, included conservation easements, disaster payments and crop subsidies for cotton, corn, wheat, sorghum and oats. EWG noted that in 2007, when Valley of the Moon Farms received about $500,000 in federal payments, the average adjusted income for people living in its zip code was $22,000. It would be interesting to compare USDA subsidies and government road and bridge funds allotted to Claiborne County with the total annual investment in, say, school lunch programs and other oft-reviled “entitlements.” But who, really, has the time to piece all that together? Considering how much I’ve invested in researching the destruction, six years ago, of a little-known bridge in a rural area of southwest Mississippi, you might think that I do, but I don’t.

Again, it’s possible that many local residents -- wealthy, poor and in between -- were only too happy to see the old bridge and narrow tunnel of a road replaced by a more efficient, modern route. It’s also likely that everyone in the U.S. would like to be the beneficiary of millions of dollars in government contracts or government subsidies. But at issue, really, is who decides how such money will be spent, based on what criteria, and who will be there to bring the hammer down should the process goes awry.

As part of my continuing, sporadic research, I reviewed the political campaign contributions of elected officials that were available online, because that’s one of the best ways to uncover meaningful links. All I found – and I should point out that my review was not exhaustive – was that Key LLC has given Central District Highway Commissioner Dick Hall a total of $3,000 since 2009. Hall, like the state’s other two highway commissioners, routinely accepts contributions from people who benefit from state highway contracts, for what it’s worth.

A full review of the contributions to every elected official involved wasn’t really within the scope of my research. To review the contributions to the Claiborne County Board of Supervisors, for example, requires requesting the documents in person at the courthouse in Port Gibson. Perhaps, out of continuing curiosity, I’ll do that, next time I pass that way. But, as potentially telling as such documents can be, it’s highly possible that there is nothing untoward about those relationships, and that the project was just one of many that are concocted to spend available money in the name of economic development, which doesn’t exactly qualify as front page news. What we know is that a lovely old bridge and a scenic tunnel of a road beneath a canopy of venerable trees came down, and a bunch of money got spread around. It happened in the Valley of the Moon, but in the end, it’s just the way the world goes round.

No comments:

Post a Comment