Preserving the two railroad bridge spans over the Trinity River in Liberty might be “water under the bridge” as they have since been cut up for scrap, but a Liberty historian, Ron Blake, has ensured that the steel medallions marking the installation dates of the two bridges will be kept for future generations to enjoy.
Like many Liberty County residents, over the last few months, Blake was dismayed to see the old bridges removed and replaced by new, less architecturally-appealing versions. While he hoped to preserve at least a large section of the bridges, Blake said he could not find a local organization or governmental entity willing to lead a bridge preservation campaign.
“I wanted to preserve the entire bridge sections. I asked for them, all 2.5 million pounds of it,” Blake said.
After reportedly being told by railroad officials that it not feasible due to the condition and sheer weight of the bridges, and with nowhere to store them, Aaron Vasquez with Russell Marine of Pasadena, the primary contractor for Union Pacific’s bridge project, suggested that Blake focus on the two medallions instead.
The two medallions – one on the 1919 bridge on the west side of the Trinity River and one on the 1904 bridge on the east side of the river – and two vertical sections will one day be used to anchor historical signage in a public place, preferably next to the Trinity River.
“You know how a woodworker says that the wood speaks to him, these pieces are speaking to me and saying, ‘Put me by the river.’ Unfortunately I don’t have the land or the place to put them yet, but I have a plan,” he said.
Blake intends to work with a Houston-based architectural preservation group run by his cousin, Kirk Farris, to create a display in the city of Liberty using the pieces.
“I’m going to pursue private funding and donations to get a place for it. I am tired of dealing with official channels who continuously, for the last 20 years, say, ‘That’s a great idea, Ron. Let me get back to you on it,'” he said.
One idea he has is to get local schoolchildren involved in a fundraising campaign and in the design of the marker.
“When the Statue of Liberty came to this country in 1876, the fat cats in Washington, D.C., didn’t want to support it, so Joseph Pulitzer, of the Pulitzer Prize fame, said he would raise the money. It came from schoolchildren all across the United States. I want to involve the children of Liberty County and come up with a fundraising campaign,” he said.
Not only will it help the project, the students will be invested in a piece of Liberty County history, he believes.
Blake said watching the bridges be cut into pieces each day was a stab in the heart, which is why he felt compelled to save them.
“I have known these bridges since I was a child and I felt so much regret that we couldn’t do something with them. We might could have saved both bridges, but it was impossible without more local support,” he said. “They were destined for the scrapyard or Omaha, the headquarters of Union Pacific, and no one seemed to care. If it hadn’t been for the not tacit, but outright and bold, support of people in Liberty County, my friends at the local VFW and other organizations, then I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s proof that you can’t get something if you don’t ask.”
Klint Bush, a member of the Liberty County Historical Commission and Liberty County Elections Administrator, said Blake’s efforts prove that one person can make a difference.
“Without what Ron did, we would have lost another piece of history in this county. The thing is, even if the odds look insurmountable, you have to try. That’s the biggest problem sometimes is that no one wants to try. You can defeat yourself before you try, or you can try it and not be defeated,” Bush said. “Ron did this single-handedly. I am proud and glad that this piece of history is saved. We didn’t save the whole bridge but we have something to show future generations.”
The two vertical pieces and two medallions will be kept at an undisclosed location by Toby Wilburn, who volunteered to haul and store the items.
“I think Ron’s idea for the bridge medallions and pieces is wonderful. I wish we could have kept at least one of the two bridges intact but I am glad Ron was able to get the medallions,” Wilburn said.