New bridge opens to reconnect Nitro and St. Albans
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After 10 months of waiting, residents of Nitro and St. Albans will once again be directly connected to one another after officials held a ceremony marking the opening of the bridge Friday.
And while grand opening events feature a ribbon cutting, the Dick Henderson Memorial Bridge was opened by a construction worker cutting through a chain with a blowtorch.
"This is one of the largest dedication ceremonies we've ever had," said state Department of Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox, a Nitro native himself. "Today is truly a day to celebrate. I cannot thank you enough for your patience."
The bridge was ready to open to traffic later Friday.
The ribbon cutting (or chain-cutting) ceremony was attended by numerous local and state officials, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Sen. Joe Manchin, all three Kanawha County commissioners, Nitro Mayor Dave Casebolt, St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway, and members of city council from both cities.
Hundreds of members of the public also attended the ceremony. Although 200 seats were set up for an audience, the crowd far exceeded that estimate.
"I thought this was a football rally for a minute," Commission President Kent Carper said.
Thursday evening, the public had the opportunity to walk across the bridge before Friday's ceremony, and Department of Transportation Assistant Communication Director Randy Damron estimated 3,500 people attended that event.
"St. Albans and Nitro suddenly have a Bridge Day," he said. "It just reinforces how important this link is for both sides."
High schools in both cities were both represented through a combined band that performed the national anthem and by members of each school's ROTC, which served as the color guard.
The old bridge will live on, too. The new trophy for the annual football rivalry game between St. Albans and Nitro is made from steel from the old span.
But for all the unity between the two towns at today's ceremony, Casebolt and Callaway didn't miss the opportunity to lightheartedly tease one another.
Casebolt said he wanted to "welcome the mayor and the rest of St. Albans back to Nitro."
Callaway responded in his remarks along those same lines.
"It's a safer way to get to Nitro, but more importantly, it's a safer way to get to St. Albans!" he said of the bridge.
But both mayors took a serious tone to discuss the importance the bridge has to each of their communities.
"It was truly the lifeline that that made our city what it is today," Casebolt said.
The new bridge should help improve business on both sides of the river, now that there is a larger and safer connection between the cities, he said.
The $24 million bridge was built in 10 months. The old bridge, which was almost 80 years old, was narrow and unable to carry heavy loads, like KRT buses. It was demolished in January.
The new bridge used the same structural supports as the old structure, and was built in the same place. Officials said by using those methods instead of building a new bridge at a different location, the government saved millions of dollars in construction costs.
Tom Smith, the Federal Highway Administration's West Virginia administrator, said some other proposals for a new Dick Henderson bridge were estimated to cost more than $100 million, making the new bridge about 75 percent cheaper than other plans.
"That's a model for innovation," he said.
Tomblin agreed, and said the new bridge will be much safer for residents to cross.
"I think this is a wonderful example of efficiency," he said.
Carper also commented on the importance of the bridge in his remarks. He said the construction of the bridge was efficient and under budget.
"There certainly was no Obamacare on this bridge," he said, referring to ongoing issues with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. "This bridge was built once and this bridge was built under budget."
Manchin said the leadership of state and local leaders enabled the bridge to be built. He said the bridge's namesake would be happy with the achievement.
"I know that Dick Henderson is smiling down on us right now from heaven," he said. "Dick Henderson left a lasting mark for all of us to follow."
Henderson was a well-known St. Albans resident who served in the West Virginia Legislature. Though he died in 1998, his wife, Lorraine, was present at the ceremony.
The bridge's closure has had a negative effect on business in both cities. In addition, residents who had family and friends on the other side of the river were suddenly faced with a long trip to either the Interstate 64 bridge or the Dunbar Toll Bridge to visit the other city.
"It's nice to be able to see our neighbors again without going around the horn," Callaway said.
Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.