Dewey Bridge: In memoriam

  • Jim Stiles

  • Historic Dewey Bridge (near Moab, Utah) before it was destroyed in April. BRIDGEPIX.COM

  When old Dewey Bridge was burned to death in April by a 7-year-old playing with matches, it was almost more bad news than I could bear to hear. One relic after another of the rural West's past has vanished, but this was one I thought would survive. The bridge was originally brought in pieces from Chicago in 1916, and assembled across the Colorado River, 30 miles upstream from Moab, Utah; for a while, it was one of the longest suspension bridges west of the Mississippi. A few years ago, Jennifer Speers, the millionaire with a soul, bought up the adjacent Dewey Bridge subdivision from a developer. She plowed under the roads, dismantled the infrastructure and tore down a $600,000 home in order to restore the area to the way it had been.

It was a rare place of Hope. Now this. The fire triggered memories of my first visit to Dewey, more than 30 years ago.

I first heard about Dewey Bridge, believe it or not, from my mother. In 1973, I was still living in Kentucky, trying to scrape together enough money to come West again, if only for a month or so. The previous winter, I'd passed through Moab for the first time, on one of the coldest days in recorded history. I stopped only long enough to gas up and then drove all the way to Grand Junction, where I used my dad's Gulf Oil credit card for a warm bed at the Holiday Inn.

But I'd seen enough of this country to plan a return visit. The next summer, my parents went west themselves and told me about a dusty, unpaved, corrugated "highway," designated Utah State Route 128. And they told me of a narrow old one-lane suspension bridge that I needed to see.

Weeks later, my dog Muckluk and I came West ourselves. We found the old road and passed through Cisco, which was rapidly approaching ghost town status even then. There was one cafe still open, "Ethel's," which I later learned did double-duty as a brothel of sorts for lonely prospectors.

But I didn't stop. Soon, I spotted a gravel and dirt road, Utah 128, and turned left toward the river. I saw no one. Not a car or motorhome. No trucks or RVs. No ATVs. Nothing.

We came to the river, my dog and I, and I figured the bridge was just ahead, but it was late afternoon, so I pulled into a stand of cottonwoods to make a camp. I pitched my cheap little blue nylon tent, fed Muck, cooked some beans on my Coleman stove and walked over to the Colorado to eat. The river was low, but the current was swift. I saw a great blue heron, heard the canyon wren for the first time. And I could hear the rustle of the leaves in the great cottonwoods above me.

Finally, as the canyon filled with shadows, I heard the whine of a motor, coming down the grade from Cisco. It was a pickup truck, a local rancher, I guessed. He saw me and waved and kept going. I could hear his truck for a few minutes and then the silence returned. That night was one of the happiest of my life. An evening of "quiet exultation," as someone once said.

The next morning, I found the bridge. We stopped for a while, and Muckluk, that damn dog, jumped in the river for a swim so she could later smell up the upholstery on my car. It was a glorious morning.

I knew it would be the first of many visits to Dewey Bridge. It never occurred to me that any part of this place would change or disappear.

But in 1974, much of the gravel and dirt road from Cisco to Moab was paved, although the asphalt was rough and pitted, and the "improvements" were negligible. Even better, because Dewey Bridge was only one lane wide -- barely eight feet -- large vehicles could not get across it. It was one kind of discrimination I could live with and even applaud. For another decade the road from Moab to Cisco remained quiet.

In 1985, however, the Utah Department of Transportation began construction on a new bridge, just down river from the old one. And a year later, when it opened, traffic on Highway 128 increased dramatically. Further "improvements" have brought still more cars and motorhomes and trucks. Sometimes it is downright congested. Still, it's a beautiful drive and those discovering it for the first time will be awestruck. But they'll never be able to understand just what it felt like on that summer night in 1973. I'm not even sure they'd care to.

I recently stopped at the old bridge site for the first time since the fire. I could still smell the ash. The parking lot adjacent to it is now a staging area for mountain bicyclists and on this day, about a hundred brightly clad participants were prepping themselves and their bikes for a ride over the Kokopelli Trail. I felt peculiarly out of place in my Wranglers and Redwings -- as much of an anachronism as the old bridge once was. I walked to the south abutment. The fire had burned every sliver of wood; all that remains are the cables. I stood there for several minutes, almost paralyzed by the sight.

One of the bikers walked up to me and said, "Hey, I hear they might rebuild it ... It'll be just like it was before." I looked at him, smiled, and went back to my car.

Jim Stiles has published The Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah, since 1989. He is also the author of Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.
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