Updated: January 14, 2013 7:19AM
Strange things can hide in the rubble of a century-old bridge.
Strange things like a winter horseshoe, forged locally, and fitted to a horse that presumably trotted past the Metropolitan Business College building on Downer Place more than 100 years ago.
Chief Development Officer Bill Wiet presented the now-rusted horseshoe to the Aurora Historical Society’s John Jaros in honor of the bridge’s long history connecting the two sides of the city — and confounding out-of-town visitors.
“When people used to drive across this bridge, when they go from east to west they would see a change in the streets,” said Jaros. “When you were on this street, you were on Fox Street on the East Side, you were on Downer Place on the West Side. All the locals knew this, but it caused great confusion and consternation to all the people coming into Aurora and it stayed that way until almost 50 years ago. In the mid 1950’s the city fathers decided that traffic would flow better if traffic alternated one way streets in the downtown. They said it was so traffic would flow a little better. I think secretly they were just trying to add another layer of confusion for all the outsiders.”
But on Wednesday, Aurora reopened its reconstructed Downer Place bridges after 10 months of construction with fanfare, festooned hats — and two-way traffic patterns. As of Wednesday afternoon, Downer Place and Benton Street both became two-way streets from Broadway to Locust Street/Woodlawn Avenue.
The Waubonsie Valley High School step team and Dance Fuze Studio warmed the crowd on the blustery afternoon, only slightly warmer than the Bridge Blast that signaled the start of demolition in February.
For those who braved a bit of wind chill, the Bash on the Bridge’s main attraction was the chance to be a part of history, or at least to be captured in an historic photo.
In an attempt to recreate a 1909 photo of the first bridge’s opening, residents on Wednesday mingled in style — men in long coats, ladies donning hats featuring all manner of pin, feather and flower. American flags waved in the stiff breeze, and the brass section Fox Valley Orchestra kept spirits merry with “O Tannenbaum” and other turn-of-the-century carols.
But the loudest cheers in the crowd may have come from downtown shop owners.
Business owners said they were looking forward to the return of traffic, no matter which direction it was headed.
“We opened River’s Edge Cafe about two years ago. The previous owners were really honest with us about the bleak situation,” said Beth Standish, operator of the cafe at 14 W. Downer Place. “They told us that the bridge was going down, they reminded us about the terrible economy, and they wished us good luck. We were told by a lot of people that it was unrealistic to open a cafe at this time ... You proved them wrong.”
In his remarks, Weisner said the minimizing disruption for businesses was a priority and the main reason for pushing an aggressive construction time frame, with crews putting in seven-day work weeks.
Demolition and reconstruction of the 103-year-old bridge began in February, creating traffic chaos and challenging faithful shop patrons to get to businesses on foot.
Construction on the original Downer Place bridges began in 1906, and the bridges were first dedicated in 1906. This time around, demolition and construction took about 10 months.
“While we finished in record time, we want to thank downtown merchants for their patience,” said Weisner. “The Downer Place bridge project is the only major bridge rebuild to take place within the span of one construction season for the first time in our downtown.”
Following the ribbon-cutting, confetti, and parade of antique cars, plus the only transportation on the bridge in 1909 — a horse — attendees gulped hot cocoa at River’s Edge and saw five-minute time-lapse video of the eastern bridge’s demolition and reconstruction at Aurora Historical Society, 20 E. Downer Place.
No parking meters
One feature is conspicuously absent from the new bridges — parking meters. As part of the city’s proposed downtown parking plan, meters were omitted from the Downer Place bridge, and an approved plan would call for the meters to be removed in favor of color-coded, time-limited parking zones throughout downtown.
The bridges retain a fascia similar to the original Downer Place bridges, and now include an eco-friendly streetscape of rain gardens that will help filter pollutants from rainwater runoff before it drains into the Fox River.
Weisner left Aurorans with one bit of instruction in light of the newly reopened two-way bridge.
“Look both ways,” he said.