Rebuilding the Flat Rock Bridge

The 1983 bridge

The stretch of Fall Creek above Forest Home is known as Flat Rock. Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and probably earlier, a series of bridges have been built here, fallen into decay, and been replaced. Most recently, in 1982/83, the Cornell student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) designed and built a new pedestrian suspension bridge.

Cornell students building the Flat Rock Bridge in 1983
Cornell students building the Flat Rock Bridge in 1983

This project was a splendid success, but after nearly 40 years of use and exposure to the weather, the wooden deck and handrail began to show their age. The pressure-treated lumber was cracked and dangerously splintered, and the original screws were rusting, so that the decking was loose in many places. Plus, the railing design, with openings large enough to let a child fall through, no longer met current safety codes.

The 2023 bridge

Concerned that the University might simply close the bridge, Charlie Trautmann, a long-time Forest Home resident and Cornell faculty member, led a campaign in the Fall of 2020 to renovate the structure. This included replacing the deck and handrails, repainting the towers, and checking all components for structural soundness. He raised $60,000 for materials, engineering, and other required services, and helped organize volunteers to rebuild the deck and handrails, once the steel cables and wood underpinning structure had been inspected and found safe.

Once again the Cornell student chapter of ASCE provided much of the effort to prefabricate the railing units, assisted by volunteers from throughout the University and community. Trautmann reported that 150 people were involved with the project, with 50 volunteers contributing approximately 1,000 hours of labor constructing prefabricated deck units and installing them and a new deck on the bridge. Dozens of Cornell faculty and staff contributed planning, design, management and other services.

Charlie Trautmann watches the final step in the rebuilding
Charlie Trautmann watches Christopher Dunn tackle the final step in the rebuilding. (Photo Jeannette Little)

The bulk of the funding came from thirty donors, including a number of emeritus Cornell faculty and several grandchildren of Eva Howe Stevens, whose donation made the 1983 bridge possible. Other major gifts were made by a member of the Cornell class of 1983, local residents, and the Cayuga Trails Club.

Volunteers, in addition to Cornell student engineers, included community members, union carpenters (who took on the bridge renovation as a service project), and emeritus engineering faculty.

Cornell’s Department of Facilities and Campus Services was highly involved in the project, with Project Manager Ruth Howell meeting with Trautmann bi-weekly for nearly two years to work through issues related to engineering design, risk management for volunteers, labor relations with the carpenter’s union, liability, materials purchasing, and construction sequencing.

The prefabrication of the 8-foot-long railing units took place from February-March, 2023 in the former High Voltage Laboratory building at 808 Mitchell Street, where various Cornell student projects took place. Demolition and reconstruction of the bridge took six weeks from late February to early April 2023.

Rededication Celebration Ceremony, June 10, 2023

A rededication ceremony was held at the bridge on Saturday, June 10, 2023. Five members of the Class of 1983 who were involved with the design and construction of the original bridge were in Ithaca to celebrate their 40th Cornell Reunion and joined in the ceremony.

Speakers at the celebration included:

Emcee – Charlie Trautmann (Project coordinator)
Cornell Botanic Gardens – Prof. Christopher Dunn (Director)
School of CEE – Prof. Derek Warner (Acting Director)
Engineering of the Bridge: 1983 – Prof. Tony Ingraffea (CEE Emeritus)
Engineering of the Bridge: 2023 – Nate Ingraffea (Project engineer, son of Tony)
Family Donors, 1983 – 2023 – Ann Stevens (donor)
Cornell Facilities – Rob Murray (Project manager)
Student – Brian Clark – (President of ASCE Student Chapter, Class of 1983)
Student – Mark Ehlen – (VP of ASCE Student Chapter, Class of 1983)
Student – Bo Rider (VP of ASCE Student Chapter, Class of 2023)
Faculty– Prof. Jim Gossett (CEE Emeritus)
Faculty – Dr. Rick Geddes
Faculty – Prof. Tom O’Rourke (CEE Emeritus)
Cornell Facilities – Rick Burgess (Cornell VP of Facilities)

Nate Ingraffea shows his confidence in the strength of the bridge by standing under the people gathered for the rededication. (Photo Charlie Trautmann)

It has been estimated that this bridge is now used by about 50 people per day, or over 15,000 people per year. It continues to serve as a vital link in the local trail system, and provides access to the natural areas on the north side of Fall Creek. As a result of the recent renovation, it is ready for decades more of service to the community.