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A tale of three bridges
The Little Platte River bridge that replaced a bridge wiped out in floods was itself replaced this s
... was replaced by the new bridge this fall. - photo by Photo by Kathleen Kluth

Maple Ridge Road, which goes through the towns of Platteville and Harrison, got a new bridge over the Little Platte River this summer.

Kathleen Kluth, who grew up and lives near the bridge site, remembers the two bridges that preceded the bridge that opened in October.

The new bridge replaces a bridge that was built in 1952. That bridge replaced a bridge that was wiped out in the floods of July 15, 1950.

Kluth spent this summer and early fall watching and chronicling the removal of the previous bridge and its replacement.

The new bridge was designed by IIW P.C. of Dubuque and constructed by Radtke Contractors of Winneconne. The IIW engineer in charge of the project, Dawn Rick, is a native of the Platteville area and graduated from UW–Platteville.

“It was very nice to work out there,” said Rick. “My dad farms not far from there. It makes it more fun to do because it’s a local project you’re familiar with.”

Kluth remembers the day the old steel bridge was washed away, the result of three days of rain in Southwest Wisconsin in mid-July 1950. According to the National Weather Service La Crosse office, Platteville got 2.98 inches of rain in one day, Muscoda got 6.09 inches of rain over two days, and Lancaster got 7.05 inches of rain over three days.

The flood killed one person, Walter Wunderlin, 27, a farmer who lived with his brother, Francis, in the Town of Harrison.

Wunderlin and two other men, Ambrose and Gerald Udelhoven, were going from Platteville back to Wunderlin’s home after midnight July 16, when the car they were in stalled on the bridge. According to the July 20, 1950 Grant County News, the Udelhovens got out of the car and off the bridge, but as Wunderlin tried to start the car, the bridge was swept away.

The car was found by a Grant County conservation officer two miles downstream later that Sunday morning.

Kluth and her parents, Allie and Catherine Klar, were looking for a tractor that had been swept away from their farm in the rains when she and her mother found Wunderlin’s body that afternoon.

“My dad had been working in fields in the bottom the day prior to the flood, and left his tractor sit in the pasture, on a high bank above the river,” said Kluth. “The flood was so high that in the morning he realized the tractor had been washed away.

“My mom and dad and us five kids went walking down-river to look for the tractor. My mom cried out ‘There's a man!’ My young mind took a picture. It wasn't gory or anything — his clothing was tattered and he was lying face-down in the clean small stones left by the receding water.

“I don't remember anything else about that day. My older sister Marita remembers that us kids were ushered away from the body and my dad covered him with his shirt. My oldest brother Karl, who still runs the farm, said he remembers the emergency vehicle at the time being an old Army jeep, and the driver being anxious to get to the scene driving through two fences to get there. I guess my dad was upset that in addition to fixing all the fences which were washed out in the flood, he also had to fix the fences destroyed by the Jeep.”

That flood was called the worst Grant County flooding since 1876. According to the National Weather Service, the Platte River at Rockville reached flood stage of 17.26 feet, more than double the highest flood stage recorded since the station had opened in 1935. (In 1935, the year the station opened, the highest water level recorded was 8.67 feet.) The Grant River at Burton reached 24.82 feet, a record by more than three feet.

The 1950 floods wiped out 27 Grant County bridges, including the old bridge and another bridge on Grant County B west of Platteville, according to the Grant County News. Bridges on Grant County D north of Platteville, the Little Platte River 1½ miles west of Platteville, Ellenboro, Wisconsin 81, Grant County A four miles east of Lancaster and Grant County K northwest of Lancaster were reported washed away.

“Many narrow escapes from death are reported on account of bridges being swept away,” the News reported, adding, “Thousands of acres of corn on the low lands have been destroyed by high water on the Platteville and Grant river bottoms. Much of the oats in the storm area are down with little hopes of them ever straightening.”

In addition to the bridge washouts, 42 barns were reported collapsed, with hundreds of cattle reported killed. At one farm, every building except for the house was “flattened,” and 24 cattle and one horse had to be killed. Ironically, the farmer’s wife and niece weren’t at the farm, because they had been injured in a car crash earlier that day and were in the hospital.

The Pecatonica River in Darlington reached what was called “its highest level in history,” according to the News.

It took two years to replace “some” of the bridges washed out in the 1950 flood. The July 3, 1952 Platteville Journal reported that two Town of Harrison bridges were open to traffic, with a third under construction. Construction on a Town of Platteville bridge was reported held up, “With the steel situation being what it is, county officials can only hope for the best,” The Journal reported. The County A bridge was not replaced until later.

The 200-foot-long new bridge project included one feature not part of the previous two bridges — two ponds for the Northern cricket frog, considered an endangered species by the state Department of Natural Resources.

“There was a lot of DNR involvement with this project from start to finish,” said Rick.