Well hidden beneath Hwy. 12 over Allen Creek to the northeast of Black River Falls is a 152-foot long, 8-foot high and 17-foot wide stone masonry arch culvert built in 1884 that very few people know about.
“It is kind of hidden because there is about 35 feet of overburden or fill to the roadway so it is down there a little ways,” David Koepp, DOT project manager, said. “It is enough room to grow a few trees and vegetation over the years. Over the past 130 years that the culvert has been there, there have been a few trees that have grown up on it.”
Not even the previous 8-year highway commissioner Randy Anderson or new highway commissioner Jay Borek knew about the culvert.
“I never knew it existed and Jay and I walked out there and I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not walking out there,’” Anderson said explaining that the culvert is down there quite a ways.
Since the culvert was built before Hwy. 12, Koepp has been looking for the reason the culvert was built in the first place.
“In our review for our environmental process we found some old maps from around the 1890s that showed a railroad running in that general vicinity, but old maps are tough to read, especially digital copies of them,” Koepp said adding that he can only speculate at this point.
The oldest information the DOT has on the culvert dates back to 1934 on a document when Hwy. 12 was originally built that said the existing culvert was to remain.
The culvert itself is pretty large with two footings on each side and stone stacked in an arch shape.
“It is quite impressive. I can’t imagine building that before the diesel engine and hydraulics and everything else. I can only imagine the amount of horses and manpower it took to move those stones into place. In 1884 their tools were a little different in those days,” Koepp said.
The specific type of arch is not rare in Jackson County, but having it be so old is rare.
“In the Jackson County area and as you get closer to the river—closer over on the western side by Trempealeau County we find a lot of existing structures from the 1930s that are still in good shape and we continue to use. It is not uncommon, but this is the oldest one I have dealt with in my career,” Koepp said.
Despite its age, the culvert has held up well over the years, but the DOT is preparing to replace it because some of the stones are crumbling, mortar is coming loose and other natural deterioration is happening.
“It is getting to a point where we need to do something about it,” Koepp said. “We plan to replace it with a bridge that will be a little bit more notable to see, so we are playing with our options how long that would have to be.”
The DOT doesn’t have money set aside until the summer of 2022 for the project, but if more money becomes available, the culvert could be replaced as soon as 2020 when the plan is completed.
The project is expected to cost between $1.5-2 million, which depends on how the culvert is replaced.