In years past, a one-lane bridge spanning Choccolocco Creek was the quickest route from the parts of Oxford that lay north of Interstate 20 at Exit 188 to those immediately south.
It was also known, at least colloquially if not officially, as “Hell’s Gate Bridge.”
Once in a rural part of the city’s outskirts, the bridge, which has been closed more than a decade, now sits between Oxford’s Choccolocco Park sports complex and its busy Commons shopping center.
A new, paved trail at the park leads right up to the bridge — and a heavy barricade blocking easy access. No fewer than five “no trespassing” signs warn away the curious, and city officials face a decision: to keep and restore the bridge, or remove it and start fresh.
Some think it ought to be taken down. Others want to see it restored, Parks and Recreation Department head Don Hudson said. He was certain Wednesday of one thing.
“We do know it is a safety issue now,” Hudson said by phone. “Something’s got to be done.”
Oxford’s police chief has closed the bridge to public use.
Set foot on it now, Bill Partridge said Wednesday, and “you’re trespassing.”
Up until at least 2002, according to records held by Calhoun County engineer Brian Rosenbalm’s office, the bridge was an open and necessary route.
“It stayed open a lot longer than we were comfortable with, from a liability standpoint,” Charles Markert said by phone Wednesday. Markert was county engineer from 1996 to 2009, when he retired.
At one point during his tenure and after a yearly inspection, the truss bridge — perhaps built in the 1930s, Markert said — was rated a 1 out of 100 in sufficiency. The rating measured both its functional ability and structural integrity, he said.
“We stretched that out as long as we could, because of the need,” the retired engineer said of the bridge’s use — even though he “was concerned that it would fall in at any moment.”
Markert, who was the chief engineer in Chambers County before taking the same post in Calhoun, said he’d never seen a bridge scored so low.
Hudson, meanwhile, says the city could repurpose the bridge and the closed road that it serves, perhaps linking the city’s park with its shopping spaces.
Mayor Alton Craft at a meeting recently suggested seeking federal grants to assist in either repairing or replacing the bridge.
“If it’s going to come down, it needs to come down on our terms,” he said.
Markert suggests any repurposing — even for pedestrian traffic — start with a thorough inspection from a structural engineer.
“It may be cheaper to tear it down and build something else,” he said,
As for where the name “Hell’s Gate” came from, Markert said he didn’t know, but he noted how the area it served might’ve looked before mushrooming development and buzzing traffic.
“You’d go down in this little dark, narrow road, and over this creaky bridge — it rattled and creaked as you crossed it,” he recalled. “When I was growing up, we had places like that people made up tales about.”