Group Works to Rebuild Bridge

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Many people in Ionia County were upset when someone burned the Whites Bridge in Belding to the ground July 7. Few decided to do something about it.

"I decided that I could sit around being mad about it or I could do something constructive and get that bridge back here again," said Paul Phenix, founder of the Rebuild Whites Covered Bridge group. "And it will be back."

Monday marked the first step of the rebuilding process. Volunteers joined together to remove charred pieces of the bridge from the Flat River. With the help of Eco Demolition, they fished out burnt wood and rusted nails before loading them into a truck.

Both the volunteers and Eco Demolition worked for free, saving the county what would have been a $40,000 expense.

"It was sad to see the history being put in the back of a truck but then again it's time for a fresh start," said Howard Larsen, co-founder of the Rebuild group.

Together with Phenix, and with the help of social media, Larsen has been raising money to reconstruct the 144-year-old bridge, a place they say made memories across generations.

"When I was young my grandparents brought me out here, they showed me where their parents had signed the bridge, where they signed the bridge, and they invited me to sign the bridge," Phenix said. "Now when I had kids I was able to bring them out here and show them where their ancestors had signed. It was magical to have them be able to connect with their past."

The bridge was so important, Phenix skipped an doctor's appointment to be present Monday. His childhood friend Jeff Christensen showed up despite the death of his sister early the same morning.

"If I wouldn't have [come], I know what she would have done to me," said Christensen. "And that wouldn't have been pleasant. Hers was another name that was in this bridge. Her children had their names in this bridge.

"It's a sad day, but it's a wonderful day at the same time because we're getting this project off the ground. And that's a good thing."

And while Monday may have been the toughest day of physical labor, the group says there is a lot more work to come. Next comes contracting someone to design and build the bridge -- not to mention raise the funding to pay for it.

But Phenix says he has been encouraged by the support so far. He says he hopes to have the bridge completed by July of next summer, in time for it to open on the year anniversary of its destruction.