Closing the Gap

The year was 1865 and Robert Tinker, employee for the Manny Reaper Company (a local farm implement manufacturer) had just returned from a company sponsored world tour. Inspired by his travels, Tinker decided to build himself a new home – one styled after the cottages he had fallen in love with in Switzerland.

As so often happens with projects inspired by passion, destiny (or cupid) got involved and Tinker found himself breaking ground for his new Swiss Cottage high on a limestone bluff overlooking Kent Creek and, on the far bank, the Manny Mansion, home to his employer, Mary Manny.

Five years later, Tinker and Manny were an item, engaged to be married, separated only by this pretty, bubbling creek. Being a man of the world (and possibly a little eccentric), Tinker constructed a swinging suspension bridge to connect his estate and hers. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gully Washer

Well, almost. The bridge, originally constructed in 1870, was built on a slant, sloping down from the bluff to the north creek bank and putting it square in the path of the great flood of 1890 which swept through Rockford wiping out every bridge in town.

Undeterred, Tinker re-built the suspension bridge the very next year this time making sure to raise the support piers on the north side to level the bridge and put it out of reach of future floods.

Tinker’s bridge beat back the sands of time and weather for 86 years during which time his wife died. Her estate was sold to the railroad and her mansion, just across the bridge was razed to make room for additional rail yards.

Not satisfied with the view, Tinker, ever the visionary, convinced the railroad to allow him to build and maintain elaborate gardens on their side of the creek. This combination of elaborate gardens, suspension bridge and a unique Swiss Cottage sitting on a beautiful limestone bluff high overhead was the first thing visitors to Rockford saw as they exited the train depot upon arrival.

It was stunning – and the bridge was the central element. Beloved by the citizens of Rockford it became a local landmark and the Cottage entered the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1976, time finally caught up with the old, deteriorating structure and it was torn down.

Immediately, the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum board of directors began talking about how they could work with the Rockford Park District (owners of the building and grounds) to rebuild the bridge.

The 29-Year Odyssey Begins

For 17 years, the museum board and park district talked, planned and organized. Then, in 1993, they caught a break. Having applied for and won a federal enhancement funds grant (80% federal money, 20% park district money) coordinated by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the engineering and construction process began. Little did anyone know, it would be 13 more years before the bridge would be finished.

Jim Reid, Senior Manager of the Rockford Park District (a special district who’s oversight includes four cities, one of which is Rockford,) says the biggest challenge to the project was simply securing the appropriate approvals from all of the agencies involved.

“The state of Illinois had control of everything,” says Reid. “This was federal money, through the state of Illinois that was passed through the Illinois Department of Transportation for enhancement projects.”

Which meant, Reid and his army of consultants had to receive approvals from the Illinois Historical Preservation Department, the Illinois ADA Compliance Department, the Bridge Division of the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Illinois Department of Waterways and so on.

“At one point,” Reid says, “our consultant told us he counted over 20 approvals, from very small to very large, waiting for approval so we could go to bid.”

Retro Engineering

The process was further complicated by the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum’s desire to stay as true to the original bridge’s design as possible. A tough task when you have to meet today’s safety and design standards.

“We worked with Willett, Hofmann & Associates (WHA) to make it look as much like the original as possible,” says Laura Bachelder, Executive Director of Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum. “And the real challenge was to try and give it some of the movement it originally had. It was not a bridge that stood stock still.”

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