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Wanakena resident Bill King looks at the Oswegatchie River from his window. As of Wednesday, the river was still mostly covered by jagged ice. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Wanakena resident Bill King looks at the Oswegatchie River from his window. As of Wednesday, the river was still mostly covered by jagged ice. Photo: Zach Hirsch

Wanakena residents lose a treasure, for now

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On Monday, an ice jam in Wanakena caused floods, and severe damage to a historic footbridge. Nobody was physically hurt, but the physical damage has caused some emotional bruises.

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The section of the Oswegatchie river that passes through Wanakena barely resembles a river. Right now, it looks more like a field of giant, jagged shards ice. On top of those shards sits a twisted, white cable bridge.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in all the way yet, with people,” said Rick Kovacs, owns the general store in Wanakena. “When they see it, especially the seasonal folks, when they come back and see it, I think it’s going to make them feel pretty sad.”

Photo: Zach Hirsch
Photo: Zach Hirsch
Along with the rest of the community, Kovacs says it’s upsetting to see the footbridge in this condition.

“So a good question is, is it more striking for people to see the damaged bridge? Or to see a space where the bridge used to be,” Kovacs said. “I think it could go either way in that regard.”

Wanakena isn’t even big enough to be called a hamlet. Basically, the downtown consists of Kovac’s general store and the footbridge.

And in case you can’t hear it in Kovac’s voice, this wasn’t just any old walkway to the people who live, work, and visit here. It’s a quintessential icon - even an emotional anchor for them.

“Well in the old days, that was the absolute way of getting across the river, back at the turn of the 20th century,” he said. “A hundred years later, it’s still favorite. People will walk across it just to say that they’ve walked across it. It’s part of the fabric of the town.”

Last week, the weather was like a rollercoaster, soaring from the zero’s into the 40s. So, first, a lot of ice built up on the river. Then, when melt water flowed into the Oswegatchie, it created pressure that dislodged the ice. It all came roaring downstream. Wanakena native Bill King saw the whole thing.

“They call me ‘Bo’ here,” King said. “I was up doing firewood up at Rick’s, up at the lodge. I heard the sound, almost of a train coming down the river, somewhat, and it was shaped like a tsunami. Which I’ve never seen on this river, not like that. And it was ripping by – probably a good, twenty-something miles an hour.”

King says Wanakena has had ice jams before, but this is the worst one he’s ever seen. When all that ice slammed into the footbridge, it didn’t just knock over the walkway. The ice also smashed one of the bridge’s supporting towers, which gave it structural stability. Now it’s beyond repair.

But King says he has other things to worry about at the moment. His house is only a few hundred feet from the bridge - in a low spot, right on the river.

“We got a foot and a half of water in here. And it stinks in here. You can see the water line,” he said. “I only had seconds. Only seconds to get my power tools off the floor. And then it bombarded the back of the house, here. Just like getting hit with canons. You can hear it – boom! Boom! Boom! And then it was only, 15, maybe 30 seconds, the house filled up with water.”

King says he’ll be busy in the coming weeks, cleaning up his and his neighbors’ homes. Only about eight houses were affected by the flooding, though. Most of the community is focused on what will happen with the treasured cable bridge. 

Just down the road, I’m about to start interviewing Town Supervisor Mark Hall when another Wanakena native, Carol Cassidy, breaks in.

“It’s certainly an emotional situation,” Hall said. “And that’s great, because that’s what’s really going to put the focus behind this and make sure it gets done.”

It’s still too early to tell how much the restoration will cost, or how long it will take. Hall is telling people they should brace for a summer without the footbridge.

And while Hall deliberates with other officials over the logistics of the rebuild, the local Historical Association is collecting donations for the restoration effort. 

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