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Ghost Bridge

Increased interest in Utah wilderness may threaten a historic landmark


Rockville's one-lane bridge near Zion National Park
  • Rockville's one-lane bridge near Zion National Park

For the better part of a century, the ghost town of Grafton, Utah, and the wilderness of Gooseberry Mesa were places that travelers zoomed past as they entered and exited Zion National Park.

The decades of these areas being overlooked, though, appear to be over. Visitation at Zion crested 3 million for the first time in 2014, with 400,000 more visitors than the previous year. And many of these folks, hungry for a slice of history and adventure, appear to be venturing off the beaten path, snaking their way through the town of Rockville to hunt down the ghosts and trails that lie beyond.

The cost of increased traffic appears to be weighing heavily on the Rockville Bridge, a one-lane steel structure that has delivered covered wagons, gun-slinging outlaws and SUVs safely across the Virgin River for the past 81 years.

With rising traffic on the bridge hastening its deterioration, Rockville residents and city officials are beginning in earnest to grapple with the landmark's unknown future—one that could involve removing the bridge altogether, refurbishing the bridge or building another bridge.

Narrowing this range of possibilities is important, but one path seems concrete: The bridge, registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1995, will, one way or another, survive. At least, it will as long as Rockville City Councilman Bernie Harris is around.

"The bridge, as far as I'm concerned, stays as long as I'm alive," Harris says. "I'll do whatever I have to do to see that happen."

In 2012, the Utah Department of Transportation downgraded the bridge's weight limit from 25 tons to 14 tons. Since then, Harris and other Rockville residents say traffic across the bridge has exploded, leading to further deterioration of the bridge and congestion.

What Rockville needs, Harris says, is another study to discover how badly the bridge has deteriorated since 2012. This, he says, could cost around $20,000. Once this study is done, the city would need to raise $230,000 to receive matching government funds to pay for a full-scale design to rehabilitate the bridge.

If all of this happens, Joyce Hartless, a Rockville resident who lives near one end of the bridge, says $3.2 million that UDOT has allocated toward new bridge construction could be re-appropriated to remodel the existing bridge.

The present hurdle in these plans is Rockville's pocketbook. With its quaint pioneer houses and iconic light bulbs that drape the main drag, the city is more of a pass-through on the way to other places than it is a hive of economic activity. This leaves city coffers scant on cash.

As a result, the city is trying to generate the funds through donations.

Although Harris hopes a thorough refurbishment of the bridge could go a long way toward ensuring its preservation, he believes the growing use in the area will eventually require construction of an additional bridge.

For the past 30 years, Coby Jordan has lived near the bridge. He helped get it placed on the historic register and says it was, at one point, the primary access route to the park.

For anyone who drove across the bridge a decade or more ago into the sleepy ghost town of Grafton—which perhaps had its most famous day as the location where Paul Newman and Katharine Ross pedaled around on an old bicycle in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—the fact that traffic in the area is now a problem might come as a surprise.

Harris says average daily trips across the bridge range from 600 to 900. In addition to day-trippers visiting Grafton, Jordan estimates that half of those making their way to Gooseberry Mesa for mountain biking, ATV riding and other adventures drive across the bridge.

One example specific to Gooseberry Mesa, Jordan says, is the Red Bull Rampage mountain-biking event, which is held in the area each year. "Mountain biking has just really exploded down here," Jordan says. "There is a tremendous amount of additional pressure on these resources than there was 20 or 30 years ago."

And, not unlike a primitive camping site that is ruined by fire pits and human waste, the bridge and the surrounding lands are being loved to death.

"I've seen the river come up over that bridge; I've stood on that bridge and had water come over and lap my feet," Harris says. "I'd just hate to see it go away."

For more information about the Rockville Bridge, visit