The Flat Rock pedestrian bridge under construction in March 2023.

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This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Caitlin Hayes

In 1983, after a storm washed out an unstable pedestrian bridge over Ithaca’s Fall Creek, the Cornell student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rebuilt it. Now, the current chapter is renovating the bridge for the next four decades or more.

For these students and alumni, the bridge represents a meeting place, a legacy, and a manifestation of what they’ve learned at Cornell, including the importance of serving the community.

“I think any civil engineer will tell you they like having a tangible outcome,” says Angela Melugin ’23, president of the current chapter. “They like getting to build something that everyone uses and everyone needs.”

Angela Melugin ’23, right, works with Gabe Maurad ’26 at the High Voltage Laboratory.
Gabe Maurad ’26 (left) and Angela Melugin ’23 at work in the High Voltage Lab.

Crossing an area known as Flat Rock, the bridge serves as the most direct access point for more than 20 miles of Cornell Botanic Gardens trails and is used by an estimated 35,000 visitors a year.

“The bridge gave us the confidence that you can make something big happen,” says Mark Ehlen ’83, PhD ’96, who helped design and build it in 1983 and is now a consultant for the National Nuclear Security Administration. “It showed us that we had the abilities and the smarts to do it.”

The bridge gave us the confidence that you can make something big happen.

Mark Ehlen ’83, PhD ’96

Much of the 1983 construction remains sound; only the wood decking and railings need to be replaced. Still, the renovation has required the support of numerous facets of the community.

Charlie Trautmann, PhD ’83, who lives near the bridge, began coordinating the renovation more than two years ago, when he and his wife noticed it was deteriorating.

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Three men working on the Flat Rock Bridge project in 1983
During the 1983 repairs, students built a trolley to shuttle sections of the bridge across the creek. (Provided)

“It’s an important part of the pedestrian infrastructure of Tompkins County,” says Trautmann, who directed Ithaca’s Sciencenter for 26 years and is currently an adjunct associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“In the summer, it’s used by students, residents, and visitors for walking, birding, and trail running; in the winter, it gets a lot of use by skiers and snowshoers. We often meet people on the trails who have come to Ithaca to enjoy the outdoor amenities we have, and the bridge is a part of that allure. It’s one of those gems that makes Ithaca such a special place.”

Three dozen donors have provided the $60,000 required for the renovation—three-quarters of which came from emeriti faculty in civil and environmental engineering (CEE).

Azeezah Ladoja ’25 holds a piece of lumber at the bridge site.
Azeezah Ladoja ’25 and classmates at the bridge site.

Students, faculty, facilities staff, and community members, including the local Ithaca ASCE chapter, have started installing the decking and railings.

Alumni from the Class of ’83 will return for a rededication ceremony during Reunion weekend in June.

The 1983 project was extensive: in addition to hauling remnants of the old bridge from the water, a group of 20 students considered different designs, performed calculations, drew up plans, and then built and installed the new bridge with the help of faculty and graduate students, as well as staff in facilities and CEE, who built the steel towers and poured the foundations for the anchors on either side of the creek.

“A big part of what I learned was realizing the limitations,” recalls Bryan Clark ’83, president of the student ASCE chapter at the time, and now an emergency physician.

“We thought we’d just do the fancy math and come out with the answer, but that’s not how bridges are built in real life. That’s the art of engineering—understanding what you can calculate exactly, what you can calculate closely, and what you can’t calculate.”

A volunteer works with his team to fit new sections of the Flat Rock pedestrian bridge.
A volunteer carpenter fits a new section.

For students now, the hands-on project is a crucial complement to what they’re learning in the classroom, as so much of their education in engineering has moved onto screens.

“Being able to see this project from a different stage in the lifecycle than we would see in the classroom is really important,” says Bo Rider ’23, BS ’22, vice president of the ASCE student chapter. “It’s forming the synapses of seeing how something gets built.”

All photos by Noël Heaney / Cornell University (unless otherwise indicated).

Published March 29, 2023


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