A covered wooden bridge that has become a focal point along the Kal-Haven Heritage Trail may be a thing of the past when work begins to renovate 17 miles of the trail.
Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources received $5 million in funding last summer as part of the Building Michigan Together plan to resurface the western portion of the trail from South Haven to Bloomingdale’s.
Part of these plans would lead to the widening and resurfacing of the trail, as well as the replacement of three bridge structures – including the Donald F. Nichols Covered Bridge near the South Haven Trailhead.
The possibility of the demolition of the 108-foot-long covered walkway over the Black River has worried some locals, including Scott Reinert, former director of the South Haven/Van Buren County Convention and Visitors Bureau. .
Over the years, Reinert has led efforts to expand outdoor recreational trails throughout the South Haven area; efforts that led to the city being named one of the first pure Michigan Trail cities in the state two years ago.
“We believe the covered bridge is an icon for our community, just like the lighthouse,” Reinert said. “In fact, the bridge is featured on the cover of the current Pure Michigan fall travel guide.”
A DNR spokesperson confirmed that plans still call for the replacement of the three bridges that date back to the late 1800s when the Kalamazoo & South Haven Railroad Co. operated a line between the two cities to transport passengers and freight . The rail corridor was abandoned in 1971 by Penn Central Railroad, said Jill Sell, southwestern Michigan trail specialist for DNR.
“The bridges can no longer safely support the weight of the vehicles and equipment that we use to maintain the trail,” Sell said. “The superstructures of the bridges are original when this corridor was used as a railway.”
To highlight concerns about the covered bridge, the DNR closed it for a week in October 2021 to carry out inspection and maintenance work.
Working with the DNR
While he’s certain the bridges will be replaced as part of the $5 million project, Sell said no final decision has been made on the design of a new bridge.
“MNR staff and engineers are evaluating several options,” she said.
Reinert said he hopes to have further discussions with the DNR to find ways to possibly preserve the covered bridge.
“We have scheduled interactions with the DNR in the coming week to discuss this and hopefully alternatives,” Reinert said. “We hope they will be responsive to see if any renovations can be made to the current bridge rather than replacing it with something modern.”
Jeff Green, interim president of Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail, also remains optimistic.
“We believe that if the problem is money…the sooner we know what the costs would be to keep this beloved icon, the sooner we can organize the community to raise the funds needed to keep it in place, give it a new roof,” he said, “and much-needed love and care that it can be done as part of the overall resurfacing project.
A timeline is unknown, but Sell said the $5 million granted for the project must be spent by the end of 2026 – with the DNR overseeing the improvements.
Funding for the Kal-Haven Trail upgrade is made possible through Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Building Michigan Together plan, a $4.8 billion infrastructure package signed in March.
The Kal-Haven Trail project marks the first time the western half of the trail has been resurfaced since the trail was first dedicated in 1989. The trail holds the distinction of being the first linear state trail to be created in Michigan. In 2015, efforts were undertaken to install over 30 heritage markers to showcase the history of the towns and people who once lived along the trail.