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Historic Bridge Named In Honor Of Loudoun Preservation Pioneer

© Leesburg Today - 07/29/2015

The 1889 Pratt Truss bridge that spans the north fork of Catoctin Creek between Waterford and Taylorstown received a new name Tuesday.

The John G. Lewis Memorial Bridge was the site of the gathering of the preservationist's former colleagues, friends and admirers to celebrate the legacy of a man who led efforts to record information about Loudoun's historic structures and sites. He is cited as an essential figure in Loudoun's historic preservation movement by those who followed him.

The bridge once spanned Goose Creek on Rt. 7 east of Leesburg, but was moved to Featherbed Lane in 1932. The rare remaining example of late 19th century American engineering is one of only eight in existence in the country and one of two in Virginia still carrying traffic.

Over the past year, the bridge has been found to have structural cracks and the Virginia Department of Transportation is studying seven rehabilitation options.

The naming of the bridge in Lewis' memory recalls his involvement in an earlier fight to save the bridge.

Lewis, who died in 2013 at age 80, was a crucial player in the 1974 fight to prevent Catoctin Creek from being dammed by the Fairfax Water Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One of his first actions in that nine-year struggle was to get the bridge nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. As chairman of the Loudoun County Scenic River Committee, Lewis spearheaded an effort to secure scenic river designations for both Catoctin Creek and Goose Creek.

Lewis also was instrumental in creating 10 town and village county historic districts, including Waterford and Taylorstown. His most monumental effort was creating the original 9,000-acre Goose Creek Historic District-the first rural historic agricultural district in the country.

In addition, Lewis meticulously recorded his analysis and observations in the ""Lewis File,"" which contains records on more than 1,000 buildings and sites surveyed by the architectural historian for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission.

Among the nearly three dozen people assembled at the bridge were old friends and colleagues, including former Leesburg District Supervisor Joan Rokus, who serves on the Goose Creek Scenic River Advisory Board; Featherbed Lane resident Nancy Doane, who is the former executive director of the Waterford Foundation; Catoctin Creek Scenic Advisory Committee member Patti Psaris; historian and Catoctin District Planning Commissioner Eugene Scheel; Taylorstown resident Phil Ehrenkranz, who helped Lewis in the fight against the dam; Catoctin Creek Scenic River Advisory Committee member Anne Larson; and Virginia Department of Historic Resources Community Services Division Director David Edwards. Several VDOT representatives also were present, including Loudoun County Transportation and Land Use Director Farid Bigdeli and District Bridge Engineer Gary Runco.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) emceed the dedication ceremony.

As a ""studier of historic structures, Lewis was second to none,"" he said. Citing his own passion, Higgins said history ""is so important to us; if you don't know where you came from, you don't know who you are.""

Heidi Siebentritt, the county's historic preservation planner, said she had come to know Lewis well and treasured him as a longtime friend, not through personal acquaintance, but through his meticulous documentation that she had studied over the years. Prophetically, Siebentritt said she found in Lewis' files a comment that the Featherbed Lane span was one of the most important Pratt Truss bridges in the state and, in all caps and underlined, ""Should be preserved.""

Ehrankranz, who was a comrade at arms with Lewis in the fight against the dam, lauded him for a lifetime of selfless public service to historic preservation and environmental causes, citing Lewis' actions in getting the bridge on the Virginia and National registers. ""That achievement is the principal reason we are assembled here today,"" he said.

The bridge was listed on the National Register in June 1974. Lewis had moved fast. Three weeks earlier the Fairfax County Water Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had released their proposal to dam the creek-a plan that would have created a reservoir and ""drowned the bridge,"" Ehrenkranz said.

Lewis called Ehrenkranz, to offer his help ""in slaying the twin dragons."" Lewis did not live in the Waterford-Taylorstown area, but for him participating in the resistance was simply ""the right and required thing to do.""

Lewis had already initiated the process to get Goose Creek named a scenic river. To avoid competition between the two Loudoun streams, the Board of Supervisors formed the Loudoun County Scenic River Committee-with Lewis as chairman and Ehrenkranz as vice chairman. The two Loudoun streams became state scenic rivers in 1976 and 1977-among the first to achieve the designations.

Next, the duo set about forming the approximately 65-acre Taylorstown Historic District. The district was listed on the National Register in January 1978.

Those epic achievements of the 1970s were the mark of a highly organized man, small in stature but whose ""dreams and ideas were immense,"" Ehrenkranz said.

Psaris also cited Lewis' work in spearheading the scenic river designation that helped preserve so much of the area's natural, historic, environmental and scenic features.

Scheel had known Lewis since the 1960s. Both were active in amateur theater, both loved opera, both were originally from New York City, and both had been in the military. In 1980, Lewis left Loudoun for Winchester.

It was in Winchester that Lewis became a daily visitor to Edwards' office as regional director for VDHR. Edwards was his successor in Loudoun, from 1970 to 1982. Edwards remembered Lewis' signature creation of the 9,000-acre Goose Creek District, since augmented with a further 1,000 acres. ""I cut my teeth on it,"" he said.

In a letter read at the ceremony, Lincoln resident Jean Brown said it was Lewis who ""convinced a number of residents that we lived in a special place that was worth preserving.""

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) also wrote a letter, praising Lewis for his important work and for linking the past with the present.

Edwards recalled crossing the Featherbed Lane bridge with Lewis, who said, ""This is very important to Loudoun and the nation.""

""I'm so glad that we are saving it and memorializing him,"" Edwards said.

The ceremony ended on a note the former historian, actor and musician would have appreciated. Young Taylorstown resident and dancer Mackenna Carlow performed a graceful Irish jig in his honor on the bridge.

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