Bridge Construction to Begin at Pigeon River Campground

The current crossing where Ford Lake Road meets the Pigeon River consists of three undersized culverts that are unable to pass floodwaters and have led to recurring damage to the roadway. Huron Pines is starting construction this month to replace the crossing with a timber bridge.

Huron Pines is breaking ground this month on a new bridge where Ford Lake Road crosses the Pigeon River at a popular campground east of Vanderbilt. The road will remain closed while a set of culverts are removed and replaced with a timber bridge to correct issues with erosion, fish passage and road safety. Pigeon River State Forest Campground will stay open and accessible from the east during construction, expected to run from mid April through June.

The crossing has long caused problems for its inability to pass the Pigeon River during times of high water. This was again demonstrated Oct 23 when 3 1/2 inches of rain fell in the Vanderbilt area, causing the river to swell, overtop Ford Lake Road and wash out part of the roadway and one campsite on the river’s west side. Past washouts have been a recurring source of sediment entering the trout stream and an ongoing maintenance issue for the road commission.

Washout damage from an October 2020 rainstorm.

“The culverts under Ford Lake Road are undersized, which has led the Pigeon River to wash out the surrounding roadway during high flow events,” said Josh Leisen, Senior Project Manager for Huron Pines. “In addition to the road damage, these problematic culverts impair fish passage and cause erosion that sends sand and other pollutants into the river. To improve both river health and road safety, we’ll be installing a new timber bridge to eliminate these issues.”

Senior Project Manager Josh Leisen sketches damage to the crossing from an October 2020 washout.

The new, 44-foot timber bridge will allow the Pigeon River to flow unhindered through the crossing even at flood stage. Without fast water rushing through the culverts, a longstanding obstacle for young trout wanting to access 50 miles of habitat upstream of the crossing will be gone, taking with it the need for frequent erosion-related repairs to the roadway.

“The Otsego County Road Commission has had a very successful strategic partnership with Huron Pines over the years and the upcoming Ford Lake Road bridge project is no exception,” said Kirk Harrier, Managing Director of the road commission. “This area has had issues with washouts and costly flood-related repairs for some time. The completion of this project will correct those issues and enhance the natural resources of the area.”

Kelly Kinser is Unit Supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Parks and Recreation Division which operates the campground. Due to damage from the October washout and the scale of the bridge project, Kinser said the single campsite on the west side of the crossing (site 19) will be eliminated. The day-use picnic area, also damaged in the washout, will be temporarily closed for safety reasons but will reopen once the project is complete.

Leisen’s sketch depicts damage to the crossing caused by the October 2020 washout as the Pigeon River flows downstream in the background.

“The majority of the Pigeon River campground will not be impacted and will remain open during the construction,” she said. “Parks and Recreation Division is excited to see a new bridge being installed at this crossing that will allow the river to flow freely again.”

“All rivers have scars and this one is next in a long line of healing them.”

Tim Cwalinski, DNR Fisheries biologist

Tim Cwalinski is a biologist with the DNR Fisheries Division and describes the Pigeon River as a classic, cold-water trout stream holding a good population of wild brook, brown and rainbow trout. He said old infrastructure such as undersized culverts are like scars on the river.

The timber bridge to be built at the Ford Lake Road crossing will look similar to this one Huron Pines installed over Houghton Creek at Flynn Road.
A timber bridge once existed at the crossing as shown in this circa 1940 photo by Lyle Horsell, the former PRC unit manager.

“All rivers have scars and this one is next in a long line of healing them,” Cwalinski said, noting relatively recent bridge replacements upstream at Sturgeon Valley Road and downstream at Tin Bridge Road. “When you have a constriction point that can’t pass high flows, you get the river saying ‘I’m not going through here anymore, I’m going around.’ We can’t just keep living with that and this is the time to do it.”

This project is being managed by Huron Pines, contracted by Hillman-based MacArthur Construction and supported by Otsego County Road Commission. The total project is estimated at $500,000, with a majority of the cost covered by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Sustain Our Great Lakes Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish Passage Program, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Walters Family Foundation. Otsego County Road Commission is providing additional in-kind support.

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