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Trucks still hit Long Grove’s iconic bridge, but town punches back

For almost 200 years, Long Grove’s residents have been like the village’s infamous covered bridge — charming with an unexpected steely foundation hidden beneath the surface.

Developers of railroads, major housing developments, expressways, hotels, churches and even a golf center named for Bulls legend Michael Jordan have all underestimated this community’s ability to defend itself against “improvements.”

And, as a result, each of these ideas failed to proceed, just like more than 40 tall vehicles that unsuccessfully attempted to squeeze through the low-clearance bridge in recent years.

Residents love their bridge so much it’s hard to get anyone to say anything negative about it.

“The collisions are not due to the bridge; it does not move,” Mayor Bill Jacob said. “Rather, the collisions are the result of drivers being inattentive to the numerous warnings regarding the bridge’s height limitations who also disregard the traffic restrictions in an effort to find a shortcut.”

Long Grove Fire Protection District Chief Paul Segalla says the bridge’s 8-foot, 6-inch clearance makes it impossible for his department’s vehicles to use, but their emergency response time stays the same using other routes.

To an outsider, this complacency may appear confusing. Why not just make the bridge opening taller?

Commercial trucks would be too heavy regardless. Aaron Underwood, a Long Grove resident and historian at the Long Grove Historical Society, says the bridge can support up to 5 tons , but many commercial vehicles surpass that.

“Then you’re maybe talking about how much extra weight can it take for how long?” he said. “And then we are talking about the bridge collapsing at some point. It’s a tough issue.”

The one-lane bridge is long past its 20th century prime, but changes are made slowly here. Historic downtown Long Grove just got its first stoplight in 2021.

Preserving a pastoral way of life in this Lake County suburb often defies modern thinking — home sites here are on mandatory acres of land with natural foliage required as buffers to hide roads and neighbors. Residents don’t pay property taxes, which makes the town reliant on sales tax, licenses and fines — including the $750 minimum for drivers exceeding the height and weight restrictions of its iconic bridge — for revenue.

Of its publicly elected officials, few are paid. Its mayor wasn’t until 2017, when the Village Board approved a $14,400 yearly salary, less than 10% of the annual Long Grove income at the time, to inspire competition for the position.

“There’s only been one person running for more than a decade,” then-trustee Stan Borys said at the time. “Long Grove deserves better than that.”

Underwood said getting new candidates from the community of 8,300 is challenging.

“There are a lot of volunteers in town. But the people that seem to do all the volunteering, those people — for whatever reason — don’t tend to be the ones that run for office,” he said. “And the people that run for political office, oftentimes, don’t really volunteer much within town.”

It’s a considerable departure from the 1950s when the village put its trust in one man whose name adorns Long Grove’s iconic bridge and the road beneath it — Robert Parker Coffin.

Though his name sounds like someone who put roots down among the area’s vast thicket of trees in the 1840s — hence the name “long grove” — Coffin was born Aug. 6, 1917, and raised in Winnetka. He graduated from Yale University with a civil engineering degree in 1939.

Long Grove in June 1929.

Coffin moved his family to unincorporated Lake County just after World War II and traveled to Chicago for work, like other patriarchs of nearby “commuter” families who moved to the countryside during that era.

His oldest child, Betsy Coffin Hofmeister, remembers the family’s 9-acre property on Willowbrook Road where she and her three siblings went ice skating in the winter and the roadside where her parents planted daffodil bulbs in the fall, a tradition the village still supports.

“My parents actually built their own house — I mean, physically built,” she said. “In the late 1940s, we moved in just before Christmas and I remember there being no kitchen. The stove and refrigerator were in the living room.”

Coffin soon opened his own architecture firm in the nearby historic district with designs inspired by classic homes on the East Coast. He believed these simple styles were perfect for the Illinois prairie.

“Chicago is a conservative market,” Coffin later told the Tribune. “People don’t want way-out, contemporary houses. A good basic Colonial is always in style. There’s always a base of people to whom that spells home.”

His work to create new homes and shops that looked old and to save old buildings for preservation was in line with the times — and the village’s comprehensive plan. A Tribune story called Long Grove a “collector’s mecca,” saying motorists visited to “enjoy a good lunch, and poke about in all kinds of antiques and gift novelties in a variety of ranges.”

Many of the stores were in houses, former blacksmith shops, barns, garages and a landmark general store at Old McHenry and Long Grove roads, which was renamed for Coffin in the early 1980s.

Though she left Illinois after college, Hofmeister said Long Grove was a throwback to simpler times yet coexisted with the baby boom.

“It was a very small place,” she said. “I think if I had started grade school about three years earlier, I would have actually gone to a one-room school.”

Village President Robert Parker Coffin, a symbol of his community’s defiance, stands at Long Grove’s crossroad intersection, circa 1964.

The tranquillity, however, was interrupted in the mid-1950s when developer Joseph Brickman bought land within Ela Township. His billion-dollar dream project — “Blueprint of the Future” — called for a modern planned community of 16,000 homes, 6,000 apartments, more than 30 schools and neighborhood-sized shopping centers to be built on more than 6,000 acres just east of Lake Zurich in unincorporated Lake County.

In an attempt to woo the “gentleman farmers” who lived there, Brickman hosted rodeos and barbecues complete with “five bartenders stationed at an outdoor bar,” the Daily Herald reported, and plotted to build houses on small lots.

Locals saw through Brickman’s offerings of steers and beer, however, and held their ground. They pursued incorporation and drafted a comprehensive plan stating, “Preserving Long Grove’s semirural charm, while still permitting quality development, is the most important goal.”

On Dec. 31, 1956, Long Grove became a legal municipality with a population of 400 occupying 4 square miles. Kildeer, Hawthorn Woods and Deer Park followed.

“We had to have the framework of a municipality to prevent other municipalities from encroaching on us,” Coffin told the Tribune.

Soon, Brickman’s properties hosted “for sale” signs instead of cowpokes.

Since German immigrants arrived, the bridge served an important purpose — to connect the community’s Protestant church, founded in 1846, with its commerce district across Buffalo Creek. A simple wooden bridge was built in the late 1800s. The iron bridge built by the Joliet Bridge and Iron Co. that replaced it in 1906 remains today.

Pony truss bridges were among the most common built to cross small streams from 1880 to 1910, Nathan Holth, author of HistoricBridges.org wrote in an email to the Tribune, though most of the ones that survive in Illinois are downstate.

“This bridge stands out because it was designed for a more urban location,” he said. “And thus not only retains an original sidewalk, but the beautiful ornate railing as well.”

The covered part of the bridge is the first thing visitors see when they approach. It looks old but wasn’t added until 1972, when the bridge was overdue for maintenance. Coffin designed the wooden structure, finding inspiration in a similar one over the Ashuelot River in New Hampshire.

“I don’t know why he chose that particular one,” Underwood said. “It’s not like his family’s from there, or anything like that.”

Just 10 years removed from a successful battle to keep a $10 million proposed extension of an expressway out of Long Grove, Coffin’s covered bridge design had a bonus feature — its low opening would keep commercial vehicles away. Since the bridge was located on a private road controlled by the village, there were no state laws requiring it to be a specific height. It was dedicated in 1973.

Coffin considered the bridge exceptional. Experts disagreed.

“(Locals) tried in the 1970s to get it on the National Register (of Historic Places),” Underwood said. “They weren’t successful. The reason was, because there were just too many. There were too many (pony) truss bridges at that time.”

For decades, visitors shopped at the village’s quintessentially old-time stores such as the Apple Haus, Farmside Country Store & Winery, the original Gloria Jean’s Coffee Bean, the Peppermint Stick Ice Cream Shoppe, Long Grove Confectionery and Pine Cone Christmas Shoppe. They took horse-drawn carriage rides across the bridge during the holidays and attended singalongs and auctions while eating cheeseburgers at the Village Tavern, which says it is the oldest restaurant in continuous operation in Illinois. Occasionally, cars caused minor damage to the bridge covering, which was usually patched up by local business owners, Underwood said.

The Village Tavern and other shops in Long Grove on April 21, 1971.
Waitress Grace Knowles sings to customers at the Village Tavern on Sept. 28, 1972, in Long Grove.

Yet, the historic district’s retail boom didn’t last into the 21st century. The arrival of online shopping and competition from nearby Buffalo Grove and Deer Park mall in the early 2000s caused some local business owners to plead with the village board to consider additional development options.

After the village planning commission refused, however, longtime Studio of Long Grove gallery owner Tom Hilligoss predicted, “If the area is not expanded, it will die.”

Hilligoss moved his art gallery out of Long Grove and the property sat vacant for almost a decade until Buffalo Creek Brewing opened in 2017. Today its owner, Mike Marr, brews batches inspired by the bridge crashes.

About two-thirds of the downtown businesses shut down after the 2008 recession. Many owners retired, leaving behind empty storefronts with broken shutters and peeling paint. Coffin’s own Cape Cod-style home, which he built himself, has been vandalized and scheduled for demolition as part of expansion exploration for Illinois Route 22.

Even the bridge fell into disrepair. In 2017, it was one of four historic ones named to Landmarks Illinois’ “Most Endangered Historic Places.”

Residents discussed potential bridge replacement ideas, and there were conflicting factions. One side wanted the bridge declared obsolete, which would open up eligibility for federal funds to create a modern replacement. Maybe the replacement could be a two-lane road over a culvert or a pedestrian-only bridge, Jacob suggested. Others thought the bridge covering height should be raised to 14 or 15 feet.

Those who wanted to keep the same one-lane, low-clearance design — including Underwood, and his wife, Angie, who was mayor at the time — searched for ways to preserve its integrity and raise money for its restoration.

Underwood said the whole village soon was consumed by the fight and it got ugly during a packed meeting at the town’s iconic church in February 2017.

“Nobody’s paying attention until it gets to be almost a crisis,” he said. “And then everybody tunes in.”

Ultimately, trustees voted unanimously to save the bridge after the Long Grove Historical Society and the Historic Downtown Long Grove Business Association submitted an application to place the covered bridge on the National Register of Historic Places — 45 years after Coffin, who died in 2019, first considered the idea.

The bridge was formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 11, 2018, which, Underwood said, also qualified it for state funding to help with the refurbishment. A grassroots effort to pay for the $1 million reconstruction was helped by a $250,00 state grant, $190,000 from an insurance reimbursement and $53,000 from the historical society.

James Gabbert, historian for the National Register, said it was one of the few remaining half-hip Pratt pony truss bridges in the Chicago area. And for anyone wondering how an almost 50-year-old bridge covering could be considered historic …

“It was listed ‘despite having a covering placed over it in 1972,’ ” he said. “The covering has no material effect on the engineering aspect of the bridge. Since the covering is not considered a historic aspect of the bridge, its removal or replacement with a different, higher design should not affect the bridge’s eligibility. But I say ‘should’ because I cannot say definitively what effect such a change would have on the bridge itself.”

A celebration was planned the following day, but postponed because of yet another vehicle strike. A truck plowed into it just 16 days later, forcing Coffin’s covering to be demolished and temporary overhead barriers — at a height of 10 feet, 6 inches — installed.

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Residents toasted the reconstructed bridge’s reopening on Aug. 14, 2020, but it was hit the next day by a school bus — chartered for a golf outing.

So, Long Grove has a slightly modified version of its iconic bridge and tall trucks continue to smash into it. Only now, there’s more damage done to the vehicles than to the bridge. That’s because the vehicles now strike a steel structure that sits over, but is not attached to, the bridge to protect it, Underwood said.

With the coronavirus pandemic waning, business owners hope visitors will return to Long Grove for their holiday shopping. Some of the beloved shops from previous decades have reopened in smaller storefronts, and new restaurants, ice cream shops, wineries and a sock monkey museum are there too.

A sign at Mel’s Marathon gas station on Coffin Road, which has been family-owned since 1958, captures the overall sentiment of the historic district — “Help! Customers wanted.”


Twitter @rumormill

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