Email was Acquired by Open Records Request
Article Published May 21, 2021
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers email, obtained through the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), has revealed seemingly negligent conduct at the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) with respect to the Midland Valley Bridge’s historic determination. In late 2020, the bridge was found “ineligible” for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) by a SHPO official (who then relayed this information to the Corps)—yet the SHPO’s determination was made while the Historic Bridge Foundation was still seeking to participate as a consulting party in the process.
Individuals affiliated with the Historic Bridge Foundation (click here), a nonprofit organization based out of Austin that is headed by Kitty Henderson, had inspected the previously cited “Cultural Resources Report, Midland Valley Railroad Bridge” and judged it to lack solid evidence to support its claims against the Midland Valley Bridge’s historical integrity. Author Nathan Holth, for example—a Chicagoan who is responsible for HistoricBridges.org and who works with the Historic Bridge Foundation—stated that, in his view, the bridge “may rise to the level of National Register Eligibility.” But the Historic Bridge Foundation was not given the opportunity to make its case—or even to raise pertinent questions to officials—before the SHPO had made its final determination and the matter was considered closed by the Corps of Engineers, as evidenced by an email sent December 14, 2020. The email, obtained several months into 2021 and pictured below (with government redactions marked in code), provides solid evidence of improper procedure.
The email indicates that there “was some sort of miscommunication/ball-dropping at SHPO” and that the Historic Bridge Foundation was thereby “inadvertently left out of the consultation process.” Remarkably, despite this clear admission of a mistake in procedure, it was simply asserted that the SHPO’s verdict of “‘NOT ELIGIBLE’ still stands”—the rationalization being that “regardless of how ‘special’ or publicly significant the pedestrian bridge is in terms of popularity and such, there is not enough structural integrity left with all the decades of modifications that the city has done on the original bridge.” Yet it is precisely THIS claim about the bridge’s present integrity (which refers to its historical integrity as a structure, in this case) that Mr. Holth and the Historic Bridge Foundation wanted to bring into question. It is the pivotal premise which is asserted, without sufficient justification or documentation to back it up from a technical standpoint, in the “Cultural Resources Report.” Tulsa scholar J.D. Colbert also challenged said claim (as discussed in another article).
Mr. Holth stated in December 2020 that “…the determination states that ‘most of the original material has been replaced’ which I feel is an overstatement.” A subsequent letter from HistoricBridges.org included the following: “…in the photos provided it looked to us like the members replaced were secondary members (bracing) not primary members (the truss lines including top/bottom chords and vertical/diagonal members). If this is true, then the main parts of the original bridge remain in place.” Subsequently obtained plans relating to the bridge’s 1970s pedestrian-bridge conversion, which were acquired from Tulsa River Parks’ storage, are consistent with this structural analysis. This means that the bridge—considering its original primary components, context, and key “character-defining” features—might meet National Register standards if given a qualified evaluation.
The bridge plans were obtained by Tulsan Jonathan Pinkey, who stated the following:
“A FOIA request that I made to the SHPO showed that the SHPO had not obtained (let alone researched) any such schematic documents, part inventories, etc. River Parks was able to find these plans in storage after I requested them, at Mr. Holth’s suggestion, but the SHPO obviously had never requested them, nor had anyone else; the documents had not seen the light of day for years. It is also clear, therefore, that the author of the ‘Cultural Resources Report’ did not inspect these documents—which is no surprise. There was no solid research behind the bridge’s ‘ineligible’ determination, from what I can tell. Just opinions and statements without real justification. Or worse?”
“This December email raises still more questions. I had already heard that something went awry at the SHPO. By keeping ‘these folks’ out of the historic determination process, the actual historical-structural question was not only begged but, really, the legitimacy of the process was undermined. This email shows that the very individuals with more qualifications than the non-bridge-experts (who had already weighed in with the SHPO) were literally cut out of the process. Any real possibility of a fact-based reversal to ‘eligible’ was, it is evident, precluded. Indeed, rather than correcting the error and inviting the Historic Bridge Foundation into the process—reopening the process to new facts before a final verdict was set in stone—Ms. Henderson was simply contacted by someone who would ‘explain the situation to her.’ We might blame someone at the SHPO, or the project manager at the Corps of Engineers Tulsa office, or others—but, whatever you think, this is not the way a ‘consultation process’ is supposed to work. And I have been directly told that, at bare minimum, ‘A determination should be more detailed.’ Anyone who believes this bridge was given a fair and thorough historical-structural evaluation for the National Register by these officials is sadly mistaken.”