Footbridge Locks

An accumulation of lovers locks on the Van Buren footbridge has a Missoula resident concerned about damage to the structure and littering in the Clark Fork River from keys thrown in the water.

While the undying love signified by the padlocks on the Van Buren footbridge may last forever, the locks themselves might not.

Missoula resident John Wolverton wants the padlocks of passion removed, writing in an email that he is concerned that the “unsightly lovelocks” that are accumulating might threaten the structural integrity of the bridges. He told Donna Gaukler, Missoula’s Parks and Recreation director, that a similar situation in Paris “reached such epic proportions that the locks’ weight have threatened the structural integrity of the bridges."

In 2015, Paris officials removed about 1 million locks from the Le Pont des Arts bridge, where tourists for about 15 years had written names of lovers on the locks, affixed them to the bridge and thrown away the keys. According to The Telegraph newspaper, a part of the bridge “collapsed under the weight of the metal trinkets,” which weighed an estimated 50 tons.

In addition, Wolverton said “there will be thousands” of the locks’ keys accumulating on the Clark Fork River bottom, possibly causing water quality and endangered species issues.

“Even if the keys are benign, throwing them in the river is essentially a form of littering,” Wolverton wrote in an email exchange with Gaukler.

She responded that about a year to 18 months ago, she was told by engineers there wasn’t a problem with the padlocks. Regarding the keys, Gaukler wrote that she hadn’t thought they may be impacting the river and fishery.

“If we can find evidence of impacts to wildlife, say through FWP or others, it may provide a reason for removal of the locks,” Gaukler wrote. “With the many priorities and tasks on the P&R Dept. plate, I was not excited about delving into a public relations/public opinion issue related to locks on the bridge. Oddly, I have received only two or three requests to remove the locks over all these years."

That apparently didn’t solve the issue for Wolverton, who wasn't available for an interview Wednesday. Instead, he wrote a longer response to Gaulker on Monday, disagreeing that it is a decision that reflects public opinion because he doesn’t know of any public process undertaken that allows placement of the locks by individuals.

“Meaning there has been no public process where-in we directed our civil servants to not protect this public asset,” Wolverton wrote. “Not addressing this democratically is problematic in that it perpetuates a message that public property can be used or abused in whatever manner an individual sees fit. It is not different than graffiti on public assets.”

He said the locks directly distract and degrade the ability of children to view highly prized assets and scenery, which include the river, canyon and mountains, dogs playing along the shoreline, and tubers/floaters, among others. He added that as the practice continues, it could “impose a larger financial burden to rectify.”

“Three years ago there were a few locks, almost unnoticeable,” he wrote. “About two years ago there were a couple hundred, now there could be a thousand. So at some point the weight will be harmful to at least the integrity of the chain-link if not the actual structure.”

Gaukler replied that Missoula County owns the bridge structure, and punted the potential problem to the chief administrative officers for the city and county.

On Wednesday, county commissioners were surprised to hear of Wolverton’s concerns, but agreed to bring it up with Missoula Mayor John Engen the next time they meet. In the meantime, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier agreed to take a stroll across the bridge to look at both the locks and the keys.

“I’m familiar with the mass of locks, but from a structural standpoint it isn’t an issue,” Strohmaier said.

Worldwide, the lovelocks aren’t adored by everyone, with an article in The Guardian comparing them to litter. But the story also says the padlocks are a symbol of the magical thinking of love in an effort to “ward off the terrifying spectres of separation and loss.”

“It is a triumph of hope over experience,” Ivan Ward, deputy director of the Freud Museum, said in The Guardian article. “… I suppose it is potentially less embarrassing than getting the name of your beloved tattooed across your bottom.”

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