Three years after a flood wiped out part of a bridge spanning the Elkhorn River in Neligh, residents of the small northeastern Nebraska city received a festive surprise: an anonymous, $650,000 donation to rebuild the historic structure.
The city received a check from the donor's Chicago-based attorney last week saying they can use it to rebuild the steel-truss Old Mill Bridge on the condition that residents never try to discover who contributed the money. If they learn the donor's identity by accident, city officials must stay sworn to secrecy.
The donation will allow local officials to move forward with a project that otherwise would have languished for years.
"I was amazed when I first heard — and then we had to keep it quiet for a month or two," said Neligh Mayor Jeri Anderson. "I wanted to shout from the rooftops, 'It's going to happen! It's going to happen!'"
The bridge on the city's southern edge had just turned 100 years old in 2010 when a flood swept a section of the structure away and devoured about 100 feet of the Elkhorn River's south bank.
Neligh City Attorney Joe McNally said the federal government approved funding to repair the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the rules only allowed officials to restore the bridge to its original condition, without accounting for the large chunk of the river bank that had been washed away. Without a connection to the south bank, some residents dubbed it Nebraska's "Bridge to Nowhere."
McNally said the city had already approved debt funding for several unrelated construction projects, so local government aid was unlikely in the near future. A private fundraising effort yielded only a few thousand dollars.
The donor insisted on anonymity, going so far as to require city officials to sign a confidentiality agreement. After six weeks of discussion, a check arrived via FedEx on Dec. 16.
"We have no idea who it was, if they have local ties, or how they discovered the project," McNally said. Without the donation, reconnecting the bridge "would have been a pretty difficult process. The chances of it happening were probably pretty slim — and if it did happen, it would have been years down the road."
Anderson and McNally said they had no desire to uncover their benefactor's identity for fear of jeopardizing the agreement. It is not clear what would happen if the donor was named once the bridge has been rebuilt.
The bridge was built in 1910 to replace an even older crossing, said Don "Harv" Ofe, a supervisor for the Neligh Mill State Historic Site.