The Ottoman-era railway bridge stood over Tavor Stream for more than a century, but recently it was nearly brought down by rumors about a trove of gold hidden in its foundations.

The bridge was built in 1904-1905, as part of the Jezreel Valley railway between Haifa and Damascus. It was designed by the German-American architect, archaeologist and civil engineer Gottlieb Schumacher, a member of the Templer community. He designed it as an exact copy of a neighboring bridge over the Jordan River, but using white limestone rather than the black basalt of the Jordan River bridge.

Haifa-Damascus railway service ended during the 1948 War of Independence, and the five-arched bridge fell into disuse. Route 90 is slightly to the west of the bridge, which is between Kibbutz Gesher and Kibbutz Neve Ur, Today it stands slightly to the east of Highway 90, and is only visited by hikers and residents of nearby villages.

Three years ago, however, tunnels were found at the bridge's foundation. under the bridge. "We didn't have the slightest idea why someone would be digging there," the deputy director of the Society for the Preservation of Buildings and Historic Sites, Omri Shalmon, who visited the site, related.

His organization, together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Israel Railways, began regular patrols of the area and apprehended the diggers. The perpetrators, men from the nearby village of Shibli, told police officers they were digging for Ottoman gold hidden in the bridge by its builders. They even produced tattered maps they claimed clearly indicated the location of the treasure trove.

The preservation society promptly sealed the tunnels, but the water from the stream soon began eroding the bridge's foundations. When Shalmon visited the site six months ago he saw the treasure hunt has resumed. "The new tunnels were considerably deeper," he said. "The cracks in the bridge kept expanding and there was a real risk of entire structure collapsing."

The society launched a rescue operation, joined by the head of the Emek Hama'ayanot Regional Council, Yoram Krin, and the Southern Jordan Drainage Authority, which is headed by Ramon Ben Ari. The operation, recently completed at a cost of NIS 500,000, involved building reinforced concrete walls around the foundation and covering them with the original limestone.

To the preservation society's surprise, during the work a mysterious niche was uncovered in the northwest corner of the bridge, made of concrete slabs. Shalmon believes it was probably built into the bridge several years after its completion. "It's not from the Turkish period, they didn't have slabs like that," he said.

The purpose of the niche remains unclear, but it may well be the source of the tales told in Shibli about hidden gold. Some believe it was made by the British, for weapons storage or with the aim of holding explosives in the event the bridge needed to be destroyed.

"The restoration of the bridge is part of an effort to preserve sites all along the valley train route. There are extensive development plans that include bicycle and pedestrian trails. The public interest in the valley train is tremendous, and it keeps growing from year to year," Shalmon said.