(HOST) Bridges are distinctive in any setting, and commentator Tom Slayton says there’s a new book that celebrates their place in the Vermont landscape.
(SLAYTON) Like people, like buildings, Vermont’s bridges have stories to tell.
Especially, Vermont’s older bridges, like the Checkered House Bridge, that Route 2 uses to cross the Winooski River in Richmond. It’s a steel truss bridge, built in 1929, and it’s a lovely piece of engineering and the bridgemaker’s art as well. It fits into the broad Winooski Valley in a way that is both pleasing and old-fashioned.
And there’s a succinct little mini-saga about progress, changing times, aesthetics, and appropriate scale all welded into that old bridge’s arching steel beams.
The first Checkered House Bridge – a long, wooden covered bridge – was succeeded in 1929 by the steel truss bridge that most travelers now see from a yet more modern bridge with no name – the much larger steel and concrete bridge that brings Interstate 89 across the Winooski in Richmond.
Even though the new Interstate 89 bridge is larger and more dramatic than the old Checkered House Bridge, it lacks the older bridge’s charm and character. The steel truss bridge that was progressive and modern in 1929 is now historic – an item of highway nostalgia. And no one even remembers the old double-laned covered bridge that was there before 1929.
For another bridge story, take Brookfield’s Floating Bridge, a case study in progress being consciously resisted.
Brookfield residents like their town the way it is. They have consistently fought against having a Brookfield exit constructed on I-89, and they have rebuilt their ancient floating bridge at least seven times, keeping the bridge itself as primitive and simple as possible.
Now that bridge, far from being an impediment – which it sort of is, actually – has become an attraction. It’s part of Brookfield’s identity. People travel miles to see it and drive across it.
Bridge stories can also be tragedies. The story of the graceful steel arch bridge that once connected Bellows falls to Walpole, N.H., is one such tale.
Built to cross the Connecticut River in 1905,it was briefly the longest steel through-arch in America. The Bellows falls Arch Bridge was a glorious piece of engineering, but alas, in 1982, it was demolished, supposedly because the bridge was unsafe. Yet when the fateful day arrived, several dynamite blasts failed to loosen it from its foundations. Key supports had to be dismantled by hand before the old bridge settled gracefully into the river. It was a sad loss for the entire Upper Valley.
These and many other bridge stories are told in Crossings, a History of Vermont Bridges, recently co-published by the state Agency of Transportation and the Vermont Historical Society. Written by UVM Prof. Robert McCullough, Crossings documents the long story of bridge and highway improvement in Vermont from the earliest wood and stone bridges right down to today’s rolled-steel beam and girder bridges.
It’s a book that will be of interest to anyone who likes to know more about bridges – and the stories they tell.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.