Rockingham rebuilds history with Bartonsville Covered Bridge
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | January 27,2013
Len Emery Photo
A crowd of about 100 people shiver in the 13-degree weather Saturday at the opening of the reconstructed Bartonsville Covered Bridge in Rockingham The event was attended by many officials, including Gov. Peter Shumlin and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
LOWER BARTONSVILLE — Rockingham finally put Tropical Storm Irene in the rear view mirror Saturday.
The new Bartonsville Covered Bridge was opened to traffic Saturday, almost 17 months to the day after the original was swept away by the raging Williams River on Aug. 28, 2011.
Hundreds of people braved 13-degree weather to cheer the culmination of efforts to replace the bridge, which had cut off the hamlet of Lower Bartonsville for months after the storm, until a temporary bridge opened last year. Later, the new wooden bridge was built right next to it and rolled into place.
Ribbons were snipped, and cars lined up for the historic trip across the 168-foot-long reconstruction — which is 17 feet longer than the original, a few inches wider and a little bit taller, accommodating modern traffic. Instead of native pine and hemlock, the new bridge was built of Southern pine and Douglas fir.
The new bridge is bigger and stronger, but it is modeled closely after the 1870 original, built by itinerant bridge builder Sanford Granger of Bellows Falls, said bridge designer Phillip Pierce.
“It paid homage to the original, but was built to more modern loading,” Pierce said.
The 1870 bridge replaced another covered bridge, also swept away by flood waters.
The demise of the bridge, caught on video by Bartonsville native Susan Hammond, quickly went viral in the days after Irene, and the poignant 20 seconds and Hammond’s honest but obscene expression of sorrow symbolized to both Vermont and the rest of the world what Irene had done to the state, Gov. Peter Shumlin said.
Bartonsville resident Bob Campbell said he was in New Zealand when Irene struck, and he saw the Bartonsville bridge float away on national Australian television.
The local Rockingham effort, bolstered by the Bartonsville residents who helped raise more than $60,000, to hold onto its history and to replace the Irene casualty “better and stronger,” in the words of Shumlin, was symbolic of efforts all over the state, the governor reminded the crowd.
The community response “is what makes Vermont strong and this is why we live here,” said Shumlin, who was joined by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
The governor said while tremendous effort has been made for the state to recover from Irene, many families are still without a permanent home. Getting those people into permanent homes is a priority of his administration, he said after the brief bridge ceremony. He estimated that the lives of about 700 people were still unsettled because of Irene.
Hammond had gone down to the bridge several times that stormy day, Aug. 28, 2011, and she thought the worst was over and the bridge would survive, and that was what she was going to catch on camera.
“I had seen trees battering it; I was sure a tree was going to go through it,” said Hammond.
To her shock, the west end of the bridge slipped off its abutment and the bridge floated down the raging river, only to beach itself about a half mile downstream, a twisted wreckage.
“I was sure I was video-ing the survival of the bridge, until that very last 20 seconds,” she said.
Pine boards from the original bridge were used to make the new signs on the bridge by Chester woodworker Jim Cobb, Hammond said. The signs were painted by local sign maker Frank Hawkins.
Hammond snagged the honor of the first trip across the bridge, escorting her parents Teresa and Prentice Hammond, who grew up in Upper and Lower Bartonsville, and who still live in Lower Bartonsville.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said lifelong Rockingham resident Richard Stickney, who came to the celebration with his wife Barbara. Stickney said Rockingham used to have more covered bridges, with one at the foot of Parker Hill burned by vandals in the 1960s. A covered bridge in the center of Saxtons River village was removed in 1949, he recalled.
Thomas MacPhee, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, said that after Irene, the town found “its feet in quicksand” with three of its covered bridges damaged or destroyed and 14 roads washed out.
“Today, we finally have Irene behind us,” said MacPhee, who sighed and quickly added that wasn’t quite true, since the town is still fighting for $500,000 from FEMA for stream debris cleanup.
The town had a $1 million insurance policy on the wooden portion of the bridge, and that payment, paired with FEMA funds, will cover most of the $2.6 million reconstruction costs, town officials said. The new abutments for the bridge alone cost $1.3 million, MacPhee said. The thought of replacing the covered bridge with a more modern steel and concrete span was considered and rejected.
After the bridge celebration, hundreds of area residents and covered bridge enthusiasts adjourned to MacLaomainn’s Scottish Pub in Chester to watch giant slides of the construction process, listen to speeches, and laud the work of Cold River Bridges of Walpole, N.H., the company that built the covered bridge – its first.
Pierce, the bridge designer and engineer, said covered bridges still make sense today in some situations, if communities look at the long-range value of the bridge. The new bridge will last 150 years with care, he said. A concrete and steel bridge will not, he said.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” said Pierce, an engineer with Clough Harbour Associates of Albany, N.Y., who had done extensive studies on the state’s covered bridges, winning him the nod from Rockingham.
Ann DiBernardo and her husband Vinnie, the local veterinarian, had lived in Bartonsville for 30 years and the bridge was a constant in their daily life.
“When my daughter got married, she got married at the Rockingham Meeting House. And we came home and the wedding party went down and we took pictures in the bridge,” said DiBernardo, tearing up in spite of herself. “It’s part of our family.”