Side Order: In Vermont, one bridge falls, another rises


The Bartonsville covered bridge was swept away by the raging Williams River during flooding from Hurricane Irene. (Bernadette Walsh)
February 21, 2013

As a firm believer in love at first sight, though only when it comes to places, I fell head over heels in love with Vermont in a single moment 12 years ago when my family and I were considering moving here. We were on our way to look at a farmhouse for sale in the southeastern corner of the state, in a tiny hamlet called Bartonsville.

The old English definition of a hamlet is a village without a church, and this one had no businesses either — only a rural road lined with about 30 mostly 19th-century clapboard houses. But it wasn’t the neighborhood that first made my heart go pitter-patter. It wasn’t the lovely one-room stone schoolhouse on the road leading to it, either, or the rolling, thickly wooded hills surrounding it. Or the railroad tracks running through it or the Williams River winding along its edges.

It was the bridge. The Bartonsville Bridge, circa 1870, that spanned the river and served as a main link to the world for the families who used it every day. Upon seeing the weathered gray exterior, the gently arched entrances, the rustic signs, the handsome lattice armature and the smooth running planks, polished by decades of tires, wheels, hooves and feet, I was smitten.

Soon thereafter we became residents and joined the lucky few to call Bartonsville home. Like all my new neighbors, as well as the covered-bridge devotees I saw taking photos and marveling at its rich architectural heritage, I saw the bridge as far more than a utilitarian bit of roadway. As do all the covered bridges in the state, it epitomized Vermont — hardy, reliable, picturesque, poetic. This particular specimen, with its intricate tunnel of diagonal, time-darkened rafters, its simple exterior and its slender proportions, was a gem cherished by locals and memorable to visitors.

But it wasn’t famous. That is, not until Aug. 28, 2011, when fourth-generation Bartonsville resident Sue Hammond used her video camera to capture the post-Hurricane Irene flooding that was wreaking havoc on the state. Having observed propane tanks, branches, even whole trees hurtling down the river past her house, she was moved to check on the bridge, worried that it could be severely damaged by a charging sugar maple or shed.

In the end, the rising river itself jolted the entire 151-foot span off its pilings, in one impossible-to-imagine moment that was wrenching in every sense of the word. Hammond’s clip of the bridge’s yawning mouth dropping down below the roadway before the entire structure lumbered downstream went viral, conveying to the world the magnitude of Irene’s wrath.

With an urgency as inexorable as the floodwaters that took the old bridge away, the community came together to construct a new one, the storm-ravaged original having twisted into a largely unsalvageable double helix at a bend downstream.

The replacement, funded by insurance, FEMA and more than $60,000 in private donations from around the globe, was designed by Phil Pierce of Clough Harbour & Associates in Albany, N.Y., using the same truss lattice infrastructure patented by American architect and civil engineer Ithiel Town in 1820 that had given the destroyed bridge its distinctive interior. Covered bridges were originally devised as a pragmatic solution to help wooden beam bridges of yore last longer. But in a telephone conversation shortly before the new bridge opened on Jan. 26, Pierce told me that covered-bridges lore tells of other uses back in the 19th century, from providing shelter to horse riders during blizzards to dissuading salesmen from entering a town.

The new bridge was built by locally based Cold River Bridges, and more than half the crew, which worked on the bridge seven days a week for more than a year, was raised in this area. While giving me a tour of the bridge a few days prior to the official ribbon-cutting, Cold River co-owner Jim Hollar emphasized the family pride factor as much as the colossal construction stats. (The abutments alone, atop steel pilings that extend 90 feet down into bedrock, used nearly 40 truckloads of cement.) “The guys that worked on this will be able to tell their kids and grandkids that they built it,” Hollar said. “Means a lot.”

At the new bridge’s opening ceremonies, Hammond was similarly moved. “I always loved crossing the old bridge,” she said. “The sound of it, the feel of it, the smell. It was such a major part of our lives, like our right arm, a part of our family history. And in the end, it went so gracefully. But we’re happy about the new bridge and to have people come see it.”

About 100 feet from the bridge is ski instructor Marvie Campbell’s small white farmhouse. She witnessed the original structure travel down the river after it came off its pilings, so she’s overjoyed to see its successor materialize so quickly. “I look straight through the length of the bridge’s interior from my bedroom,” she said. “I’d been looking through the old one for over 40 years, and I’m just so happy the new one is there.”

Now considered the longest single-span Town lattice truss bridge in existence, at 168 feet end to end, the re-created Bartonsville Bridge glows with the warmth of freshly cut Douglas fir, yellow pine and oak, with more than 2,000 locally hand-turned, square-headed trunnels, or pins, holding the lattice-work in place — some skewering 26-inch-thick layers of wood. To drive across it is a thrill; to walk through it, a symbolic stroll into Vermont’s past that offers an uplifting sense of its future. On bright days, the filigree of light within the structure splinters into an almost kaleidoscopic, Escheresque corridor. In snow or rain, its sheltering might alone is sublime.

An ideal centerpiece to a Vermont getaway, Bartonsville, with its bold new bridge, is encircled by villages that offer all the key elements of a visually, historically and artisanally satiating visit — restaurants, cafes, pubs, porched inns, bookstores, galleries, shops and farms offering everything from locally produced microbrews, maple syrup, cheeses and jams to sweaters, jewelry, paintings and pottery. Though all were chartered at around the same time, in the mid- to late-1700s, each community has a distinct character and aesthetic.

A few miles north of Bartonsville is Chester, a classic New England destination, complete with village green and gazebo. Just south is Grafton, a tiny enclave of archetypal white Colonial homes with black shutters, great Nordic skiing and cycling trails. To the east is Saxtons River, with a dramatic rocky gorge, a historical society, a Civil War-era cemetery and famed Fourth of July celebrations. Not far beyond that is Bellows Falls, a former paper mill town that is now a thriving art, music and literary community, and the Vermont Country Store conveniently located en route from there back to the bridge.

Another way to experience the Bartonsville Bridge is on the Green Mountain Flyer, an antique train running right past it on sightseeing trips between Chester and Bellows Falls. By autumn, locals plan to have installed an information kiosk next to the bridge, built with wood from the old one, showcasing descriptions and images of it, along with the story of its successor.

Be prepared, though — you might fall in love and never leave.

Guyon is a travel, culture and art writer in Vermont.

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