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.