Remains of old Bartonsville Covered Bridge still up for grabs
The lattice work of the 1869 Bartonsville Covered Bridge.

Remains of old Bartonsville Covered Bridge still up for grabs

The afternoon of Aug. 28, 2011, saw the rampaging, flood-swollen Williams River rip the Bartonsville Covered Bridge from its abutments and send it “sailing like an ark” (as a key eyewitness describes it) before it came to rest in a field downsteam.

As a testament to covered-bridge craftsmanship, not even that rambunctious, wild ride down the river was enough to destroy it.

The town-lattice bridge was found lying gracefully on its side in a field, in good-enough condition that rebuilding the covered bridge was considered. Almost all of the lattice was intact and attached to the decking for nearly its full length.

If the bridge were a Victorian lady, one might say she sailed majestically out of view, to be found resting peacefully on shore with only a few tears and wrinkles to her slightly rumpled skirts.

Now, with the 1870 bridge removed to town property at an undisclosed site, efforts to reuse some of the bridge before it rots have been abandoned.

Kiosk plan dropped

Susan Hammond's property abuts the river near Bartonsville Covered Bridge. It was her YouTube video of the bridge falling into the river that went viral and was seen around the world - one of the iconic images from Tropical Storm Irene's rampage through Vermont.

Hammond now sits on the Selectboard, but immediately following the flood she organized a successful campaign to rebuild the covered bridge instead of seeing it replaced with a concrete bridge.

She explains her fellow organizers hoped to erect an information kiosk and shelter near the new bridge “in the form of a small version of the bridge, about 15 feet or so long.”

But the area boundaries were problematic. Hammond said she was soon dealing with the Green Mountain Railroad and neighbors whose property abutted the bridge to get rights of way to the town of Rockingham's land.

She said the only area they could put up a lawful structure was way in the back corner of the lot, some 150 feet from the road.

“There was also not a lot of support for such a large structure from some of the Bartonsville community, and they were afraid it would be too much of a hazard with children playing on it, and so on,” she said.

So Hammond said they scratched that idea. “We were going to buy back the remains [of the bridge] from the insurance company for $16,000. We offered them less, but they refused to take it.”

Sadly, she said, as organizers cannot buy the bridge back, the structure is in the insurance company's hands.

“What they do with it I am not sure. They said they would try to sell it on eBay or Craigslist or something of that sort,” Hammond explained. “So far they have had no buyers. We are hoping that it gets a good second life and does not rot where it is stored or - just as bad as that would be - if the insurance company decides to have a big bonfire.”

A community destination

Hammond said not everyone understands the loss the physical structure itself represents to the community. Aside from the practical convenience of access across the river to Route 103 from this tiny village, Vermont covered bridges have always been a destination for its locals, whether it is a “walk to the covered bridge and back” or swimming in the river below them.

Hammond noted that towns and villages all over Vermont are set apart from those of other states because of their regional architecture, which includes homes, river mills, and covered bridges.

People who have been here long enough develop a sense of place from a connection with these iconic New England structures, she said.

Perhaps, she added, that explains why people from all over the world immediately started sending checks after seeing her video - even before an account was established to accept funds for rebuilding the bridge.

Hammond said something in that video really spoke to people. When they were surveyed, she found 90 percent of Bartonsville residents wanted to rebuild the covered bridge.

In the end it made sense to replace it with a bridge that would have a lifetime double that of the other: concrete bridges survive 50 years on average; covered bridges, she said, last well over 100 years.

She said that the covered bridge was rebuilt after the flood of October 1869, which changed the course of the Williams River:

“Before 1869, the bridge was at the foot of my property. The flood moved it over about 500 feet, making it straight instead of curving through and feeding our paper mills.”

She said that flood changed Bartonsville: the mills relocated to Bellows Falls.

Hammond told The Commons that she and many others believe that if the abutments had not failed during Irene's record-breaking flooding, the 1870 covered bridge would still be standing.

Rebuilt in 18 months

Nearly 18 months after it washed away, the rebuilt Bartonsville Covered Bridge reopened in January 2013 at a cost of $2,560,607. Almost $1 million of that was offset by the insurance company. Hammond said that when the red tape is untangled, FEMA will have paid 90 percent of $650,000 and Vermont will pay 3 percent of the grand list.

The town's cost will be approximately $25,000, Hammond said.

Hammond said that the momentum behind getting the bridge fixed made it possible to complete the project just a year and a half after Tropical Storm Irene's flooding took it out.

FEMA's contribution is still outstanding. Hammond said all that's left is to cut the check.

Power of water

Remembering that day, Aug. 28, 2011, Hammond said she travels a lot, all over the world, and, “whenever I came home down the road, that bridge would be my first welcome home.”

When the bridge went, “It felt like it was losing a part of yourself.” For the people who grew up and lived in that community, she said it was “gut-wrenching.”

That day, hoping the river would not rise that high, Hammond said neighbors had been going back and forth to check on the bridge all day and it seemed to be holding up.

But, she said, later in the afternoon, “when the posts were leaning at a 45-degree angle and we could see that the abutments on the far side were washing away and the water was getting behind the stone and concrete, that's when we began to really worry.”

And sure enough, “about 3 p.m. or so, this horrible creaking sound began,” the bridge started to shift, and witnesses heard the sound of the steel roof bending.

“It was going any second,” Hammond recalled. She said the noise was so awful her parents heard it a quarter-mile upriver.

She said she frantically deleted footage from her video camera, which only holds an hour of video, to make room. She said, “This thing is going to go any minute, and just as I finished [and started taping], it was gone in five seconds.”

“We saw it float down and around the corner of the river. It really sailed like an ark and went so gracefully,” she said with a laugh, “as if saying, 'See ya later.'”

The bridge couldn't negotiate the second turn, and landed on the Harrimans' riverbank.

“It was heartbreaking to see it go,” she said.

Hammond said water shaped her tiny community. She still sees the remnants of the paper mill foundation and mill pond, “but I couldn't grasp how a river could be that powerful a change in a community until I saw that river rise four to five feet in an hour.”

Flood stage for the Williams River is 8 feet. On this day, the river crested at 17.94 feet.

“I was monitoring the rise. It was dramatic to hear the sound of the trees being ripped from embankments, and smell the propane tanks going down.” She said that was when she fully comprehended how the river could relocate itself during the 1869 flood.

“To see that power, I started to see how it was possible. It was a wake-up call to the power of water.”

Many hands

Hammond said donations rolled in from the start and, within days, local artist Charlie Hunter created a poster of the bridge, which he donated to the fundraising campaign.

There was more support than opposition for rebuilding the bridge. From the grassroots to the Selectboard, from state agencies with state funds, people wanted to help.

The support was made possible in great part by the video. Hammond said she was at the right place and time to get it. The image of the bridge collapsing into the river is one neither she nor her half-million viewers worldwide will soon forget.

She said thanks go to the Bartonsville community, “who worked hard with me to raise funds and keep the momentum going so that we had a covered bridge back in our hamlet within 18 months of Irene; [and] to the local and national press, who covered the story, as public exposure to the loss of our bridge helped us to raise funds and garner support for the building a replacement covered bridge.”

She also thanked:

• The Vermont League of Cities and Towns “for agreeing to the insurance payout of the $1 million policy that helped get other funding in place for the cost of the covered bridge portion ($1.6 million);

• FEMA “for its quick response so that we had abutments and a temporary bridge in place by March 2012;

• The Cold River Bridges crew, which “was so professional and courteous throughout the whole time they were in Bartonsville and built us an amazing new bridge; and

• The town of Rockingham “for making the decision to rebuild a covered bridge in the first place.”

Most Rockingham residents have gotten back to their lives, and the last of the cleanup is nearly complete from when that tropical lady blew through Vermont that fateful August day three years ago.

Bartonsville Covered Bridge will take years to regain the weathered, wooden look typical of a beloved Vermont covered bridge, but resilient residents and visitors alike have begun building new covered-bridge memories that will enrich generations to come, Hammond said.

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