New Hampshire plans to rebuild Vilas Bridge - by 2028
Visible below the deck of the Vilas Bridge is the wastewater pipeline from Walpole to Bellows Falls.

New Hampshire plans to rebuild Vilas Bridge - by 2028

Engineering and design work for oft-delayed project expected to begin next year, but Bellows Falls residents remain skeptical

BELLOWS FALLS — Closed due to safety concerns in 2009, the Vilas Bridge, which connects Walpole, N.H. with Bellows Falls across the Connecticut River, may yet be rebuilt and reopened.

New Hampshire has earmarked $17.7 million for the project and recently included it in the state's 10-year highway plan.

With 7% of the bridge in Vermont, Vermont will be paying 7% of the costs. The schedule is for preliminary bridge engineering and design to begin in 2023, and construction to begin in 2028.

But some residents are skeptical.

This project has appeared on New Hampshire's 10-year highway plan before. That plan is reviewed every two years, and the Vilas Bridge had been removed from the list when money slated for the bridge replacement was needed for what that state considered more important projects.

To paraphrase several comments by locals, there is a strong I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-construction-begin attitude among many in the area.

Bridges, bridges, bridges

To state that this spot on the Connecticut River is particularly important as far as bridges is concerned would hardly be an overstatement.

Four rail bridges and three traffic bridges connect the 45-acre Island to Vermont and New Hampshire, counting the closed Vilas Bridge, giving an indication of this spot's importance in New England transportation.

Two steel rail bridges span the canal for access to Vermont and onward to Quebec, Canada. A long steel rail bridge just below the dam crosses into New Hampshire, which, along with the stone arch rail bridge, connects with rail traffic north and south and into northern New England.

Two concrete traffic bridges cross over the canal as well, and both are slated to be replaced.

The Connecticut River, at 410 miles, is the longest river in New England. The very first bridge to ever span the river was built in Walpole just yards south of the Vilas Bridge. Built in 1785 by Col. Enoch Hale, it had an open design so unique it received considerable national attention.

A few years later, in the 1790s, the first U.S. canal was built about 100 yards west of the Vermont end of the bridge. Originally a transportation canal, it brought boats and barges around the Connecticut's Great Falls at Bellows Falls - Kchi Pontegok, in Western Abenaki.

In the early 1900s, the Connecticut was dammed here, and the canal was converted to run a hydroelectric generating facility, which it does to this day.

The building of the canal effectively turned this section of Bellows Falls into an island, and it has been referred to as the Island for 200 years. The Island has been home to a large rail station, which is still there, as well as paper mills, cheese plants, and numerous factories and industries.

In the mid-1800s, the Island marked the site of a luxury hotel/resort where wealthy Southerners and even U.S. presidents vacationed. Plans have been in the works for years for the Island to become Green Island by using it as a site to develop green and energy saving industries.

The original Enoch Hale Bridge was low to the water, and several times it was damaged by flooding when the spring melt turns the Great Falls into a raging torrent.

In 1840, the covered Tucker Toll Bridge was built 15 feet above the Hale Bridge, high enough to avoid the floodwaters. That bridge was bought by Walpole and Rockingham in 1904, and tolls were suspended.

In 1905, the famed Arch Bridge was built less than a mile upriver and above the Great Falls, which helped divert a lot of traffic around Bellows Falls' downtown area.

In 1930, the Hale Bridge was replaced by the current Vilas Bridge, a 635-foot-long, two-lane, two-span concrete bridge. It is named in honor of Charles Vilas of Alstead, N.H., who contributed some $67,000 to the project.

Vilas was a major New York City hotel owner and philanthropist who gifted a considerable part of his fortune to his local communities in New Hampshire and Vermont. He died in 1931.

Just above the Vilas Bridge, a covered rail bridge was built 1849 for the Cheshire Railroad. That was replaced by the current open stone arch bridge in 1899, which is still in operation 123 years later.

Other projects await work

The replacement of the Vilas Bridge is just one of several bridge projects in the works on the Island. The bridge connecting the Island with Canal Street will be removed and replaced by a pedestrian bridge below the current bridge site.

Also in the works is a new two-way traffic exit from the Island going north into Vermont, which will bypass Canal Stre et altogether. It will intersect with Rockingham Street near the current junction with the New Arch Bridge.

All of these transportation improvements will go a long way to help the redevelopment of the Island as an industrial and transportation center. The fact that the projects are interconnected is also a factor in building confidence that they will all be completed, some residents are saying.

Rockingham Town Manager Scott Pickup is one of them.

“I'm very excited,” said Pickup. “This is a huge boost for our redevelopment efforts. The money is coming from the federal government so, yes, this will definitely go forward.”

The fact that planning and design will begin next year, Pickup said, is also a good sign, as money is not put into designing a project that is likely to be abandoned.

“The elected officials in Vermont worked with the elected officials in New Hampshire at a federal level to get this funding,” Pickup said. “That shows how serious the effort was. It's nice to say thank you for all of that.”

But Lamont Barnett, who served on the Rockingham Selectboard for 15 years starting in the mid-1990s, including 10 years as chair, is not quite as confident.

Barnett currently serves as a Windham County side judge and has run a jewelry shop on the Square in Bellows Falls for decades.

“When you go back to the start, when the bridge was first closed in 2009,” Barnett said, “it was uncertain at first. Would it be closed weeks or months? We know what happened, and it has had serious economic impact.”

“Downtown BF saw traffic decrease by 25%,” he continued. “But I feel it has also had a lot of impact on New Hampshire. Traffic on the New Arch Bridge can be difficult at certain times of the day, and it can get backed up way into North Walpole.”

Barnett said that when it first closed, New Hampshire officials agreed to take care of the bridge, but noted that “they totally dropped the ball.”

At other times over the years, Barnett said he tried to work with the local boards in both states to put pressure on New Hampshire to do something with the bridge. After a few years, he said he pushed to file a class action lawsuit against that state.

Neither effort went anywhere.

“I couldn't get the support of the other boards for any of this,” Barnett said. “I just kind of gave up. One committee told me that this is a Bellows Falls problem and we should get Vermont to take care of it. But New Hampshire has the responsibility to maintain its infrastructure.”

There is another factor complicating this project. Walpole's wastewater is pumped to the Bellows Falls' water treatment plant via a large pipe. That pipe crosses the Connecticut River on the underside of the Vilas Bridge.

Bellows Falls enjoys the income that brings and so has continued to renew the contract with Walpole. Barnett feels that situation lends even greater urgency to replacing the bridge.

“I think it is just a matter of time before falling concrete [from the bridge deck] takes out that pipeline,” he said. “That would be an environmental mess, with raw sewage dumping into the Connecticut.”

“The cost to replace it now has jumped three times the amount that New Hampshire could have done this for in the past,” Barnett added. “Being on the list means nothing to me now. I won't believe it until I see people working on it.”

In addition to all the bridge work on the Island, there are also plans to develop a Canal Walk, with a new connection to the downtown south of the Square. Ideas are being discussed for creating a Connecticut River Heritage Center using some of the remaining paper mill buildings and the Adams Grist Mill, which houses numerous Bellows Falls Historical Society items and exhibits.

Two other projects have already received considerable funding. The 100-year old Bellows Falls Train Station in the depot on The Island has already received $350,000 in grants for its restoration.

The Great Falls region is of tremendous cultural importance to the Abenaki people, who used the site as a major fishing site. Extensive Native stone carvings remain, and the Island and other spots in the Village served as Native burial sites.

The National Park Service recently provided a grant of $36,832, which, with local contributions of $12,600 for the project, will fund study of and work with the area as an important Native site.

One of the largest collections of Native petroglyphs in the East is found on the rocks almost directly below the Vilas Bridge's Vermont end. Preservation and future use of the glyphs will no doubt play an important role in the bridge's replacement plans. Local Abenaki are deeply involved with the project.

Downtown concerns

How exactly the reopening of the Vilas Bridge will affect the downtown remains to be seen. Some citizens have expressed concern that reopening the bridge will add a couple of thousand extra vehicles to traffic through the Square.

Alan Fowler, who with his wife Pat, has run Village Square Booksellers in downtown Bellows Falls for decades, said he isn't certain what effect opening the bridge, or the bridge being closed, has had or will have on his business.

“It's a moot point,” Fowler said. “It's been closed so long, it's hard to tell what if any effect it has at this point.”

Larisa Demos, one of the people involved in the recently opened Flat Iron Co-op in the Square, agrees.

“Right now, we get a lot of Walpole traffic in the coffee shop,” Demos said. “We would be more directly connected, but people have gotten used to it. Downtown Bellows Falls has become more a destination choice instead of a place you just drive through.”

Richard Arcand, a program specialist with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said he is confident in the project going forward.

“There is a small chance that any project can be delayed or canceled,” Arcand said. “But the Vilas Bridge replacement is in the works, and we'll soon begin the design and planning stages. That's a very good sign the project will be completed.”

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