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In Vermont, new life for a real bridge to nowhere

Monday, March 23, 2009

(Photo)
TOBY TALBOT ~ Associated Press
A crane prepares to lift the roof off the Martin covered bridge March 16 in Marshfield, Vt. The 119-year-old Martin Bridge is being renovated and returned to its original site. When the work is complete this spring, the covered bridge will be back over the Winooski River.
MARSHFIELD, Vt. -- A bridge to nowhere will soon become a bridge to somewhere. Sort of.

Plunked down in the middle of a field nearly five years ago so it wouldn't fall into a river, the 119-year-old Martin Bridge is being renovated and returned to its original site. When the work is complete this spring, the covered bridge will be back over the Winooski River, where it served farmers for nearly a century.

"It's a part of the town's history," project manager Richard Phillips said.

It's an unusual part.

The 44-foot-long bridge -- among the last of Vermont's agricultural covered bridges -- was built for farmer William Martin in 1890 by Herman Townsend, who lived up the road.

Constructed for farm use, the bridge is narrower and has fewer supports than a road-worthy bridge. It's also taller, to accommodate wagons full of loose hay, and it had a cattle gate to keep livestock on the side of the river where the fields were and away from the crops.

The Martin Bridge also is believed to be the only covered bridge in Vermont that never had a road across it, according to Joseph Nelson, vice president of the Vermont Covered Bridge Society, a not-for-profit dedicated to preservation and promotion of covered bridges, and the author of the book "Spanning Time: Vermont's Covered Bridges."

"The only purpose of that bridge ever was just to get to the fields on the other side," said Phillips' son, Nathan Phillips, 38.

In 2003, a landowner donated it to the town along with the surrounding 72 acres on either side in lieu of about $1,300 in taxes.

But when the town got it, it was in rough shape. The last time it was used for farming was thought to be 1984.

By 2003, the bridge was tilting about 18 inches to one side and could have fallen into the river, Phillips said.

So town officials decided to refurbish it, hiring a crane operator to lift it from its supports and move it to a nearby field along a busy road. It's been there since, becoming a roadside oddity that puzzles passers-by in this rural community of 1,600 people in northeastern Vermont.

Locals, too, were quizzical.

"They wondered for a long time when is it going to get off of there," Richard Phillips said. "I don't get embarrassed about it because I've put in almost 700 volunteer hours into doing this job. I know what we've gone through with all the changes and all the different permits. It's lucky we're getting it done now."

The project -- which includes turning the spot into a park of sorts -- is covered by $241,000 in grants from the Vermont Agency of Transportation enhancement program, $40,000 from the Housing and Conservation Board and $25,000 raised locally.

DeWolfe Engineering donated hours of consulting work.

"Every time we've talked about this at town meeting, everybody's 100 percent behind it," the elder Phillips said.

Building Heritage, a Huntington preservation company, is renovating the bridge for $75,000 by taking it apart, numbering the pieces, replacing rotted sections and putting it back together. On March 16 a crane removed the roof.

"Essentially we're going to build a new bridge with old pieces," Building Heritage owner Eliot Lothrop said.

Ruth Orton, whose family owned the bridge for decades and used it for farming, looks forward to when it's fixed. She still lives up the road.

"I'd like to see it back where it belongs," said Orton, 94. "It has been a family memorial, really."

For Nathan Phillips, it's a memorial to the way things used to be and, in some ways, could become.

"It has a lot of, to me, very important ties to things that we're discovering are going to be more and more important again like agriculture," he said.

It's also symbol of community, he said.

"That it was built for a farmer, it wasn't built for a state, built for a town," he said. "He lived there, and that was his field, and he hired a builder, who was his neighbor. ... It was built locally for someone locally."


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