BELLOWS FALLS -- A bridge connecting Vermont to its eastern neighbor has been added to a list of historic properties New Hampshire is dedicated to restoring in the near future, coming as a huge sigh of relief for many in the bi-state area.
The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance at its annual meeting on Tuesday selected the Vilas Bridge as one of seven historic structures it will save. The NHPA made the announcement at Pandora Mill in Manchester with Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh and three members of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance (BFDDA) present.
According to the NHPA's website, Seven to Save was created in 2006 "to focus attention and resources on significant historic properties in New Hampshire that are threatened by neglect, deterioration, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, and/or insensitive public policy."
Walsh, a resident of Chesterfield, N.H., nominated the bridge because nominations could be submitted only by people living in New Hampshire. He previously told the Reformer he was nominating the Vilas to ensure it remains a priority with New Hampshire. The bridge, a three-span reinforced-concrete open spandrel arch, was recently dropped from the state's 10-year plan.
He said this designation should attract attention to the loss felt by Bellows Falls and Walpole, N.H., and hopefully prevent the restoration from being pushed further down the NHDOT's priorities
BFDDA Executive Director Rosemarri Roth and other members are staunch advocates for getting the bridge back into commission, stressing that its closure harms the local economy by not allowing traffic from Walpole to flow through The Square.
"This is wonderful news for us," Roth said, adding that the listing gives the cause a shot in the arm. "It's very exciting and makes sure the bridge project is not going to be forgotten."
She said it was important to get the recognition from New Hampshire, which owns 93 percent of the bridge.
Mark Sanborn, federal liaison to the NHDOT, spoke at the ceremony in Manchester. He told the Reformer his state is grateful for the local support the bridge project has received and said the government will be "as supportive as we can be within our state budgetary constraints."
He said the bridge has two special values -- historical and transportational.
Maggie Stier, a field service representative with the NHPA, said proper attention had to be given to the Vilas Bridge as soon as possible so repair costs don't continue to increase.
"It's a very important historic structure," she said in a telephone interview. "We felt there was a great deal of support."
She added that the Vilas addition was deliberate. She said all metal truss bridges in the state were added to Seven to Save list a few years ago.
Stier said the significance of resources of a structure or building and the degree of threat against it are considered before it makes onto the Seven to Save list. The positive results of being added must also be apparent, she said.
Roth said the NHDOT's 10-year plan for 2013-2022 reports preliminary engineering funds have been authorized for the bridge during the next fiscal year. This, she said, will enable the agency to initiate a rehabilitation design.
Roth said the 82-year old bridge was closed in 2009 after NHDOT agents deemed it unsafe to pedestrian and vehicular traffic.
"Few know that this bridge was once a covered bridge over the Connecticut River and, at one time called The Tucker Toll Bridge. It was the first bridge to span the Connecticut River," she said in a statement to the Reformer. "(It) was constructed as a two-span open-spandrel, arch bridge in 1930 and the roughly $67,000 to build it was donated by Charles S. Vilas. He died before it was completed and dedicated as a ‘Symbol of Friendship' between New Hampshire and Vermont."
Members of BFDDA -- including Roth -- say they want New Hampshire to make good on a promise they believe was made in 1993.
According to a letter written nearly 20 years ago by Charles O'Leary, the then-commissioner of the NHDOT, to Nancy C. Muller, then the director and state preservation officer for the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, the Vilas Bridge would be removed only under exceptional circumstances (natural disasters creating a serious safety hazard or another unforeseen situation).
Dave Scott, the in-house design chief for the NHDOT and one of officials at a public meeting regarding the bridge in late June, said the Granite State made a commitment to maintaining the bridge. Bellow Falls residents, therefore, believe a promise has been broken, as the 635-foot-long bridge was closed following a semi-annual inspection that found continued deterioration of the reinforced bridge deck, according to a statement released by the NHDOT in March 2009.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.