The Vilas Bridge stretches across the Connecticut River. (Reformer file photo)
The Vilas Bridge stretches across the Connecticut River. (Reformer file photo)
Saturday November 3, 2012

BELLOWS FALLS -- The Vilas Bridge was built around 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire.

So who would have guessed that more than 80 years later the structure stretching across the Connecticut River would be the source of a bitter controversy between the two states?

Residents of Bellows Falls, the village at one end of the bridge, are frustrated over what they see as broken promises from their eastern neighbors about maintenance of the structure, 93 percent of which is owned by New Hampshire.

The Vilas was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009, and residents are frustrated that plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. At the time it was closed, a reported average of 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure every day and village residents say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been cut off.

Rosemarri Roth, executive director of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, said the bridge's closure is suffocating businesses in the village already struggling in a bruised economy.

"We here in Bellows Falls, most especially in the business and residential community, feel that loss dramatically -- the loss of that bridge. Why? Well, No. 1, it lessens the availability of businesses to come into Bellows Falls," she said. "We are a community that has been stuck with various deficiencies and hardships in the past, which were not of our own doing.


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This used to be a paper and textile town."

The village was once the paper-making capital of the United States, but eventually businesses such as International Paper started to leave and take chunks of the population with it. Roth said Bellows Falls underwent a tremendous transition in the 1950s and has since worked really hard to rebuild itself and bring back awareness of what it has to offer.

She said just about every type of business or service imaginable is available in the village.

The Vilas Bridge was originally scheduled for rehabilitation, but it was postponed until 2022. It recently was taken off the state's 10-year plan, much to the chagrin of Bellows Falls residents.

Out-of-towners entering the village from New Hampshire now cross the Arch Bridge and turn left if they want to go to The Square, the hub of activity in Bellows Falls. Roth said any vehicle could make an easy right turn to get downtown before the Vilas closed. She said that right-hand turn motivated and encouraged tourists and others to stop and eat lunch or pop in to local shops and spend money.

"Without that bridge, that doesn't happen as often," Roth said. "As far as the businesses are concerned, it's difficult enough because when you go across to New Hampshire, you don't pay sales tax. ... What makes it a little bit different is that we offer businesses and services that are otherwise not that close to Walpole.

"They are here in Bellows Falls, and we want to make it easy for them to come back over the Vilas Bridge," she continued.

More aggravating to Roth and others in the community is that they feel they have been slighted by New Hampshire, which they say has made promises about rehabilitating the bridge.

According to a 1993 letter from Charles O'Leary, the then-commissioner of the N.H. Department of Transportation, 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).

But 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 New Hampshire Department of Transportation in March 2009.

Just as frustration in Bellows Falls was escalating, a positive sign emerged from across the river.

The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, at its annual meeting several weeks ago, named the Vilas to its Seven to Save list -- a collection of seven historic structures it is dedicated to restoring in the near future. The NHPA made the announcement at Pandora Mill in Manchester, N.H., with Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh and three BFDDA members 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. He said he understands the bridge's importance in the village.

Roth said this was wonderful news for Bellows Falls and it was important to get the recognition from the Granite State.

Mark Sanborn, federal liaison to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, 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."

Sanborn had been in attendance for a special meeting held in Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre months ago and had taken some sharp criticism from the Vermont public.

He told the Reformer 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," Stier said. "We felt there was a great deal of support."

Roth agreed with that.

Stier added that the addition of the Vilas was a deliberate one. She said all metal truss bridges in the state were added to the 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.

Being selected to the Seven to Save list came as a relief to many Bellows Falls business owners.

Lamont "Monti" Barnett owns The Rock and Hammer jewelry store in The Square and said any notion that the bridge's closure affects only Vermonters is a myth.

"It's not just for the benefit of downtown Bellows Falls. We've been in business for 23 years, and we have a well-established area of customers, and that includes people from Walpole, Alstead and Acworth," he said. "Even today, when they come in, the No. 1 complaint is that I hear from them is the problem they have getting across the bridge and turning left.

"I think, in general, the residents of New Hampshire don't like this bridge being closed," he went on to say. "It makes it very inconvenient to them."

He said he has been to several meetings with the NHDOT and said was consistently told there was not enough money to fix the Vilas.

Pat A. Fowler, the owner of the Village Booksellers in The Square, echoed Barnett's sentiments.

"I get a lot of complaints from my New Hampshire customers that they can't get here, that they couldn't make the left turn and they couldn't spend 15 minutes waiting on the bridge and they were nervous about doing it," she said. "It's just one more thing that makes it difficult for them. ... They're already making a commitment to us by paying 6 percent sales tax."

According to Roth, the bridge used to be a covered one and was once called The Tucker Toll Bridge. It was the first to span the Connecticut River. The bridge was reconstructed as an open-spandrel concrete arch bridge in 1930 and the roughly $67,000 to build it was donated by Charles S. Vilas, though he died before the project was completed.

Roth said the structure has many terrific attributes, such as its beauty and history. It was even placed on The National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Roth also said rock carvings from ancient Native American civilizations can be seen from it.

Some have suggested that Vermont should foot the bill for the bridge's rehabilitation, since its residents seem to be the most vocal proponents of it. Roth said she didn't think that would be a problem, if absolutely necessary.

"I do believe Vermont would be willing to work with New Hampshire financially to salvage this bridge. I believe if the right kinds of meetings were held ... if the right people would get together to make decisions, we would be able to have a project that could go forward," she said.

Roth said the economic development of towns on both sides of the river depend on it.

"We need that bridge back. We really need that bridge back and we really need New Hampshire to stand up to their promises made more than once," she said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.