BELLOWS FALLS - The couple dozen people who met at the Vilas Bridge Friday may get New Hampshire to write a check for its rehabilitation, but it should draw more attention to the cause.
The Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance (BFDDA) and resident Ray Massucco put together the "Free The Vilas Bridge" event to showcase their advocacy for getting the Granite State to honor a promise they feel was made to their community 20 years ago.
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 taken out of commission only under exceptional circumstances (natural disasters creating a serious safety hazard or another unforeseen situation). Muller also said efforts would be made to maintain the structure.
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.
The Vilas, built circa 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire, 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 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure on an average day and village residents say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been cut off.
Pat Fowler, the president of BFDDA and the owner of Village Square Booksellers at 32 The Square, said downtown merchants are hurting due to the lack of traffic coming across the bridge and driving through the village.
"A lot of our Walpole customers have told me that they're not able to come in. They might come in to order their Archer Mayor book but I don't see them regularly the way I used to. Because I might have a customer, they would go to The Rock and Hammer (jewelry store), they would to Halladay's, they would get lunch," she said at the event. "So it's all of us that are missing those people coming into Bellows Falls."
"The other thing we're missing is a lot of the Saxtons River people, because they can't come this way, they're just going to head to Westminster and going across to go to Shaw's (Supermarket)," she continued. "Whereas, on a Saturday, they used to come into town, do their errands and then go over to Shaw's (in Walpole)."
Massucco, standing on stilts and wearing comical clown pants, said New Hampshire is likely unfocused on the Vilas Bridge because the Arch Bridge a short distance away is suitable for traffic and the Charles Dana and Anna Hunt Marsh bridges linking Brattleboro to Hinsdale, N.H., are a much bigger concern. But Massucco said the boost to downtown businesses isn't the only reason the community wants the Vilas rehabilitated.
"The convenience and the traffic is only one part of it. The fact of what this bridge is, to me, is just as important as the traffic," he said. The historic bridge is also near petroglyphs, images etched on rock surfaces by Native Americans thousands of years ago. "And it's one of the prettiest bridges on the Connecticut River."
Local residents and business owners met to chat and eat on the bridge in a public display of their enthusiasm. Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee was in attendance to show his support for the bridge. In March, the local government veteran ran for yet another year on the Selectboard in order help continue the fight.
"I wanted to voice my concern that there's an issue that we need to address, that New Hampshire needs to address," he said, adding the bridge kept slipping in priority before it was added to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance's Seven to Save, a list of historic structures it plans to rehabilitate.
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."
Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" 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.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer