The people of New Hampshire -- its transportation department, elected representatives and the citizens who put them in office -- are demolishing the Vilas Bridge between Bellows Falls and Walpole as surely by neglect as if they actually were using explosives and wrecking balls.
And they are doing it in clear violation of a federal agreement New Hampshire signed in 1994 pledging to maintain the Vilas, the most significant historic bridge anywhere on the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont and right at the top of the most significant bridges in the entire Granite State.
But don't just take my word for it. New Hampshire Department of Transportation actually declared it so during a state-wide historic bridge rating exercise in the late 1980s. That significance came into play in 1994, when NHDOT was considering repairs to both the Vilas Bridge (constructed 1930) and the Kelleyville Bridge (1933) over the Sugar River in Newport, N.H. Both bridges were built as open spandrel concrete arches, the Vilas having two arches and the smaller Kelleyville one. NHDOT determined that it would not be "prudent" to repair the Kelleyville Bridge and decided to give it away or tear it down.
As part of its comparative evaluations, NHDOT declared that "Vilas Bridge is in original condition and possesses more architectural detail than the Kelleyville Bridge, which does not have the original concrete rail."
And: "Vilas Bridge is visible to the public upon approach and its setting is outstanding visually, whereas the Kelleyville Bridge cannot be seen upon approach and requires getting out of one's vehicle and walking down the embankment to see the open spandrel concrete arch."
And: "The Vilas Bridge is a historical interstate crossing between Vermont and New Hampshire, whereas the Kelleyville Bridge is of local importance."
So NHDOT demolished the Kelleyville Bridge. But Federal law requires entities intending to destroy an historic building or bridge to "mitigate" its loss somehow. In exchange for permission to destroy the Kelleyville Bridge, NHDOT promised to maintain the Vilas.
The 1994 Memorandum of Agreement signed by the Federal Highway Administration, New Hampshire's State Historic Preservation Office, and the National Park Service's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, states: "NHDOT, NHSHPO and FWHA concur that the Vilas Bridge, located in Walpole, N.H., over the Connecticut River, is of sufficient quality, location and importance that only under exceptional circumstances (natural disaster creating a serious safety hazard or some other truly unforeseen situation) will the bridge be removed. NHDOT also commits to work toward the long-term maintenance of the Vilas Bridge with in-kind construction funded in accordance with the State's Ten Year Highway Program."
There is no mention in the agreement about whether there are other bridges nearby.
In case NHDOT decides to live up to the terms of this agreement and is looking for examples of state-of-the-art restoration of similar open spandrel concrete arch bridges, they need look no further than the 1945 Ashton Viaduct, a majestic, five-arch span that carries Route 116 over the Blackstone River in Ashton, R.I., a bridge restored in 2000.
But apparently NHDOT, the state's elected representatives, and the people of New Hampshire have all decided that "working toward the long-term maintenance" of the Vilas Bridge means doing nothing at all.
Waiting for water, gravity and time to take their toll on the bridge will create those "exceptional circumstances," won't it? But that's not really a "truly unforeseen situation," is it? Every day that New Hampshire does nothing to restore the Vilas Bridge is another day they are demolishing it by neglect.
Richard Ewald is a former community development director for Rockingham and assisted in the creation of the Connecticut River Byway. He lives in Westminster.