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LOWER BARTONSVILLE — Susan Hammond loves her home, Lower Bartonsville.

Home to about 100 souls, the tiny village in the town of Rockingham faced a devastating loss after Tropical Storm Irene on August 28, 2011, when the flooding Williams River picked up the 140-year-old Bartonsville Covered Bridge off its stone abutments and swept it downstream. It actually floated on top of the raging river.

“Sailing like an ark,” Hammond said.

That Sunday afternoon 10 years ago, Hammond was watching the river and its effect on the venerable bridge from a safe distance, after the rising and raging river started eroding the abutments and nearby power poles, tipping them at a dangerous angle.

Susan Hammond, from Rockingham, Vt., talks about the day that the Bartonsville Covered Bridge washed away during Tropical Storm Irene.

Earlier in the afternoon, she had seen large trees pinwheeling down the raging river, headed to the bridge, and she was afraid one of the trees would slice the bridge in half, like a loaf of bread.

During an interview this month at the 2012 covered bridge which replaced the original historic 151-foot-long bridge, Hammond recalled the minutes leading up to the astonishing sight, and her profanity heard round the world.....

“The bridge was creaking and screaming really,” said Hammond, who said she and other neighbors were watching the bridge from a safe distance since the river was eroding the earth around the bridge abutments and power poles. They were worried the pole would pull down others on to their heads.

She said she took a small Go-Pro camera with her down to the river; she said she realized something awful might happen and she wanted to try and catch it with the camera. The problem, she said, is that its memory card was full of other videos, and she was furiously sorting through her videos and deleting some to make space for a Bartonsville bridge clip.

But she ran out of time, and as the bridge slipped off its abutments, she just pressed record, hoping there was enough memory in the camera to catch it. There was, along with a famous Hammond expletive.

“I got really, really lucky,” Hammond said of her video. As for her language, she laughed. “There were a whole bunch of words,” she said, “maybe even some Vietnamese,” said Hammond, who is executive director of the War Legacies Project, which works to mitigate the environmental and human health impacts of Agent Orange, napalm and cluster bombs in Southeast Asia.

That Bartonsville Covered Bridge video, taken by an amateur videographer in the heat of the epic flood, was seen all over the world as the most dramatic and iconic image of the Irene damage in Vermont.

The bridge, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was one of a handful of covered bridges that were seriously damaged by the record-breaking flooding in Vermont. Only Bartonsville was destroyed, Hammond said. New York state lost the historic 1855 Blenheim Bridge over the Schoharie Creek. The 210-foot bridge was not in use at the time, but it was rebuilt in 2018.

Rockingham saw damage to all three of its covered bridges. Just about a mile downstream from the Bartonsville bridge, the Worrall Covered Bridge was also heavily damaged by the flooding, as was the town’s third covered bridge, the Hall Bridge on the Saxtons River.

Statewide, other bridges, including the Taftsville Covered Bridge in Woodstock and the Fox Brook Covered Bridge in Northfield Falls, suffered heavy damage and were closed for months.

“It was like an ark, floating down the river,” Hammond of the Bartonsville bridge. The whole structure just floated on top of the roiling river, which was swollen with between seven and 11 inches of rain, and headed straight down the river, she said. But a curve in the river was its undoing, and the bridge ended up on the edge of a Bartonsville vineyard, on a sandy and rocky beach.

The Bartonsville Covered Bridge video drew The Weather Channel’s disaster guru Jim Cantore to the banks of the Williams River the next night. He wanted to interview Hammond, but she lived on the opposite side of the river.

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Minutes after the bridge slipped away, Hammond said, she and her neighbors vowed to make sure the town rebuilt a wooden covered bridge in its place, and not put up a steel and concrete structure.

It really wasn’t much of a fight, she said, as the town immediately agreed, the town’s insurance policy on the bridge paid for much of the new span, and it was reopened in January 2013, on a bitterly cold day, with Gov. Peter Shumlin and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., on hand. The replacement cost of $2.6 million came from the town’s insurance, federal disaster funds, a 5 percent match from the state, and some local funds. It was almost the same cost as a modern structure, she said.

The original bridge was later recovered by the town of Rockingham, and its timbers stored at a nearby town-owned gravel pit, but they were too damaged to be reused in the new bridge.

Hammond said the new bridge was bigger and better, and more flood proof. The bridge grew from 152 feet to 168 feet. And instead of timber cut from a Rockingham hillside, Cold River Bridges of Walpole, N.H., the bridge’s builder, imported timber from the Pacific Northwest.

Hammond said the cost of a new covered bridge was only $16,000 more than what the town’s insurance policy would pay, with the exception of the new concrete abutments.

The Bartonsville bridge that disappeared downstream was itself a replacement bridge for a bridge lost to flooding in 1869, but that bridge was in a different location, Hammond said, about a half mile upstream.

She says the deed to her 1860s house mentions the original bridge. It was a “freshet” in October 1869 that wiped out that bridge and redirected the river’s path. A new bridge was built in 1870, downstream from the original location.

The new bridge was built by a local builder named Sanford Granger, who had built several covered bridges in the area, including the nearby Worrall Covered Bridge. He employed the town lattice truss design, and the bridge was 151 feet long.

When it was built, it was the largest in Windham County and the second-longest covered bridge in Vermont. (The Dummerston Covered Bridge, built in 1872, is currently Vermont’s longest at 280 feet).

That bridge survived the major floods of 1927 and 1938, according to a brief history posted on the new 2012 bridge.

The new bridge is 17 feet longer, at 168 feet, and was built robustly to handle a fire truck or highway truck.

Construction began in September 2012, a year after Irene, and was completed on Dec. 30, 2012, using the same town lattice truss design, Hammond said.

Rebuilding a covered bridge, a romantic anarchronism in the age of steel and concrete, has helped maintain the sense of community in tiny Bartonsville, said Hammond, who grew up in Bartonsville.

When the bridge was gone, she said, “there was a huge missing piece of our community.”

The single-span bridge makes people slow down, and wait for their neighbors, she said. “It connects us,” she said.

Her Bartonsville neighbors are holding their annual summer get-together on Saturday, she said. She’s sure they will talk about the bridge.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.