From the murky depths, a damaged bridge

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CHESTERFIELD, N.H. -- When Robert Cornieller and the Brattleboro Fire Department's Dive Rescue Team were performing a practice rescue in the Connecticut River two months ago, the boat's sonar picked up something interesting.

Assuming it was a sunken boat, Cornieller decided he was going to investigate it later and maybe try and get it out of the water if he could.

As he and another dive team member, Matt Hubbard, searched the water again three weeks ago, they knew what they saw wasn't a boat.

"We weren't sure what it was until Matt Googled it," Cornieller said. "As soon as I saw pictures though, I knew it was it."

The two were swimming alongside large portions of a suspension bridge, built in 1889, that was destroyed during a massive flood in 1936.

Thought to be lost forever, Cornieller and Hubbard were looking at the first structure to span the river connecting the two towns.

At the bottom of the river, about 15 feet deep and 50 yards from the bank, one of the four towers, measuring about 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, lies horizontally atop the sediment.

Cornelia Jenness, president of the Chesterfield Historical Society, said members have been trying to find pieces of the bridge for decades but were unsuccessful until now.

"This is an extraordinary find," Jenness said. "Many people thought we'd never see the bridge again."

When the current bridge was constructed in 2003, divers had searched for any remnants of the original bridge but didn't realize they were about 75 yards upstream.

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Cornieller said the reason it's probably been so difficult to figure out where the 1889 bridge had collapsed is because the landscapes on both sides of the river are drastically different.

"Looking through the old photos there's no landmark to point out where it was," he said. "We only found it by accident because we had the sonar going on the boat in that location that day."

Prior to the 1889 bridge, the only way to get to Vermont during those days was by ferry, but the nearest one was miles away.

The two towns needed each other to survive so they struck a deal where Chesterfield would pay for half the bridge and Brattleboro the other, she said.

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With barely enough space for a horse-drawn carriage, the iron and wood bridge served as a main through-way until the river flooded up and over its deck, eventually breaking the bridge and sinking it to where it lies now.

According to local legend, the last person to cross it was a mailman who had to run from the New Hampshire side to the Vermont side as the water level rose over it, Jenness said.

On Saturday, a red buoy and pockets of bubbles marked the track of Cornieller and Hubbard as they dove the 20 or so feet to the bottom of the Connecticut.

With about eight feet of visibility, they were able to photograph and videotape the remains of the bridge with much better clarity, Hubbard said.

"It looks like the rivets just let go when the force of the water was too strong," Cornieller said. "There's no sheering to suggest any kind of tear. It's definitely the coolest thing I've ever seen underwater."

To touch the history gave him "chills" Cornieller said, even though the water was at 78 degrees.

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"This has always been a big hobby for me," he said. "In the winter I do a lot of research of places where historical landmarks, buildings or ships may have been washed out and see if I can retrieve it later."

Among his underwater finds, Cornieller said he's picked up a lot of old bottles and small ship parts, but nothing even close to the size of the fallen bridge.

Cornieller said it would take huge construction equipment and cranes to remove the tower and its granite base, and neither he or the Historical Society have any desire to try and pull it from the river depths.

"Sometimes it's better to just let it lie where it is," he said. "But what I'd really like to find is one of the signs that hung above the bridge at both ends."

According to historical photographs, a sign that read, "$2.00 fine for driving faster than a walk on the bridge," greeted people entering from both states.

While the divers searched for the sign and the other tower from the New Hampshire side, a group of spectators watched from the dock of the Riverside Hotel.

"I think it's important to find out what happened and see how much of it is down there," said Loraine Scrivani, of the Chesterfield Arch Bridge Society. "It's an important part this town's history and its connection to Brattleboro."

To view more historic photos and those Cornieller took while on his dives, visit www.angelfire.com/nh/newenglandscuba/suspensionbridge.html.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.


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