by Dot Helling
Movie buffs may remember the films “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Bridge of Spies,” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” and most women know who Jeff Bridges is. While we may not have a “famous” bridge in Montpelier, we do have bridges, lots of them.
On September 4, Nancy Schulz, former director of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, led a group of cyclists on the first annual “Montpelier Bridges Ride.” The event was part of the month-long “Montpelier Water Fest,” organized by educator Margaret Blanchard. Along for the ride was Manuel Garcia, a local historian and retired engineer, who provided background on our city’s many bridges.
Montpelier has at least 26 bridges within the city proper. Of those, 20 can be biked over. Two of the bridges that cannot be legally ridden across include the railroad bridge next to the Junction Road bridge and the railroad bridge behind Shaw’s. The group rode over all 20 “rideable” bridges, almost 20 miles, on a spectacular day of sunshine and low humidity. Our first crossing was the historic Langdon Street Bridge, originally a truss bridge and now a modified truss bridge since it was rehabbed. Garcia calls it a modern standard design, like a “Sears and Roebuck edition,” relatively quick and fast to build, with a known result.
There are eight truss bridges in the downtown, six are real and two are modified. A truss is a fabricated steel member made up of plates, angles, channels and beams and a truss bridge supports loads beneath it across a span. The other bridges in Montpelier are beam bridges. Whether built of concrete, steel or timber, a beam bridge is designed with an appropriate cross-section to carry a load above it across a span.
Built in 1915, the Rialto Bridge on State Street is constructed of steel I-beams encased in concrete. It has a 70-foot span and is the longest bridge of this concept in Vermont. It posts a sign selling air rights over the North Branch and is home to a downtown river culture of bench dwellers, musicians and smokers.
In decades past, most of the bridges crossing into Montpelier were covered. Then came the age of the concrete beam bridge. The Cummings Street Bridge, built in 1929, looks to be a concrete beam bridge but is actually built with rolled steel beams. I call it the “turtle bridge” because turtles cross there many mornings. Concrete beam bridges were phased out in the 1930s because of increased traffic. The concrete remains of the Cummings Street Bridge, although not seemingly well maintained, have survived the forces of nature and remain structurally sound, possibly because of little traffic and few large trucks. Also, it was shored up with a steel beam.
The bridge at the curve on the end of Barre Street heading up to the River Street intersection is of unique construction. Because it is on a curve, the girders had to be cantilevered and custom cut, called a curved girder. It is Montpelier’s only cantilevered bridge.
The Main Street Bridge next to Sarducci’s and Shaw’s is a continuous steel beam bridge. This one has splices on the beams beyond the pier to avoid the need for joints over supports. Many steel beam bridges used on our state highways are of continuous-beam design without splices to avoid leaking.
On the Bridges Ride we also viewed a number of Montpelier’s “waterfalls.” There are several downtown along the Winooski and its North Branch. I define our waterfalls as spillovers, like the ones next to Shaw’s, behind the Lane Shops, at the upper end of North Branch Park, and up Route 2 heading toward East Montpelier. I am told that natural falls behind the condominiums at the Lane Shops were closed off upon the building of a grist mill and sawmill. I’m told the natural falls on the Winooski by Shaw’s were also closed off and originally made into a timber crib dam, which is now concrete. There may also have been natural falls above the Pioneer Street bridge, or simply a concrete dam, off the shore of a building leased with water rights.
What are my favorite bridges someone asked? First is the small, wooden timber-deck bridge that accesses Haggett Road off Elm Street, gateway to a single homestead. Second is another small, wooden timber-deck bridge on Grout Road leading to “Murphy’s Place.” Grout Road is the road just before Haggett, landmarked by an old-fashioned seasonal vegetable stand at the Elm Street corner where you pay on trust. These bridges were rebuilt in the 1970s and are rolled beam bridges with a laminated wooden deck and no concrete superstructure.
Many of our bridges need attention. Happily, Montpelier works to maintain its historical character. The bridges are places from which we can immerse ourselves in the flow of the river below and spot and watch wildlife. They even offer traffic safety, such as when you are squeezed into the narrows of the Granite Street Bridge, which forces motorists to slow down and proceed cautiously. Bridges also give us the soaring freedom of height, even if only 5 to 10 feet from the water surface. And if you love movement, go bounce yourself across the footbridge on the bike path between VSECU and downtown. Our bridges may not be famous, but they sure do give us character and joy.
A Few Notes on Selected Bridges from City of Montpelier Public Works Director Tom McArdle
Granite Street Bridge
After the widespread devastation of the 1927 flood most of the steel truss bridges that were installed followed a design that could be erected relatively quickly, in mass production style. Montpelier Granite Street Bridge is one of our most significant historic bridges because its construction pre-dates the 1927 flood and it survived the flood. It is my understanding that after the flood, the Granite Street Bridge was one of the only remaining bridges that crossed theWinooski River. It’s so narrow because it was designed for a time of small horse-drawn carts and vehicles and it had to be strong enough to carry heavy granite loads. It’s been rehabilitated twice and the first rehab won a historic preservation award.
Taylor Street Bridge
The Taylor Street (steel truss bridge) was also a recently rehabilitated bridge with some funding coming through historic preservation.
Langdon Street and School Street Bridges
These two downtown bridges that cross the North Branch of the Winooski, one at Langdon and the other at School streets, were historically rehabilitated. While the trusses on both bridges no longer support the deck, they are the original 1920s trusses. The Langdon Street trusses support the sidewalks but the School Street trusses are free standing and no longer load bearing. School Street is actually five independent spans; 2 sidewalks, 2 trusses and the bridge deck. Following the rehabilitation project, the bridge was named for Rose Lucia, a distinguished Montpelier teacher.
Cummings Street Bridge
Cummings Street Bridge used to be known as the “ice house bridge” because the old ice storage facility was located on Cummings Street and they used to cut ice from the river and store it for summer use with saw dust insulation. Keep an eye open for news of the Cummings Street Bridge. It’s scheduled to be replaced beginning next fall.
Spring Street Bridge and Rialto Bridge
The Public Works Department hired a contractor to undertake a deck rehabilitation project on the Spring Street Bridgethis summer with funding assistance from a VTrans grant. We also did extensive repair work on the downtown Rialto Bridge again last year as we continue to address issues in advance of ultimately replacing the Rialto Bridge in the not-too-distant future.
Vine Street Pedestrian Bridge
Historically, there used to be a bridge that connected Vine Street across the North Branch to Lane Manufacturing and Mechanic Street. But this vehicular bridge was closed in 1974 when the original 1922 pony truss bridge was found to be unsafe for continued use. In 1978 the City’s Department of Public Works built a pedestrian crossing which was considered at the time a temporary structure. The Vine Pedestrian Bridge was replaced in 2010 using federal ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds.