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Vermont town focuses on protecting its covered bridges

July 7, 2018
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In this July 6, 2018 photo, the Sayre's Covered Bridge spans the Ompompanoosuc River in Thetford, Vt. In the last year, the bridge was repeatedly hit by over-height vehicles. Officials in communities that still rely on covered bridges as part of their local transportation networks have said that damage caused by modern vehicles is a vexing problem. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

THETFORD, Vt. (AP) — A small Vermont town is working to protect one of its most prized community symbols, a 19th century covered bridge, an engineering relic that is a key part of the local road network that wasn’t designed for heavy, modern vehicles and inattentive drivers.

In Thetford, a storm last year that heavily damaged some town roads prompted more people, including truckers, to use the 1839 Sayre’s Covered Bridge over the Ompompanoosuc River on Tucker Hill Road. Ever since, vehicles have been knocking the boards off the top of the bridge on both ends much more frequently than in the past.

“These are historic, these are part of our identity in this community, especially in this neighborhood,” said town Police Chief Michel Evans, referring to the community’s two covered bridges. “People love them.”

So Evans put out the word, looking for help finding the people who might have hit the bridge. While none of the culprits have been identified, the attention seems to have helped. No one has hit it since.

Now some of the boards on the facade remain missing and new horizontal boards have been placed on the bottom on both ends, the fresh lumber in stark contrast to the deliberately aged look of the other boards. “I don’t know if the publicity or the horizontal board is helping or it’s just a coincidence that it hasn’t been damaged again,” he said.

Fortunately, all the damage recently has been cosmetic and the town road crew has been able to fix it themselves without having to close the bridge, said Thetford Select Board Chairman Stuart Rogers.

“The issue is nobody ever stops, nobody owns up,” Rogers said. “In all likelihood they look, one, out the windshield, and, two, out the rearview mirror, ‘did anybody see me?’”

When covered bridges were built the walls and roofs were intended to protect the structure from the elements. As most were replaced by spans of steel and concrete the remaining covered bridges have harkened to a bygone era. In much of New England they are iconic rural symbols that are as much a part of the landscape as white clapboard churches with majestic steeples and black and white dairy cattle.

In Thetford, a town of about 2,500, not far from the Connecticut River 30 miles (48.2 kilometers) southeast of Montpelier, the community’s two remaining covered bridges are a key part of the town’s character. The 134-foot (41-meter) Sayre’s bridge was originally built in 1839. It was rehabilitated in the early 1960s and again in 2006, but much of the original structure remains.

The wooden walls and roof structure are unfamiliar to modern motorists accustomed to wide-open bridges and wood-splintering damage can be routine. Last week, in Jackson, New Hampshire, about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) northeast of Thetford, a minivan crashed into a support on the 142-year-old Honeymoon Covered Bridge, closing the bridge for two days while repairs could be made.

Cornish, New Hampshire, has three covered bridges that still carry traffic, including the Cornish-Windsor bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the United States and the longest two-span covered bridge in the world. It spans the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont.

Cornish Police Chief E. Douglas Hackett said the bridges in his town get damaged regularly. In one case two years ago an overweight and too tall school bus damaged the facade and some of the structural components. On another occasion a delivery truck went across the Connecticut River bridge, breaking a number of the support trusses.

“He came in from the New Hampshire side and just kept going and broke, I think, 12 in total,” said Hackett, who has an active arrest warrant out for the driver.

And it’s not always traffic that damages the bridges. Almost two years ago fire destroyed the 150-year-old Station Covered Bridge on the Salisbury-Cornwall town line in Vermont.

While the publicity might be helping to protect the Thetford bridge, the town isn’t sitting back. Now there is a motion activated camera trained on one end of the bridge so police will be able to collect photo evidence if it is hit again.

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