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Vt. Town Hopes to Save Bridge

Span’s Private Owners Can’t Afford Repairs

  • This Aug. 1, 2013, photo shows damage to the 140-year-old covered bridge owned by Arthur Elliott that has been closed to the public in Lyndonville, Vt. Arthur Elliott fears they might have to tear it down because they don't have the money to repair it. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

    This Aug. 1, 2013, photo shows damage to the 140-year-old covered bridge owned by Arthur Elliott that has been closed to the public in Lyndonville, Vt. Arthur Elliott fears they might have to tear it down because they don't have the money to repair it. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

  • In this Aug. 1, 2013, photo, Arthur  Elliott talks about the 140-year-old covered bridge he owns that has been closed to the public due to deterioration in Lyndonville, Vt. Elliott fears they might have to tear it down because they don't have the money to repair it. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

    In this Aug. 1, 2013, photo, Arthur Elliott talks about the 140-year-old covered bridge he owns that has been closed to the public due to deterioration in Lyndonville, Vt. Elliott fears they might have to tear it down because they don't have the money to repair it. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

  • This Aug. 1, 2013, photo shows damage to the 140-year-old covered bridge owned by Arthur Elliott that has been closed to the public in Lyndonville, Vt. Arthur Elliott fears they might have to tear it down because they don't have the money to repair it. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
  • In this Aug. 1, 2013, photo, Arthur  Elliott talks about the 140-year-old covered bridge he owns that has been closed to the public due to deterioration in Lyndonville, Vt. Elliott fears they might have to tear it down because they don't have the money to repair it. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Lyndonville, Vt. — Where the Passumpsic River flows east to west on a meander around the northern end of the village, just downstream from a state highway’s modern steel-and-concrete bridge, a bit of faded glory sags badly.

One of two heavy wooden timbers under the Sanborn Covered Bridge is broken; giant splinters look like they could separate completely at any time, sending the 120-foot-long structure tumbling into the stream.

Barriers and signs warning of the danger have been posted at both ends of the now-closed span, which had been popular with pedestrians in warmer months and snowmobilers in winter.

Owners Arthur and Jeanne Elliott, who kept the bridge and some surrounding acreage when they sold a neighboring motel and retired, say they don’t have the money to do the repairs, which Arthur Elliott estimates would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But whether any public money might be available to fix a privately owned bridge is uncertain.

“It reflects a whole different era,” Elliott said of the span, which various accounts date to the 1860s or ‘70s. “Anything that reminds you of that is a good thing. It’s also a masterpiece of engineering.”

David Wright, president of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, said the Sanborn Bridge is rare in two respects: It’s among a small minority of about 750 covered bridges around the country that are in private hands. It’s also of a design developed by New Hampshire bridge builder Peter Paddleford.

“If the Sanborn Bridge is saved, it will effectively be the last 19th-century Paddleford truss remaining in the state of Vermont,” Wright said. “It’s an important structure.”

Joe Benning, a state senator and Lyndonville lawyer, has regular morning gatherings with local leaders at the nearby Freighthouse restaurant, which has a picture of the bridge being moved down Main Street in 1960 from its original location about 2 miles down the Passumpsic at the southern end of town.

Conversation around the table at the Freighthouse frequently focuses on the fate of the bridge: “Is the town willing to take it? Is the (Lyndonville) Historical Society willing to take it?” Benning said.

The question of whether the town could acquire and fix the bridge would have to be put before voters, which likely couldn’t happen before Town Meeting Day in March, Selectboard Chairman David Dill said.

Meanwhile, the sag in the bridge has been getting worse by the week.

“It’s in emergency mode,” Benning said. “The powers that be have to be brought into place to get it stabilized.”

The private Preservation Trust of Vermont might be able to provide a grant to cover part of the repair costs — up to $50,000, provided another entity could match it, said Eric Gilbertson, field service representative.

The bridge’s open sides, wide eaves and arched portals at either end give the structure unusual grace, he added.

“It’s a pretty bridge,” he said. “The people that built bridges like this were really conscious of the design and beauty of what they were doing.”

Wright plans to travel with a team including a bridge reconstruction expert to inspect the bridge Aug. 11.

If the span can be saved, the trust is prepared to step in and help organize and finance the project, Wright said.

The Elliotts would be pleased to see that happen.

“It’s very close to my heart,” Jeanne Elliott said. “My kids grew up at the motel. A lot of their childhood play centered around that bridge. Their initials are in that bridge.”