Taftsville Bridge  Takes Another Hit

  • Woodstock Police say the Taftsville Bridge was damaged in a hit-and-run incident involving a camper trailer on Sept. 6, 2017. (Woodstock Police photograph)

  • Woodstock Police say the Taftsville Bridge was damaged in a hit-and-run incident involving a camper trailer on Sept. 6, 2017. (Woodstock Police photograph) Woodstock Police photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/8/2017 11:49:34 PM
Modified: 9/8/2017 11:49:47 PM

Taftsville — Two days after the latest round of damage to Windsor County’s longest covered bridge, Taftsville residents are seeking assurances, the town is seeking an insurance check, and police are seeking answers in a hit-and-run that threatened a community treasure.

An eyewitness told police that at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, a man driving a black truck towed a white camper across the 189-foot Taftsville Covered Bridge, clearing the Quechee side but smashing into the bottom part of the roof structure as he attempted to exit on the Route 4 side of the Ottauquechee River.

The man reportedly stopped and got out of his truck to inspect the damage to both the bridge and his camper, which had its roof peeled back by the force of the impact. Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish said an officer responded immediately to a call from a passerby, but the truck had already left the scene — and the damage — behind.

“It looks terrible,” said Peggy Fraser, who was busily working with other members of the Woodstock Garden Club to clean up and beautify the entrance to Town Hall Friday morning.

The wide, red-painted boards that frame the upper part of the bridge’s opening were pushed outward, putting all of them out of alignment, splitting some and knocking both the lower trim and one board off altogether.

A sign bearing the bridge’s name was pushed off-kilter, and the sign that once announced the 10-foot clearance is gone. In addition, a light for the sign is smashed, and a crosspiece inside the bridge is damaged, with one end out of its resting place, and a furrow showing where it scraped against the top of the camper.

Club members said the attractive red-and-white bridge is an important part of the town’s image.

Pat Mattson, of Barnard, said sometimes she drives to the spot so she can enjoy the 189-foot bridge while she walks her dogs.

“It’s such an important part of our town,” said another member, Tuesday Wright, who, after Tropical Storm Irene damaged the bridge in 2011, joined a crowd of more than 600 who showed up in 2014 to celebrate the reopening.

During that event Taftsville Historical Society President Charlie Wilson said that, after 175 years of service, the reconstruction project would allow the town to look forward to the next 175 years, while then-Gov. Peter Shumlin one-upped him by predicting it would help keep the Historic Taftsville Country Store, located right across Route 4, in business for the next 300 years.

But that was just three years ago, and while Wednesday’s accident didn’t close the bridge or cause significant structural damage, it does underscore the tension that exists between the bigger and faster vehicles of modern-day traffic and historical bridges, which are often narrow and wooden.

This is at least the second time a too-tall vehicle has damaged the bridge, with another 1993 incident cited in the Historical American Engineering Record hosted by the National Park Service, which added the Taftsville Covered Bridge to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

According to an online database at lostbridges.org, Windsor County has lost most of its 150 covered bridges over the years, with Taftsville one of just 14 remaining.

The Taftsville bridge, which dates back to 1836 and is among the oldest standing covered bridges in the country, was built by Solomon Emmons III and was maintained until 1898 by his son, Captain Edwin Charles Emmons. But the key to the bridge’s survival over the last 181 years has been the community’s stubborn devotion to adapting and rebuilding it whenever it has been threatened or damaged.

In 1869, after being damaged by a flood, it was raised three feet; in 1910, it underwent a major reinforcement project; in the winter of 1952, Miller Construction of Windsor used the frozen river as a platform to raise the bridge another foot; in 1959, it was first painted to better match the emerging worldview of the iconic Vermont aesthetic; in the 1980s, another renovation sought to stiffen the floor; which set the stage for the $2.5 million post-Irene renovation in 2014.

The two-year closure not only bottled up Quechee traffic, but it was also nearly a death knell for the Country Store, according to owner Vicki Brooks, who said it cost her more than 30 percent of her sales during that time period.

Brooks said the timing of the this week’s damage is also problematic, because fall foliage is about to draw many tourists through Taftsville, looking for a tempting picturesque scene.

Just like the wagon-wheeled carriage bed that now holds flowerpots, or the rustic camp firewood holder outside the country store, the view to the covered bridge is an important part of the scenery, said Brooks.

“It’s really important to us,” she said. “It’s a shame the person didn’t stop.”

And at the bridge Friday afternoon, one car full of visitors pulled off Route 4 and drove through the bridge, so that Janice and Robert Stewart-Moore, of Sydney, Australia, could take pictures at the undamaged Quechee end.

“This is what this part of the world is renowned for,” said Janice Stewart-Moore. “It’s very valuable.”

Woodstock Municipal Manager Phil Swanson says he expects the repair job, which will likely cost between $5,000 and $10,000, will be covered by the town’s insurance policy.

Swanson said an insurance adjuster will likely come to survey the damage next week, but that it could take time for the repairs to be done, given that many contractors are hurrying to finish jobs before the onset of winter.

Swanson said the bridge won’t suffer from a delay of weeks or months.

“It will not deteriorate,” he said.

Woodstock police, who Blish estimates were about 15 minutes behind the man, were able to track the truck, which had Connecticut plates, eastbound on Route 4 because white, fluffy insulation from the camper was blowing onto the roadside, but the trail went cold before long.

Someone else reported seeing a damaged white camper traveling south on Interstate 91, but an all-points bulletin posted to Hartford and Vermont State Police failed to turn the vehicle up. Blish asked anyone with further information to call 802-457-1420.

And Carol Kashner, one of the Garden Club members, said it’s unlikely the community will let the bridge, or any of its historic resources, fall into disrepair any time in the foreseeable future.

“Nothing is left to rot in Woodstock,” she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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