A Look Back: Bridges knit together the Upper Valley

The Cornish-Windsor Bridge, built in 1866 spans 449 feet and five inches over the Connecticut River between Cornish, N.H. and Windsor Vt., on Jan. 25, 2006. According to the state of New Hampshire, it is  the longest wooden covered bridge in the United States and the world's longest two-span covered bridge. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Cornish-Windsor Bridge, built in 1866 spans 449 feet and five inches over the Connecticut River between Cornish, N.H. and Windsor Vt., on Jan. 25, 2006. According to the state of New Hampshire, it is the longest wooden covered bridge in the United States and the world's longest two-span covered bridge. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson

A motorist pays the 25-cent toll before crossing the Cheshire Toll Bridge between Charlestown, N.H., and Springfield, Vt., in an undated photograph. The bridge’s toll-taking operation cased in 2001. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A motorist pays the 25-cent toll before crossing the Cheshire Toll Bridge between Charlestown, N.H., and Springfield, Vt., in an undated photograph. The bridge’s toll-taking operation cased in 2001. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

The New Hampshire Legislature is expected to decide this year whether to save the Bedell Bridge, between Haverhill, N.H., and Newbury, Vt., shown on April 9, 1973. It is one of two remaining covered bridges over the Connecticut River. The other one is between Windsor, Vt., and Cornish, N.H., and is still used for motor vehicle traffic. (Valley News - George Lambert) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The New Hampshire Legislature is expected to decide this year whether to save the Bedell Bridge, between Haverhill, N.H., and Newbury, Vt., shown on April 9, 1973. It is one of two remaining covered bridges over the Connecticut River. The other one is between Windsor, Vt., and Cornish, N.H., and is still used for motor vehicle traffic. (Valley News - George Lambert) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — George Lambert

Keith Mulligan grinds a piece of iron to be welded onto an i-beam support during the reconstruction of the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge on July 1, 1988. (Valley News - Larry Crowe) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Keith Mulligan grinds a piece of iron to be welded onto an i-beam support during the reconstruction of the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge on July 1, 1988. (Valley News - Larry Crowe) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Larry Crowe

Four-year-old David McCumber, of Unity, N.H., would seem to care less about all of the pomp and protests over the reopening of the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge in Cornish, N.H., on Dec. 8, 1989. About 1,000 people attended the ceremony for the 122-year-old bridge. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Four-year-old David McCumber, of Unity, N.H., would seem to care less about all of the pomp and protests over the reopening of the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge in Cornish, N.H., on Dec. 8, 1989. About 1,000 people attended the ceremony for the 122-year-old bridge. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Geoff Hansen

During a staged event on the Ledyard Bridge between Norwich and Hanover, New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney reads from the 1936 Supreme Court report that settled a border dispute between Vermont and New Hampshire and established a permanent boundary Monday, May 14, 2012. Every seven years the two states perambulate the border checking the location of the roughly 100 monuments marking the line. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

During a staged event on the Ledyard Bridge between Norwich and Hanover, New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney reads from the 1936 Supreme Court report that settled a border dispute between Vermont and New Hampshire and established a permanent boundary Monday, May 14, 2012. Every seven years the two states perambulate the border checking the location of the roughly 100 monuments marking the line. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file — James M. Patterson

Chris Blanchet, left, and Joe Stewart, of New England Infrastructure Inc., do preliminary work on the Lyme-East Thetford Bridge over the Connecticut River between Lyme, N.H. and East Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, Oct.6, 2022. New England Infrastructure, Inc., of Hudson, Mass.,  will be refurbishing the bridge for the $11 million project. The bridge, which was built in 1937 and has been included on New Hampshire’s “red list” since 2013, is now expected to be closed beginning in April or May 2023 and remain closed continuously until the project is scheduled to be finished on Oct. 25, 2024. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chris Blanchet, left, and Joe Stewart, of New England Infrastructure Inc., do preliminary work on the Lyme-East Thetford Bridge over the Connecticut River between Lyme, N.H. and East Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, Oct.6, 2022. New England Infrastructure, Inc., of Hudson, Mass., will be refurbishing the bridge for the $11 million project. The bridge, which was built in 1937 and has been included on New Hampshire’s “red list” since 2013, is now expected to be closed beginning in April or May 2023 and remain closed continuously until the project is scheduled to be finished on Oct. 25, 2024. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

By STEVE TAYLOR

For the Valley News

Published: 10-03-2023 8:22 AM

Bridges across the Connecticut River have been essential for more than two centuries to creating what former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean once called a “third state” nestled between New Hampshire and his Green Mountain State.

Indeed, as the current closure of the Lyme-East Thetford span shows: No bridges, no Upper Valley.

People ranging from hardy pioneering farmers to greed-addled investors to determined politicians are part of a continuum of efforts to assure that access from one side of the river to the other is provided. And as the absence for several months of that Lyme-East Thetford link illustrates, the region is bound together by the structures that enable convenient travel and commerce across the river.

Since the Civil War, the record of bridge-building in the Upper Valley reaches of the river is extensive. Newspaper accounts and old letters dug from town libraries and historical societies document the fragility of Connecticut River bridges and the economic and political struggles to keep them functioning. But go back over the preceding century and it takes a deeper dive to piece together the stories of bridges built, enjoyed and destroyed.

Capricious weather doomed many of the bridges, beginning as early as the 1770s.

Heavy rains and melting snow would send the river from a lazy stream to a destructive torrent in a matter of hours, and bridges crafted from available timber by optimistic builders would be swept away in a flash. Towns often would sponsor construction, but investors looking to make some money by charging tolls for crossing were very often behind bridge projects.

Perhaps the most tragic of all weather-caused bridge losses would actually happen in modern times, however. In the 1980s, a major private initiative restored the Bedell Bridge between Haverhill and Newbury. It was a handsome covered wooden bridge set on stone abutments and piers, but when an autumn tempest came along, it was knocked off its footings and crashed into the fast-moving currents below.

Floods could hit most any time of the year. They could erode supporting stone work or come roaring into the structures themselves. Chunks of ice floating southward could act like battering rams, cracking timbers and destroying the span. Dozens of wooden bridges were built along the Upper Valley’s stem of the Connecticut over two centuries, and all save one were wiped out by floods or were abandoned in favor of modern construction materials.

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That lone survivor is the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, designed and built in 1866 by a genius carpenter named James Tasker and still standing and handling a steady flow of traffic today. But it could very likely have been abandoned in the 1980s had it not been for the vision and tenacity of a single politician, Merle Schotanus, a retired Army colonel, Grantham farmer and state representative for the Cornish-Plainfield-Grantham district.

Highway officials in both New Hampshire and Vermont had decided the old Tasker bridge was obsolete and they went forward with design for a new concrete and steel “aircraft carrier”-style bridge a few hundred yards upstream.

But Schotanus, a wily fiscal presence in Concord, headed off the plans and fought for and succeeded in getting appropriations for a complete rehabilitation and strengthening of the covered bridge that stands today, the last covered bridge on the Connecticut River stem.

A curiosity is the bridge that links Charlestown and Springfield, Vt. It was built foremost as a railroad span, carrying spur tracks from the main line in Charlestown to the industries in Springfield. But it also had lanes for motor vehicles until the rail tracks, and a 35-cent toll for cars finally went away in 2001.

From the Massachusetts border to Quebec, only two pairs of riverfront towns aren’t linked by a bridge: Hartland and Plainfield and, far to the south, Putney, Vt., and Westmoreland, N.H. A Hartland-Plainfield tie isn’t for lack of trying. Several bridges were established in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, but every one was swept away by a flood. In 1906, the popular novelist and Cornish resident Winston Churchill was serving in the New Hampshire Legislature, and he promised to win a state appropriation to build a bridge at Sumner’s Falls to connect the two neighbors. So convinced of the need, Churchill pledge $500 of his own money toward the project but, alas, it never came to be.

Ferries frequently stepped in to join towns across the river, but they didn’t run in the winter. No bridge, no ferry service available, no problem for Hartland farmer Fred Rogers. He had purchased a large farm across the river in North Plainfield; it was January 1901. Rogers moved his family, farm equipment and household across the river on the ice.

Rogers, a powerful progressive force in New Hampshire politics in his time, would be pleased to see how good bridge connections fuse the river towns of the Upper Valley together today.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden and contributes occasionally to the Valley News.