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A Tale of Two Bridges: Upper Valley Finally Re-Connected After Irene

VPR/Charlotte Albright

Two years ago, as Tropical Storm Irene battered Vermont, scores of people gathered near Woodstock, at the Taftsville Bridge, hoping that the bridge would survive. It didn’t fall into the Ottauquechee River, but it was badly damaged. So were two other bridges in the Upper Valley, which was among the areas hardest hit by the storm.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge is claimed to be the third oldest in Vermont, and the second longest. From Route 4, it spans the Ottauquechee River to River Road. Around noon on August 28, 2011,  Taftsville historian Charlie Wilson and his neighbors watched storm-tossed  debris slam against the bridge foundation.

“I bet a hundred people here, just gasping every time some huge tree or propane tank went hurtling toward the bridge, wondering if it was going to duck underneath or hit it,” Wilson said.

The bridge was so structurally weakened it became unsafe for traffic. Before Irene, about 1100 cars crossed it a day. For the past two years, vehicles have taken lengthy detours as workers labored on.

“It’s just—businesses have suffered terribly here locally and then miles down the road, it’s affected everybody, residents, business owners,” Wilson said.

Especially the business across the road from the bridge, The Taftsville Country Store, owned by Vickie and Courtney Brooks

Partners in life as well as work, the Brookses figure their profits have taken a 30-40 percent dive since the broken bridge made it hard for customers from Woodstock to reach the store. But Courtney says they’ve hung in.

“We have and there’ve been a couple of months throughout the years, I can remember one month, it was March 2012, where I closed the store early and sat on the floor and just cried for two hours because it was just…our bank account was in the red, and all of the vendors, for the most part are small, I mean they are mom and pop vendors,” said Courtney Brooks.

And the Brookses couldn’t always pay them on time. But the Taftsville Country store expects to get lots of business this weekend when the town holds a grand re-opening celebration at the bridge. The restoration was more complicated than expected, with a 2.5 million dollar price tag—about $100,000 over budget.

Construction foreman Jim Ligon says it’s been a long haul:

“And altogether it’s made it a hard one-- We’re glad to get this one done and get away from it,” Ligon said.

Taftsville is the third bridge in the hard-hit Upper Valley to re-open since the damaging storm. The Quechee Bridge has also been replaced. And in Rockingham, there’s an effort to create a monument to the newly replaced Bartonsville Bridge. Neighbor Sue Hammond caught that collapse into the Williams River on a much-viewed video. She’s spearheading an effort to re-use the wreckage for an information kiosk  to explain how a treasured landmark was ruined and reborn.

“Emotionally, as well, to have some of our bridge back, in our little village, is something we’re all interested in and looking forward to,” Hammond said.

The old bridge debris is technically owned by the Vermont League of Towns and Cities, which insured Rockingham’s three covered bridges. Hammond it’s not clear yet how much the League will charge the town for the remnants. The League wants to use those proceeds to shore up its insurance fund for the future.  Meanwhile, the new covered bridges in the Upper Valley are expected to withstand a storm as powerful as Irene if—or when—it strikes.  

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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