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Checkered House Bridge Undergoes Three-Year Makeover

Fri September 21, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Its name may be “Checkered,” but its past isn’t. And its future is bright (green).

The Checkered House Bridge project on Route 2 in Richmond, Vt., will be widened this summer, the mid-point of a three-year project that is more than 22 years in the making.

Mid-June marked the moving of the longest truss bridge in the state. Workers took approximately five days to move it 12.5 ft. (3.8 m) from where it is, in order to widen and reconnect its trusses. The project, which began in 2011 and will be finished in the summer of 2013, will cost an estimated $13.9 million.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAT), which owns the bridge, retained the design-build team of Harrison & Burrowes Bridge Constructors Inc., Glenmont, N.Y., and CHA Inc., Albany, N.Y., to widen the existing truss span, while they preserve the majority of the historic steel structure.

In the middle of its 36-month schedule, the project also includes the reconstruction and realignment of Route 2, Kenyon Road and Johnnie Brook Road.

Supports for the truss, assemblage of pieces needed to move it and all plans and permits are in place so that the bridge can be widened at a day to be determined. Travelers both ways continue to use a two-lane temporary bridge built just east of the original span, opened in June 2011, throughout the construction season.

Manager Has Waited for 22 Years

To call this a labor of love for Carolyn Carlson, structures project manager of the VAT, is to insult both “labor” and “love.”

Carlson has been part of this dream historic project for 22 years, nurturing it every step of the long process.

“I have been associated with this project since 1990, when we designed a replacement for the concrete deck and upgraded a few steel members. However, the community did not agree with our concept of closing the road for four-to-five months,” said Carlson. “We then proceeded to evaluate other alternatives: From new bridges to keeping the old and building another next to it.

“In the late 90s, we decided to evaluate the possibility of widening the truss. We received the blessing from the state’s historic preservation specialist and FHWA to pursue the option. Widening the truss preserves its historic significance yet improves the infrastructure for the travelling public,” added Carlson.

Located in the town of Richmond, approximately a mile or so east of the Williston town line, the historic Checkered House Bridge was built in 1929, two years after the Great Flood of 1927.

Built by the American Bridge Company, the span got its name from a nearby farmhouse known as “Checkered House” because of its red brick pattern. The house, which dates back to colonial times, is now a restaurant called the Kitchen Table. There are two farms on either side of the bridge.

Interstate 89 runs parallel to the bridge and the on-and off-ramp for the Interstate is fairly close. The span connects Richmond to Williston and many of their commuters use this road and bridge. The population of Richmond is about 4,300 people and Williston, 9,300.

“Williston and Richmond are located in Chittenden County, which is the most populated county in the state. Williston is a short drive to the Burlington International Airport, and is approximately nine miles from downtown Burlington,” said Carlson. “Interstate 89 goes through both communities and Williston has one of the state’s largest shopping areas just off the Interstate. There are approximately 4,100 cars and trucks that travel this road. We have projected that the traffic in 2021 will be around 5,300 cars and trucks per day.”

Longest, Most

Significant Span

“When the original bridge was built, an existing covered bridge crossed the Winooski River in approximately the location of the interstate bridges,” added Carlson.

“The truss bridge is the longest truss bridge that was built in the state of Vermont and the only Pennsylvania thru-truss bridge. It is historically significant and that is what led us to developing a plan which would allow us to save the bridge, yet meet the demands of the 21st century traffic.”

According to Harrison & Burrowes and the Web site established to educate the public on this three-year- project, the existing north truss of the bridge will be shifted 12 ft. 6 in. to the north. A temporary roadway bridge was constructed in June 2011 to allow traffic to cross the river while the old bridge was eventually moved for its widening. To accomplish this, the arching steel north truss will be cut, supported, moved those 12 ft. 6 in., and then re-attached with new steel supports to the 1929 bridge.

Once the bridge is reconnected, its overall appearance in its setting will be very similar to its appearance before the widening. However, motorists and other observers will be able to notice the difference between the new and the old steel when they are directly in front of the bridge. Officials say there’s a reason for not “blending” the look — it is important to the preservation process that the new parts of the bridge be clearly discernible from the original bridge.

“Prior to construction of this project, the existing truss bridge width was 20 feet between the guardrails,” said Carlson. “That width [was] not conducive to having two trucks meet or even a car and a truck. There is also a local road [Johnny Brook Road] that intersects Route 2 at the west end of the bridge which has no sight distance, which creates a dangerous intersection.”

The too-narrow width and lack of sight distance are only two reasons why the bridge needed work.

“The existing bridge has been a posted bridge for more than 20 years; meaning that trucks over a certain weight could not travel on the road,” Carlson explained. “The improved and widened truss bridge will have no load capacity restrictions when it is completed.

“The new bridge will be widened enough to allow a 30-feet, rail-to-rail distance which will provide two 11-feet travel ways and four-foot shoulders. This width will allow the commuters to feel much safer travelling this road. We also are realigning the Johnny Brook Road. This road will intersect the Kenyon Road. The Kenyon Road intersects Route 2, 100 feet or so west of the Johnny Brook Road. This new intersection on the Kenyon Road will eliminate the current unsafe intersection of the Johnny Brook Road.”

How Will Widening

Be Done?

In simple terms, the work will include these key steps:

• Temporary bracing will be put in place to support the bridge on the north side so that the north truss can be disconnected.

• Once supports are in place, the north truss will be disconnected from the rest of the bridge by removing bolts and rivets

• The north truss will then be slowly moved on rollers until it rests in its new location on the abutments built last fall.

• New steel will be put in place to reconnect the newly situated north truss to the rest of the bridge, extending the width of the truss by 12 ft., 6 in.

Commuters will be able to see the difference as trusses will no longer be symmetrical. A requirement of historic agencies is that the two sides not match, so that the public can more easily distinguish what is “new” versus what was the “look” of the original bridge.

The exact timing of the move will depend on when all conditions are ideal — weather, equipment, crews, etc.

“The new bridge also will help the farmers on each side of the bridge. The existing bridge made it very difficult for the farmers to bring their equipment over the bridge due to the width and the load capacity of the bridge,” said Carlson. “The farmers actually farm land on both sides of the bridge so the new bridge will allow them to do this more efficiently and safely.”

The Great Flood of 1927

According to University of Vermont researchers and their Web site, the state was deluged with rainstorm after rainstorm in the autumn of 1927. With grounds completely saturated in early November, a two-day downpour covered the state with 8 in. of rain.

Much like Hurricane Irene, which washed out roads and bridges in Vermont during the summer of 2011, the torrent of rainfall rushed into swollen brooks and streams, devastating towns and killing 84 people.

There were many close calls and courageous rescues and, incredibly, no one in Richmond lost their lives, but the early 1800s-era wooden covered Checkered House Bridge was damaged beyond repair, although it did not fall.

Torn down due to weakened abutments, it was one of the rarest covered bridges in Vermont. It had been constructed circa 1812, after a woman drowned trying to cross the Winooski River on horseback.

The massive deluge of 1927 brought a new bridge building wave through the state. According to state records, some 1,258 bridges were damaged or destroyed, costing almost $25 million (approximately $500 million in today’s dollars).

Again, according to University of Vermont research, a series of dams was built to prevent massive flooding in the future. Richmond farmers also joined Project Vermont from 1938-1941 to stabilize riverbanks by planting vegetation. Today, a grove of white pine trees behind the former Checkered House (Kitchen Table Restaurant) still stand as a reminder of this.

For Children and Grandchildren

The Checkered House Bridge stands as one of hundreds of bridges built after the flood, with its familiar green, metal truss structure. Efforts to preserve it have remained a top priority for officials like Carlson for decades.

The temporary bridge and detour road around the existing truss bridge opened a year ago in June. Called the Mabey Bridge, it is 266-ft. (81 m) long, the biggest single-span, temporary bridge built in Vermont, just long enough to cross the 250-ft.-wide Winooski.

The temporary bridge will lead to permanence, or at least stability for three-quarters of a century.

“The new bridge is designed for a 75-year design. This can be achieved if the bridge is maintained over its life,” said Carlson.

“The Design-Build team has done a tremendous job designing and constructing this project. I am looking forward to seeing the bridge completed. The contractor is going to begin the actual widening of this structure soon and this task will be the milestone for the project,” she added. “Replacing decks and floor systems are not unique, but widening and adding to the existing portals and upper sway bracing is a monumental task.”

Carlson added that designing the rehabilitation of any historic structure is demanding of “our engineering background, but when it is all designed and built, it is rewarding to think that you are part of history in the making.”

It amazes Carlson to think that Vermonters built historic bridges without any of the heavy iron power equipment or tools of today.

“From the Brooklyn Bridge to our 350-feet thru truss, engineering construction of a hundred years ago is truly unique and fascinating. I am very proud that I was given the opportunity to work on this project. This has been my project for more than 20 years and I am fortunate that I will be here to see it finished,” said Carlson. “It is important to save bridges that are historic so our children and grandchildren can see our transportation history.”

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