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Crews Replace Vermont’s Historic Floating Bridge

Construction crews dismantled the old wooden bridge this spring after the state closed it to traffic six years ago over safety concerns.

Mon July 28, 2014 - Northeast Edition
Beth Garbitelli - ASSOCIATED PRESS

BROOKFIELD, Vt. (AP) Vermont’s historic floating bridge has been torn down, and state officials promise that a better structure that retains the aesthetic of the old span will be carrying vehicles and pedestrians over Sunset Lake in Brookfield by next summer.

Construction crews dismantled the old wooden bridge this spring after the state closed it to traffic six years ago over safety concerns. The state is spending $2.4 million on the replacement, and officials hope to have it ready for use by Memorial Day.

The old bridge was the town’s crown jewel, not only drawing tourists aiming to see a testament to Vermonter ingenuity but also serving as a gathering spot for residents to swim, fish and stroll.

“It’s very important to the legacy of the town because it connects the old with the present,’’ said Jackie Wilder, curator of the Brookfield Historical Society.

The bridge was 318 ft. long and 20 ft. wide, with a 12-ft.-wide travel lane and two elevated sidewalks. It was built to hover just above the water, supported by nearly 400 50-gal. barrels. When a car or truck drove over, the bridge would dip a bit, and water would swell up in the tracks, giving the wheels a bath.

“I’d never seen anything like it,’’ said Sandra Schmitt, an engineer of the Vermont Agency of Transportation who is working on the replacement project. The Brookfield resident said she first saw the bridge in 1994.

It may have been the only wooden floating bridge in the United States, said Jennifer Fitch, project manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Residents built the first incarnation of the bridge from logs lashed together across the icy lake in 1820, according to the Brookfield Historical Society. Once the ice melted, the floating bridge was born.

The most recent version of the bridge was built in 1936 and reconstructed in 1978. The one under construction will be the eighth version.

The bridge’s flotation system had begun to fail, causing it to partially submerge. The state deemed the bridge unsafe and closed it to traffic in 2008.

The new bridge will be supported by more durable fiber-reinforced polymer pontoons instead of barrels. The sidewalks will be about a foot wider with higher side rails and additional ramps. The bridge will maintain its historic style but will be easier to repair. It will have a 100-year lifespan.

The price of making the structure safe is a summer without the floating bridge.

Nancy McCall of Washington, D.C., has a summer home in Brookfield. She said some boaters enjoy being able to paddle the entire length of Sunset Lake. But other residents miss the bridge.

“There are those that really lament the fact that you can’t watch the kids jumping off the bridge doing cannonballs just as tourists are driving by with their windows open,’’ McCall said.

In the meantime, construction is providing its own distraction for some residents.

“It’s been fun to watch,’’ McCall said. “There’s a lot of action for a small village.’’

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