Fall 2008 - #2. Crossing the River.

Author:by Paul S. Gillies, Esq.

Vermont Bar Journal


Fall 2008 - #2.

Crossing the River

The Vermont Bar Journal #175, Volume 34, No. 3 FALL 2008


Crossing the Riverby Paul S. Gillies, Esq.A poem stretched across a river. David B. Steinman, "Brooklyn Bridge: Nightfall"(fn1) The poems are wearing out. The Route 2 bridge between Middlesex and Moretown was suddenly closed this summer, and quickly dismantled, having demonstrated a structural deficiency sufficient to judge the bridge unsafe.(fn2) The Town of Berlin is redoing the short plank bridge on Chase Brook Road as its abutments are wearing out. The estimate for the replacement is over $400,000.(fn3) The Granite Street bridge in Montpelier bounces and sways when cars are lined up on it and others are passing them. The State says it is "structurally deficient," but not unsafe, even as pieces of the undercarriage have fallen off into the river. Drivers pray while they are waiting for the light to turn while on the bridge.(fn4) Even the floating bridge at Brookfield is in trouble this year. It's not floating.(fn5)

This is the year of the bridge, or rather the year of the failing bridge. The bridges that were erected after the 1927 flood are reaching the end of their natural lives. Everywhere there are detours and temporary bridges and one-lane bridges, awaiting repairs or replacement. In the legislature, there is an annual wrestling match over how to fix or replace the hundreds of functionally obsolete, structurally deficient bridges that demand attention.

It is so easy to take bridges for granted.(fn6) We notice them only when they are closed. The annual Interstate bridge replacements make us merge around them, slowing us down, but not by much. Visitors stop and take pictures of the hundred or so remaining covered bridges, because they are picturesque remnants of the past, but sentiment is missing when it comes to the modern steel and concrete structures that make even the bridges erected following the 1927 flood seem beautiful. Those riveted iron bridges replaced the wooden, covered bridges of the nineteenth century, that were built near the places the first settlers forded the river. Since that time, we have been spoiled into expecting that we can cross any water without having to wait.(fn7)


Rivers were the first highways in Vermont. The first roads on dry land in Vermont ran along the banks of rivers. Where the stream bed widened, and the water was shallow, before the settlers got around to building bridges, people forded the river, crossing in dry times. Many towns grew up around fords.

Pittsford takes its name from the best crossing of the Otter Creek north of Rutland. Originally called Pitt's ford, this place was named for William Pitt, who was Prime Minister of England at the time. It was located on the Crown Point military road.(fn8) In high water, that passage was deemed impracticable. The state built the first bridge over the Otter Creek at Pittsford when the legislature appropriated the money for it in 1780.(fn9) The state accepted the responsibility and the expense, because the bridge encouraged settlement and economic development. It was not until 1797 that the first town bridge was built by the town of Pittsford.(fn10)

The Old Fort fordway at Royalton, used since at least 1776, was finally discontinued by the selectmen in 1849, to avoid any claim of liability for damages, but the selectmen reserved the right to reopen it at some future time if needed.(fn11) The fordway at West Hartford was the principal means of crossing the White River for those heading for Woodstock before 1820.(fn12) Charles Marsh, a leading Woodstock attorney, crossed another fordway to get to his office each morning the river would allow him access.(fn13)

When bridges went out, the former fordway remained an inviting alternative. But in 1854, Dr. Dana Hyde was drowned in a fordway in a branch of the West River in Jamaica, as he attempted to cross in order to attend to a child suffering from cholera. His administrator sued the town for damages. Dr. Hyde had to ford the river because the bridge just above that ford had fallen into the river from the weight of snow the previous winter, the timbers having washed away in the spring, and the town had not re-erected it in order to save on expenses. The courts gave the administrator no relief. The town was not liable for his death because the fordway was outside the public right-of-way, and evidence of any repair of the fordway by the town was lacking.(fn14)

Chief Judge Isaac Redfield vigorously dissented, stating that in his view if a bridge was closed, the town should take responsibility for injuries resulting from having to ford the stream. "Strangers or travelers are not obliged to consult the public records, or inquire into the history of building such highways, before they are entitled to use them."(fn15) He accused his brethren of having more respect for "decisions made elsewhere, than in our courts."(fn16) He also argued need:

Is it not true that my necessity, the urgency of my business, the health of my family, or a friend at a distance, may justify me, fairly and fully, in attempting to travel the highway, in a night so dark or so tempestuous, as under no such pressure or exigency, every man will pronounce the height of negligence and fool-hardy presumption?(fn17)

We have to get places, and we take chances.

As fordways usually predated the organization of a town, or even Vermont, their status as public highways was unclear, at least until the town improved them, and triggered the first examples of highway takings by dedication and acceptance. But fords were fickle. Heavy rain changed people's plans.

A bridge was the answer.

The First Bridges

The first bridge over the Connecticut was built by Enoch Hale and completed in 1785. It was not covered. It ran from Walpole, New Hampshire, to Bellows Falls.(fn18) Neither Vermont nor Rockingham had much to say about it. The New Hampshire legislature gave Hale the right to build it in 1783, and to cover his costs through set tolls.(fn19) It was regarded as an architectural miracle, and people came from many miles to wonder at it.(fn20) This was the first bridge in America to use more than one set of stringers.(fn21) It lasted until 1840.(fn22)

Hale lost ownership of the bridge when he sent his son to Boston to pay the mortgage. Stopping at Lowell, the messenger ran into his estranged wife. They talked out their problems, reconciled, but then he forgot about the mission and missed the deadline by a day. The mortgagee took the bridge The early laws of foreclosure lacked any redemption or mercy.(fn23)

At Newbury, before there were bridges over the Connecticut, there was a ferry.(fn24) When the first bridge at Wells River was built in 1805, Er Chamberlain, the ferryman, was allocated part of the tolls to compensate him for his losses. The bridge was carried away by a flood in 1807, and again in 1812. Chamberlain brought his ferry back into operation at that time, until a new bridge was constructed in 1820. Originally an open bridge, it was later given a roof. That bridge was swept away in the freshet of 1850. Another bridge was built, but soon after the railroad took it over, and the town erected another new bridge. The railroad ran its tracks along the roof of the 1850 bridge.(fn25)

The second bridge built in Fairfax, on Brown's River, was constructed in 1795. The builders found a large hemlock tree standing on the riverbank at a suitable place, cut it down so that it fell right where they wanted it, drew another log across the river parallel to the first, and then laid hewn logs as cross-pieces.(fn26)

The first bridges across the Winooski at Montpelier used trestles placed in the middle of the river, which naturally were lost in the flooding that occurred along the river at regular intervals. In 1826, Sylvanus Baldwin constructed the Arch Bridge, likely the first of its kind in Vermont, crossing the river a length of one hundred feet from bank to bank in a single arched span made of stone.(fn27) The public was suspicious that the design would not work. Those attending the official ceremony, where the temporary latticework supporting the new bridge was to be removed, were surprised to find the "falsework" gone when they arrived. Baldwin could not wait, and was not going to be embarrassed if the bridge fell in front of an assembly of people, so he cleared out the understructure early in the day.(fn28) The Arch Bridge lasted until 1897, when a new iron bridge replaced it.(fn29)

The town of Fletcher was lucky. There were no major streams within its boundaries, and at the end of the nineteenth century its historian crowed, "There has never been a covered bridge in town."(fn30) Bridges are expensive to build, maintain, and replace. Who would blame Fletcher for feeling relief from that burden?

Who Will Pay to Build the Bridge?

From the beginning, a bridge within one town's borders was the responsibility of that town. This was the same rule as highways. There were anomalies, such as the bridge at Pittsford, paid for by the state, but most bridges were paid for by the towns or private companies.

The state authorized a lottery to raise funds to build bridges over the Black River and Williams River in 1783, enfranchising three men to serve as managers, provided they performed the duty of raising money and building the bridges "in no wise at the risque of this State."(fn31) Bridge legislation and construction accelerated...

To continue reading