February 20, 2010

Champlain Bridge destroyed on 80th anniversary

Champlain Bridge a landmark for 80 years


For 80 years, the Champlain Bridge served the people of the Champlain Valley during wars, depressions and prosperous times.

Locals were enamored of its unique architecture that could be seen for miles across the lake.

But in the end, the landmark bridge beloved of so many fell victim to delayed maintenance and deteriorated beyond the point of repair. It was destroyed Dec. 28, 2009, by controlled explosive charges, and a new bridge is slated to be built by summer 2011.

The Champlain Bridge was a rare engineering marvel, said Adirondack Architectural Heritage Executive Director Steven Engelhart.

"A lot of things don't hold up as one-of-a-kind, and the Champlain Bridge really did. It's a huge loss in terms of losing a nationally important piece of American engineering."

The Champlain Bridge opened Aug. 26, 1929, amid elaborate ceremonies that featured, among others, Franklin Delano Roosevelt — then governor of New York — and Vermont Gov. John Weeks.

The crowd that day was estimated at about 40,000 people, and the event included a 30-float parade, the 125-voice Green Mountain Chorus, 25 state troopers and 7,000 cars.

At 2,900 feet long and 32 feet wide, the concrete and steel continuous-truss structure was an ambitious project for its time.

The span was originally constructed for $870,000, with New York and Vermont sharing the cost.

According to the State Department of Transportation, it cost $188,000 to hire a demolition subcontractor from Idaho to destroy it with radio-controlled explosive charges.

The bridge had been closed since Oct. 16, 2009, when large cracks were discovered in its concrete pillars. Despite the DOT's assertion that the bridge could collapse at any time, the 800 pounds of plastic explosives used to blow it into the lake didn't budge the pillars.

A campaign by the now-defunct weekly Essex County-Port Henry News is what spurred New York and Vermont to build the massive toll bridge.

State Sen. Mortimer Ferris of Ticonderoga was chairman of the Lake Champlain Bridge Commission when the bridge opened. Ferris's daughter, Elizabeth, cut the ribbon.

Roosevelt and Weeks were driven onto the bridge for the dedication ceremony. The governors shook hands, and they and other dignitaries made speeches.

A metal plaque commemorating the event was affixed to the middle of the bridge. It was removed before the demolition and is in DOT possession, awaiting a permanent museum display somewhere.

The stock market crash of 1929 came just six weeks after the bridge opened. Many believe it would not have been built during the Great Depression.

Construction of the 14-span, 2,190-foot-long bridge began in 1928 and was finished 15 months later. Crown Point was one of five possible sites and won based on the bedrock lake bed. Engineers said bedrock would better support a large bridge.

The sole death during construction was George Vanderhoof, 25, of Port Henry, who was hit on the head by falling construction materials. A rumor that another worker fell into the concrete as it was being poured for the pillars and was entombed there was never confirmed.

The bi-state commission subsequently included the Rouses Point Bridge to Vermont, a drawbridge replaced by a modern span in 1987.

The Champlain Bridge Commission charged vehicles a toll to cross. When the new bridge was built at Rouses Point, tolls were taken off both bridges. The spans were turned over to New York and Vermont on Dec. 11, 1987, with New York responsible for maintenance.

The toll when the Champlain Bridge opened was $1 a car, but that was down to 50 cents by the time crossing was made free.

When the Champlain Bridge first opened, it put at least one local steam ferry, owned by Capt. Thomas Weatherwax, out of business.

Weatherwax had vowed he would run his ferry after the bridge opened even if it was just for "two bits" but his boat shut down only a couple of months later.

He had endured scorn from construction workers on the bridge, who threw rivets at him as the ferry passed underneath.

The bridge was listed on the National Historic Register at the time of its demise, and DOT officials had to execute a programmatic agreement with the federal government to justify taking it down.

It was in the process of being named a National Historic Landmark when it was closed, Engelhart said.

"If you look at it just from the point of view of a historic structure, there are fewer than 20 structures in the whole Adirondack region that meet the criteria of a National Historic Landmark. That's the highest federal designation. That includes Ticonderoga and Crown Point forts, (great) camps Santanoni and Sagamore. Those are the highest level of historic sites. This should have been one of them."

The bridge's architect, Charles M. Spofford, used innovative design techniques to build the span. One of them was to separate the steel truss from its traditional function as a railroad bridge.

The Champlain Bridge was almost parabolic in shape, continuous rather than segmented, and constructed with a navigational height that allowed large steamboats to pass underneath.

For his work, Spofford was awarded a gold medal in 1930 by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Following the opening of the Champlain Bridge, many continuous truss bridges were built, Engelhart said.

"Other engineers quickly saw this was a brilliant way of doing a crossing. It quickly got duplicated. It provided a model for other bridges across the country. It was efficient in its use of materials, ease of construction and getting to the needed height in the middle of bridge."

Many people living in the area feel sad about the loss of the bridge, Engelhart said.

"It's a big loss. Anytime a community lives with something for 80 years, you know how affectionate people become.

"It's almost like an old friend is gone."

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