Presidential Elections and Historic Bridge Preservation Part II: New Hampshire’s Historic Bridges

Memorial Bridge at Portsmouth. A 1923 vertical lift through truss bridge that was demolished in February 2012. Photo taken by Craig Hanchey

 

This is the first of two parts dealing with the US Presidential Elections, Historic Bridge Preservation and in this case, New Hampshire.

One of the original 13 colonies of the United States, New Hampshire, the fifth smallest state with its mountainous features and historic small towns, is one of many states in the Union that has multiple covered bridges and prides itself with having one of the highest density of these bridge types in the country, with over 45 located in the state. It also has one of the highest density of stone and concrete arch bridges, with over 30 of them located in the state. And lastly up to now, it has a fair number of pre-1950s truss bridges. Sadly though, it appears that the state is following suit of many in the country in trying to eradicate “structurally deficient” bridges, making way for modern structures, whose aesthetic appeal is not to the liking of many residents growing up with the structures. The best example is the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, a vertical lift bridge with one of the most ornamental portal bracings a person can see in New England. The lift bridge and all of the Parker through truss spans, built as a memorial for the war veterans, was torn down to make way for another vertical bridge, trying to copy the feature of its predecessor, but to many residents, the design is too modern and too bland. Other bridges have been targeted for either replacement or removal, like the Depot Street Bridge in Boscawen or the Lilac Bridge in Hooksett.  According to James Garvin, a historian who has worked with the subject of historic bridges in the state for over 25 years, two thirds of the historic bridges in the state have been replaced since 1984, half of the metal truss bridges have been lost since 1987 with the trend that the state seems to be more concerned with protecting the covered bridges than other bridge types.  While some of these bridges have been preserved for pedestrian use, more is needed to preserve what is left of the state’s bridges. Yet, according to two people, it seems to be not happening.

Depot Street Bridge in Boscawen. Photo taken by Sheldon Perkins, used with permission

The Chronicles invited two people who are associated with the state’s historic bridges to put their two cents worth into the subject in hopes that the issue of decreasing historic bridges in the state is brought to the attention of the readers: Representative Steve Lindsey and historian James Garvin, the latter will be featured in part II which follows.  Mr. Lindsey has been advocating for the preserving New Hampshire’s remaining historic bridges- the other, more neglected bridge types- for many years and recorded his disdain towards the state’s preservation policies to a point where he even recommended tourists to visit neighboring Vermont if they want to visit historic bridges on one of the bridge websites. Unlike the majority of politicians who either are indifferent towards historic bridge preservation or would rather favor modern but tasteless structures to support an increasing amount of traffic, Mr. Lindsey is one of a few who are bucking the trend and is looking for answers to stop the progress, both on the state level but also to a certain degree, on the national level. Here is the interview with the state representative:

1. How would you rate the infrastructure in your state of New Hampshire in comparison to the rest of the US?  And with regard to bridges in general?

Poor and poor.  Lacking a broad-based tax and a hesitancy to tax overall, New Hampshire has a girdled revenue stream problem.  We have an aging roads system that was always behind the rest of the nation in modernity. The exception being the politically power Merrimack River Valley which receives a disproportionate share of state and federal infrastructure moneys.  The same goes for our bridges  We have a large percentage of Red List bridges.

2. How would you rate the policies regarding historic bridge preservation in your state in general (1-10 scale; 1 being best)? What factors contributed to the way historic bridges are being treated as they are?

I would rate New Hampshire a “8” or “9”.  While we do not seem to overtly target the replacement of historic bridges as appears to me to be the case with PennDot, New Hampshire has no love of historic metal truss or other bridges.  Some appreciation of covered bridges extant is supported weakly by the state government, but even here most of our covered bridges are supported by towns.

This year alone, we’ve lost two historic steel trusses bridges. At this rate, all will be gone in 30 years and the struggle to save them over.  This would almost be a relief.

It is so bad I am considering writing a Swiftian essay “Let’s Get it Over” advocating the state systematically demolish all its historic truss bridges except the Connecticut River spans, and put up road signs pointing tourists in the direction of Vermont should they want to see some of our nation’s civil engineering heritage.

Early in my bridge preservation years (1990s), I went to the NHDOT headquarters in Concord to garner some information.  The commissioner whom I did not know came down to talk to me without identifying himself.  In a sense spying.  Such was the condescending attitude.

I also submitted an essay to the NHDOT newsletter and they wouldn’t run it. I was told later by the PR man, a fine fellow, that he had never seen anything before censored in the newsletter and was himself taken aback and sadden by this.

The public just doesn’t support the preservation of our civil engineering heritage like they do in Indiana and Ohio.  There is nothing to work with.  The state’s newspaper, the Union Leader, did give us some positive coverage, but most New Hampshirites are preoccupied with national and state politics as we have the nation’s first in the nation primary.

Newport, NH even celebrated the razing of a rare iron arch truss in the late 70s by erected a plaque next to the I-beam bridge honoring the selectman for standing up to Concord.

Which leads to to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” incident with candidate Romney.  This spring he gave a speech about the waste of federal monies on projects and choose Hillsboro’s Sawyers Crossing bridge which was restored as a pocket park but no longer carries traffic—at its south end a channel was cut for future flood relief and even foot traffic stops at the second arch, making it more like a pier. This image of Romney pointing to the bridge hit the national TV with Romney denouncing such projects.

New Hampshire is largely a libertarian-conservative state and there is a distrust of big government and federal expenditures.  There also is the traditional distrust of cultural educated elites, of which historic preservations are considered part of.

Our preservations groups are weak and separated.  The NH Div of Historic Resources counts itself lucky to even survive, and have survived by being quite and little noticed.  Remember that the New Hampshire legislature is dominated by the ascendent Tea Party which is steeped “in” property rights activists.

The NH Preservation Alliance, an advocacy group is likewise cowed, circulating its newsletter and email missives among a self-selected group of preservationists, rarely taking public stances, instead, relying on its supporters for funding and for back discrete projects.

The Alliance would not even show up for hearings on a bill I sponsored for creating a historic bridge storage depot system based on Vermont’s successful model.  It would not have cost anything, and even the NHDOT, while weary, considered it.  I never forgave the Alliance for its betrayal.

 

3. Can you present a couple examples to support your argument?

Yes.  This year, the state replaced the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, the state’s most highly rated historic bridge.  In a nod to our port city and its heritage, a slightly modernized replica is being constructed.  Even this replica was criticized by some for not being modern-looking enough.

While our state does not target historic bridges for removal, it has no preservation ethic either.  The Canterbury-Boscawen bridge was to be removed this summer as an attractive nuisance and liability.  It was abandoned and unused.  But there was no support by either town, and the state of course, while one of the nation’s richest, has no monies either.

Local newspapers have shown no support for saving our dwindling number of historic iron and steel truss bridges.  One, the Concord Monitor, actually editorializes against saving one near its printing plant.  This would be the Sewells Falls bridge.  Some detractors say the paper wants its tractor trailer trucks to have access to that rural/suburban road that are now limited by the bridge, one of the few surviving designed by NH’s engineer John Storrs.

 

4. Why would you recommend people visiting other states to see historic bridges (you mentioned Vermont as the best bet for people to see Hbs)?

No, with the exception of the Connecticut River Valley.  New Hampshire has been loath to spend money on bridges to Vermont, so a number have survived.  Now with a greater appreciation of said structures, they may continue as they make attractive gateways from the Green Mountain State, seducing monied tourists over the river.  We need more than cheap cigarettes and state liquor stores to keep quality visitors around.

 

5. In your opinion, do you think the US government is doing a great job in terms of improving infrastructure in general?

No. We’re doing a terrible job.  We seem preoccupied with our ongoing wars and maintain a non viable tax structure that favors the owning-class

 

6. What about historic bridge preservation in general?

With notable exceptions, we are doing a poor job of saving the best of our civil engineering heritage.  The public hasn’t been educated.  The engineers and architects are mute about the work of their forebears.  There seems to be little understanding of its importance with rare media forays like the documentary on the Roeblings and their bridges.  History and culture just are not embraced by the masses and our ruling classes are not providing good leadership here.

 

7. What would you like to see improved regarding the policies involving infrastructure, bridges and historic bridge preservation?

I would like to see the American nation cherish its heritage as the British and Commonwealth nations seem to do.  Instead we seem distracted by our day-to-day needs and wants.

 

 8. Who do you think will win the Presidential elections in November and why?

I’m not sure.  Neither candidate projects a strong, clear image.  Rather a murky situation arises, encouraged by the media which benefits greatly from the horse race mentality.

 

 

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