Since 1929, when New York Governor Franklin D Roosevelt inaugurated it, the Champlain Bridge has been the preferred way to get across the southern portion of Lake Champlain — and tomorrow (Monday, December 27, 2009), they’re going to blow it up.
Lake Champlain runs about 140 miles north-south, dividing New York and Vermont. It’s the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the US (right after the five Great Lakes), and quite deep at up to 400 feet, but most people have never heard of it. I grew up on the shoreline of this lake and it’s not too much to say that it has been a defining element of my life. In addition to being recreation, scenery, and weather-maker for lakeside residents, Lake Champlain is a barrier between the Adirondack region of upstate New York and most of Vermont.
I remember as a child looking at the broad lake, which was three miles wide where we lived. To me it was an ocean, crossable only by a grand voyage in a ship. Beyond lay the uncharted land of New York, which I had rarely seen on foot. One day I heard there was a “bridge over Lake Champlain,” and for months I had dreams of a mythical bridge that somehow crossed miles of open water.
There are a few ways to cross the lake. There’s a boring causeway bridge over the shallower part of the lake up by Rouses Point NY, near the Canadian border. Several ferries cross the lake at various points, and a very short bridge crosses the extreme southern end where the lake peters out to a mere canal. But in the middle, where the the lake is wider, the Champlain Bridge has been the well-worn path for decades, joining the rural town of Chimney Point, VT with Crown Point, NY.
It was an amusing surprise when I first found it during a random exploration at age 18 with my VW. After all those years of knowing that there was a bridge over Lake Champlain, but not knowing where it was, I felt like I’d found a secret passage. The bridge was nothing like I expected. Rather than being long and flat, it was dramatically arched and crossed the lake at a narrow spot (1/2 mile). But that made it even more fun. I was happy to pay the $0.50 toll and for the first time, drive my little 1967 VW Bug over the lake to New York state. (The one-way toll was discontinued in 1987.)
Every time I’ve crossed the Champlain Bridge since, I’ve been struck by its uniqueness and beauty. It rises steeply up, hundreds of feet above the water, far higher than necessary since no tall ships can navigate this shallow part of the lake. For some, the sharp rise brings a touch of vertigo, which is exacerbated by the narrowness of the bridge. Just two 1930’s-era lanes cross the bridge, so that as you are carefully studying the painted lines, you are also intimately acquainted with fellow bridge travelers heading the other way.
From the top, the view is always spectacular, like riding to the top of a Ferris wheel. The lake tends to be calmer at this shallow channel, with gently rippling and brilliant blue water lined by pine trees and backdropped by the Adirondacks. When you land (heading west), you find yourself in the midst of the ruins of a historic Revolutionary-era fort at Crown Point and a pleasant little campground.
I have never crossed the bridge without wanting to stop and take in the view. Alas, that is impossible. The bridge has no pedestrian lane, no place to stop, and during the summer it is always busy. I once rode my bicycle over it on a summer day, and hoped to be able to pull off to the side, but there were too many cars. I had to pedal furiously to keep up with the traffic (speed limit 25 MPH) while throwing glances to each side in an attempt to memorize the view.
Perhaps that was actually a good thing. For the past several years, it has been obvious that the bridge was deteriorating. Maintenance was never able to keep up with the rusted steel and crumbling concrete. Towing the Airstream across the bridge (as we did at least twice a year), I couldn’t help but think of our 14,000 pounds flexing the elderly span, and filling every inch of the narrow lane between steel abutment and oncoming traffic. With a closer look at the bridge, I might have lost my interest in driving over it.
The bridge is a mess. Road salt, freezing/thawing lake ice, and generally tough weather conditions have destroyed the bridge’s structural elements to the point that it is practically unfixable. The state sent divers down in to the murky lake water to look at the piers and they came back with some disturbing video. After a bunch of public hearings and Vermont-style debate, the conclusion was to blow it up and start over. We’ll all be able to watch the kaboom live on the Internet tomorrow here, which beats the heck out of standing around in the cold to see it in person.
Eighty years since the bridge was completed, designs have changed. New York State has floated a few design concepts, none of which look quite as exciting as the old arched steel span, but I expect that at least they will feel and be safer as we tow the Airstream over them again in years to come. In summer 2010, when we return to Vermont, the new bridge will likely still be under construction, so we’ll use one of the ferries or the southern route instead. I will definitely look forward to the new bridge, even though the bridge that I remember so well as the one that first opened up my traveling ways will gone.
Bridge photos courtesy of NYSDOT