They’re blowing up the bridge

champlain-bridge-map.jpgSince 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.)

champlain-bridge-view-from-top.jpgEvery 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.

steel_condition.JPGPerhaps 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

Comments

  1. Tom Palesch says

    You sound as if you have wonderful memories of “your” bridge. I guarantee that if you watch it fall into the cold waters of the lake tomorrow, that is the way you will always remember it.

    St. Paul, MN had a beautiful high-span bridge crossing the Miss. River. It was wonderful to observe from any angle. It was a marvel! When it was time to come down, it was well covered by the “media.” Now, when by the River near that location that’s how I remember the High Bridge, two puffs of smoke and the center-span neatly dropping into history. A kool thing to see, but it never leaves your mind.

  2. Marie Luhr says

    Rich,

    Just read your (wonderful) blog. It sounds to me like you’re homesick and should think about moving back to Vermont, or is my thinking biased? Better check it out with Emma!

    I’m sure the destruction of the bridge was impressive–we ALMOST saw it — through 1000 mile visibility in the middle of the snow storm we’ve been waiting for. . . just not today.

    Mom

  3. Zach Woods says

    Hi Rich –

    As you can imagine, I’ve crossed that bridge many times myself!

    A couple of factoids / human interest tidbits:

    – the fort was used during both the French and Indian and Rev. War periods

    – the restaurant on the VT side (which I’ve always heard got most of it’s business from the NY side – particularly from folks visiting the fort) has been suffering badly from lack of business since the bridge was closed

    – the fort visitorship has dropped as a result of the bridge closing also

    – I watched the bridge drop online (my Mother called me to tell me I could watch it on Fox News . . .) and then stopped by “Man in the Maze” to find out that your topic for the day was about the exact bridge I just minutes before seen demolished.

    I hope they get a bridge in their sooner rather than later – I find ferries very expensive and rather tricky to schedule when you are traveling a long distance before you reach them.

    Zach

  4. Charlie Barney says

    Rich –

    I can tell you are well-intentioned, so I think you would probably remove the phrase “boring causeway bridge … up by Rouses Point …” in your essay, if you could.

    The bridge has a name (The Korean War Veterans’ Memorial Bridge) and it too, replaced an older bridge, before it became a hazard to life. I am certain many of our local citizens and passers-through have fond memories of that older bridge’s structure and function. I, as a youngster, found it facinating to watch the huge pieces of roadway separate and rise vertically to let a tall ship pass through and then, magically, reassemble. Economics, advances in structural engineering, and yes, aesthetics, make a causeway-type bridge appealing.

    The stoic Fort Montgomery, currently undergoing a renaissance,is now more visible from the present bridge. The new bridge has provided turnouts and parking for viewing at a point about 1/3 of the way across its span, (traveling from Vermont). The new, more pictoral historical plaques explain the view(s) and and history better than the rust-attracting older state markers.

    Glancing around further, without the interference of a bridge superstructure, you can gaze at the Adirondacks, Green Mountains, and even the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Despite recently losing its biggest employeer, the little Village of Rouses Point is still proud of its heritage and has spent a tremendous amount of effort and money to keep up its appearance and enhance lake usage.You can see both calm water and rippling waves as the lake quickly widens, beginning its role as America’s Sixth Great Lake.

    There now is room to walk or ride a bike on the new causeway, safely, and you can stop and gaze around.The lake narrows as it is assimilated by Canadian waters. Switch sides, and you can see the lake begin to widen near the still-functioning light house. Many fine books have been written about great events in our nation’s formative years and the horrible years of civil strife, that took place along the nearby waters. You also get a visual and viceral reminder taht we are no longer insular. New structures attached to the bridge house new technology to enhance our homeland’s security. Fort Montgomery still continues a centuries-long, and impossible to forget, role as an early guardian of America’s northern waterway border and means of passage into the major settlements of our land.

    With all due respect, we don’t need downstate hubris during these trying times.

    Charlie