By the time Susan Hammond came downstairs at 9 a.m. the rain was falling hard. Standing on the back deck with Sunday coffee in hand, she looked down the hill and through the trees to where the usually lazy Williams River powered over rocks, loud enough to compete with the din of Tropical Storm Irene's downpour.
Inside, Hammond pulled up a chair to her computer to check the water level at a gauge just downriver: 4 1/2 feet, nearly doubled from the night before, but well below flood stage. For peace of mind, though, Hammond reached for an umbrella and headed down the road to pay her hamlet's 141-year-old covered bridge a call.
Even by Vermont standards, Bartonsville's bridge was out of the ordinary, a 159-foot expanse of brown boards weathered to a distinguished gray, with rectangular windows revealing a thick skeleton of criss-cross latticework. Standing under umbrellas just beyond the bridge's portal, Hammond and her neighbors traded talk of the storm, before she headed back to the house.
Around 11, she checked the river gauge again: 8 feet. Flood stage. When she went down to check on the bridge, just a few feet separated its boards from the water. And the distance between the two was narrowing fast.
Now, the river had Hammond's full attention.
What did it have in store for her bridge? To drivers speeding by on Highway 103, the bridge might seem like a relic, quaint but outdated. But to Hammond, a seventh-generation Vermonter who'd returned after years living in New York and overseas, the bridge meant home. She'd passed summer afternoons swimming in its shadows, taken her first driving lesson through its portal.
The river, though, was anything but sentimental.
Just after noon, it topped 9 feet.
An hour later, 10.
At 3:30, the Williams roared past 15 feet, hurling trees and propane tanks at the bridge, ravaging the earth around its supports. The ancient trusses moaned, straining against the torrent.
Hammond called her older brother, Prentice, warning him the bridge might not make it.
Four minutes later, Prentice's phone rang again, the anxiety in his sister's voice turned to a wail.
"It's gone! It's gone!" Susan Hammond cried.
"I can't believe it's gone!"
Covered bridges are survivors. But in the midst of a historic deluge, Vermonters feared the old wooden spans might not make it.
On a hillside above West Arlington's postcard-perfect village green, Jim Henderson and two of his teenage sons got into the car and drove down to the banks of the Battenkill. They reached the river to find its wooden crossing — perhaps the state's most photographed covered bridge, leading to the white farmhouse that illustrator Norman Rockwell once called home — stretched across a foaming torrent. Henderson placed his hands around the red boards on the upstream side of the portal, "hugging it for strength," and felt the old bridge shudder.
In the hollow of the Green River, Joan Seymour stared out the window of her bed and breakfast at the fast rising waters. The village's bridge, built in 1870, and a dam just upstream made of interlocking timbers had drawn her to this house. Now, as the river lapped at her backyard, she and her neighbors watched with worry, wondering if there was a way to divert the flow and protect their local treasure.
The thought of venturing out in a storm to check on an old bridge might seem strange to folks in some places. But this is Vermont.
For a little state, Vermont maintains an outsized sense of identity. Tourists flock here every autumn for their fill of red-gold valleys and maple syrup. Vermont is picturesque old barns and white-steepled churches. It's Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Burton snowboards and Phish concerts.
But if you had to choose one symbol that sums up the state's essence, it might well be the covered bridge. Until Irene hit on Aug. 28, Vermont still had 101 of them.
That's not the most — much bigger Pennsylvania has that honor. But in Vermont, the covered bridge is an icon. Undoubtedly, that's partly because they're tourist magnets, pit stops of nostalgia and romance. But for many, they also embody the Vermontness that's hard to capture in a snapshot: a reverence for history and the rural landscape. A prized sense of community, where people slow down and watch out for their neighbors.
Covered bridges are testaments to durability and perseverance and a rejection of modern cookie-cutter blandness. In a state that's been embraced over the last few decades by transplants and drawn together by highways, the covered bridge has served as a portal back to long-ago values.
Then Irene came along and reminded Vermonters maybe those values aren't so old-fashioned after all.
Once upon a time, the hamlet Jeremiah Barton founded along the Williams River bustled with the activity from two paper mills. But they're long gone and today lower Bartonsville isn't so much a town as a clutch of houses, about 30 in all, strung along pavement that gives way to dirt. It doesn't have a post office or a store, a school or church. The one landmark that announced your arrival was the single-lane covered bridge with gently curved portals, one of Vermont's longest.
It was more, though, then just a structure.
The bridge was how you walked across the river to Marvie Campbell's pay-by-the-honor-system farmstand for Mason jars of peach jam and just-picked zucchini. It's where the tourist train once stopped every summer for pictures and where you'd frequently find Paul Petraska standing hip-high in weeds and poison ivy that grew up around the abutments, a self-appointed volunteer caretaker of the bridge's landscape. It provided shelter when neighbors gathered one night in 1983, lanterns lighting the lattice work, for a potluck supper to celebrate the bridge's reopening after it was closed for a year-long overhaul.
"It sounds corny and quaint, but it's true," Susan Hammond says. "For me, literally, it brought me home."
Still, Vermonters have only come to prize their covered bridges relatively recently. A century ago, the state had 500 of them. But a legendary 1927 flood claimed about 200. Neglect, the replacement of old roads and bridges with concrete highways capable of handling trucks, and even arson claimed many others.
"They were throwing bridges away like garbage for a long time, until the '60s or '70s, when people started to think they were valuable," says Jan Lewandoski of Greensboro Bend, Vt., who makes a living restoring and rebuilding historic wooden spans.
Now, towns cling to their remaining bridges. In the winter of 1999, when ice pulled one of the five covered spans in Tunbridge into the river, residents labored desperately to pull it to shore and save it. When they'd salvaged all they could, they set the rest afire to keep the wreckage from breaking up and taking out another covered bridge downstream.
People "were actually weeping when the bridge was moving and had to be destroyed," says Euclid Farnham, the town historian. So a year later, the town rebuilt it — good as old.
Thousands of people came out to see a team of oxen pull the bridge across the river and into place. When the roadwork was finished, a 102-year-old woman cut the ribbon while a band paraded through the portal.
At the Vermont Covered Bridge Museum — opened in 2003 inside a replica covered bridge in Bennington — visitors arrive from Tennessee, California, Japan.
"You have people who have seen every (covered) bridge still standing in the U.S., the ones that are standing in Europe, who collect all the postcards of them, who make this their summer vacation and they're traveling through two states and seeing all the bridges," says Jana Lillie, director of operations for the museum and the Bennington Center for the Arts, which it adjoins. "The bridge fans are diehard, true blue bridge fans. I equate it with Elvis fans, almost."
But it's not just tourists who embrace the bridges.
Ray Hitchcock moved back to Vermont after a career with Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources to care for his ailing parents. Soon after, wife Adrienne mentioned a meeting of the Vermont Covered Bridge Society at the local library. Caring for Ray's parents limited their time, but in between they took short jaunts in search of bridges — Ray on a Harley-Davidson, Adrienne on a Kawasaki. They built their own covered span across the creek below their house. Ray joined the society's network of bridge watchers, monitoring the health of the old wooden bridges in Bartonsville, Grafton and nearby towns.
Both of Hitchcock's parents died. Then, two years ago, Ray was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, which attacks the nerves of the brain and spinal cord. By then, the couple had reached more than 70 bridges — and decided to visit the rest in a van that could accommodate his motorized wheelchair. They won't stop until they've seen them all.
"I've learned I have a strong tie to my home state and a strong tie to people from bygone eras — and now I feel connected to them," Ray says.
"And I think you've learned about endurance, too," his wife says. "I think you have a lot in common with those bridges."
Irene arrived in Vermont already downgraded to a tropical storm. But it dumped so much rain so quickly on the already saturated mountainscape that the state's web of shallow streams and rivers was quickly overwhelmed.
The floods damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and wiped out segments of nearly 2,000 local roads. It cut off some Vermont towns from the surrounding countryside and left others severely damaged.
In the scheme of things, some might question the idea of mourning an old wooden bridge. Indeed, that's exactly what happened when Susan Hammond posted a video on YouTube of the Bartonsville bridge being sucked into the Williams River; more than a few people chastised her for being emotional and told her to just get over it.
Bartonsville was one of two Vermont covered bridges destroyed by the storm. But 13 others or their abutments were damaged. The Bowers Bridge in Brownsville, built in 1919, was swept away, but washed up nearly intact on the river bank 150 yards downstream. The bridge on the Upper Cox Brook in Northfield Falls — one of three bridges within less than a half mile — was impaled by a tree, but the town reopened it to traffic less than a week later.
The future of others is less certain. When a tree struck the bridge in West Arlington, it left the downstream side of the span bowed outward and it remains closed. The Taftsville covered bridge, closed because of damage to its center stone pier, could reopen by the summer of 2013.
In Bartonsville, on a saw horse set across the road just shy of where it now plunges into the river, someone posted a cardboard sign: "I Miss My Bridge. 1870 - 8/28/11."
But almost immediately, the talk along the river was of how to bring it back.
Petraska and others began combing the banks, salvaging planks and beams. He and Ernie Palmiter — a retired Florida postal worker who bought a house at the foot of the Worrall Bridge just downstream after years of sketching and dreaming of covered bridges — threw chains around part of a portal and other timbers and lashed the other end to a tree to keep them from floating away. When the electricity came back on and the roads reopened, Ray Hitchcock was back out to check on the surviving spans, reporting the findings to fellow bridge lovers.
Hammond spoke up at a meeting of the Rockingham town selectboard, which has set up a link on its website to collection donations for rebuilding. Hammond drew up a survey of her fellow residents, making clear their desire for a single-lane, wooden covered bridge as near as possible to the one they'd lost.
A local artist, Charlie Hunter, offered to paint and print posters of the bridge to help raise funds. In the first 24 hours, he sold 20 at $99 each, even though the poster wasn't done yet. Jim Cobb offered the proceeds from sales of his photo of the bridge, shrouded in morning fog.
So far, the town has received about $10,000 in donations and the wooden structure was insured for $1 million. But the bill may run well beyond that. One of the abutments — not covered by insurance — was destroyed and could cost $200,000 to replace, said Tim Cullenen, municipal manager for the town of Rockingham, which includes Bartonsville.
Overhauling the bridge in the early 1980s cost roughly $1 million. This time, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will likely pay large parts of the cost of a new bridge, but the town will have to cover the gap. Cullenen says "one of the hard decisions that the town is going to have to make is what they're going to come back with" — an exact replica of the old bridge, or one with two lanes that can handle heavy loads like fire trucks. A bridge built for the modern age.
Hammond and the others reject that idea, saying they don't need a modernized bridge when the one they had was perfect. In fact, the way they talk about it, you almost wonder if the old bridge — now torn and twisted, its remnants scattered across fields and buried in underbrush — is truly gone.
A few weeks after Irene, Hammond stands under an umbrella, gazing out into the void over the river, before a sign warning "Bridge Closed."
"We're optimistic in Vermont," she half-jokes. "It's just closed. It'll be open again."
Neighbors Paul Hendrickson and Margaret Ambrose join her in the rain, explaining they needed to walk down every once in a while just to remind themselves of what used to be.
Hammond, wearing a tired smile, gently scolds them.
"It's still present tense here," she says. "You have to understand. There is no 'was'."