A Fortunate Escape For Somebody Or Everybody.
There was a surprise party in Brattleboro last Monday morning when it was announced that the Elm street bridge across Whetstone brook had gone down during the night. No one knew of the wreck at the time it occurred, but early risers on Canal street found the bridge in the brook and carried the news to the selectmen. Mr. Herrick was loth to believe it, "for," he said, "we considered that bridge as one of the strongest in town." As nearly as can be ascertained it must have fallen about eleven o'clock, and so far as known R.A. Houghton was the last man to cross it, being then on his way to care for Mr. Henry Fletcher for the night. Mr. Coolidge, the village night watchman, the watchman at Smith & Hunt's, and a few people living near by on Canal street, heard the noise, but they all thought it snow falling from some roof. It is evident that the bridge broke at the pier in the middle, and as it fell in the centre the two ends were dragged partly off the abutments. The bridge simply settled down, a mass of broken, splintered timbers, the demoralized roof covering it almost completely.
The bridge was 140 feet long, and though supported by a pier in the centre it was built as a single span, the chords being continuous from end to end. The selectmen are satisfied that the weak point was in the chord on the upper or west side of the bridge. One of the three timbers composing the chord had become rotten where it lay on the pier, and it was this which first gave way. The ends of the bridge were sound, except that the ends of the timbers toward Canal street had become a little decayed where they lay covered with earth, but not dangerously so.
The bridge was built in June, 1873, by Frederick Hawks of Greenfield, the well-known bridge-builder. He examined it last fall, when engaged here on the Little River bridge, and pronounced it sound and safe, adding that he thought it "about the best bridge he ever built." His examination was made just before the selectmen had the roof slated at the expense of $235. Of course the slate added to the weight of the bridge and there was some accumulation of snow on the roof, but not enough to reach the danger-point if the timbers had been sound. The marvel is that the structure fell of its own weight and not when a heavy team was crossing it. It is a cause for thanksgiving that its fall was not accompanied by some shocking disaster to human life. This makes two deliverances of this kind in Brattleboro within a year, the first one being when the bridge on the Brook road fell of its own weight last winter.
The selectmen put a force of men at work on the wreck at once, and its removal was substantially completed Wednesday night. More than half of the slate on the roof was saved, and the value of the iron, which is good for use again, is estimated at $100. The amount of travel through Elm street is large, and the selectmen will contract at once for an iron bridge to be erected. It will probably be of substantially the same pattern as that which crosses the brook between Elliot street and Esteyville.
The fate of the Elm-street bridge has naturally raised a question as to the safety of the West River bridge, which is also of wood and was built in 1861 or 1862. The selectmen state that they had that bridge examined by Mr. Hawks last year, and he pronounced it sound and safe, as he did the Elm street one, but recommended that arches, or trusses, but put in within a year or two, such as have been added to the Hinsdale toll bridge. The cost of these arches would be $700. Since Monday the selectmen have had the snow removed from the roof of the West River bridge, and their present plan is to order spruce lumber for the arch at once with a view to having them put in as early next spring as possible. The irons taken from the Elm-street wreck will be good for use there, and will reduce the cost of the arches to $500 or $600. An unusual amount of heavy teaming is being done across the West River bridge this winter by the Asylum, by F. M. Waite and others.
Vermont Phoenix, February 10, 1888.
Frederick Hawks (1817-1899), the architect of the Elm Street bridge, learned his trade from Major Ora Sheldon of Cheapside. In late July 1873, he elevated the west end of the old bridge that was so dilapidated by six feet and graded the approaching streets so that wagons could pass more easily, reducing the knoll and laying a cobblestone drain down from Canal Street, all almost in time not to impede traffic to the horsetrotting at the old fair grounds in October.
The insert above is a detail from the 1876 lithograph of Brattleboro by H.H. Bailey and J.C. Hazen, printed by J. Knauber & Co. This shows the Timothy Vinton paper mill canal, and on the north side of the Whetstone, the carriage manufactory of Joseph T. Hildreth & Co.
The last man to cross the old covered bridge in February 1888 was Rufus A. Houghton, a laborer who lived on High Street. The night watch and policeman was Hardin(g) Omera Coolidge, newly married to Nellie, a young widow. Also named here are Seth N. Herrick and Fred M. Waite, and the Brook road, now Williams Street. The wrecked bridge is described as "demoralized," a term often used to describe the damaged carriages and buggies that followed runaway horses.
The old Vinton Canal, west of Elm Street bridge. All the saplings bordering the canal are the same size in this photograph as they are depicted in the 1876 lithograph shown above.