by Kathe Molloy for Upper Valley Magazine

Corbin Covered Bridge  Photo: Kathe Molloy

Corbin Covered Bridge Photo: Kathe Molloy

In the early morning hours of May 25, 1993, someone crept onto an isolated covered bridge in North Newport, New Hampshire. Spilling a trail of contempt and gasoline, this
intruder lurked in the shadows while striking the flame that would-though only for a season-demoralizing an entire community.

Despite heroic efforts by firemen, the romantic old covered bridge gave up the ghost. Built around 1835 and used continuously since then, the Corbin Covered Bridge was a cherished local landmark. As the sun rose on the dismal scene of its destruction, townspeople huddled in little knots on both sides of the river and cried. When a busload of exuberant, Spring-wound schoolchildren rounded the corner, dead silence struck
the bus with the force of a grand old bridge collapsing into theriver.

While the acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air, the battle to save the bridge began. Greater than the battle to save it from flames, this was to save it from oblivion. Gathering forces, townspeople funneled anger into action. Rewards offered for the capture of the perpetrator quickly totaled over seven thousand dollars. Within twenty-four hours, petitions signed by four hundred citizens were presented to selectmen in an emergency
town meeting.

In the first few days after the fire, it appeared that there was nearly unanimous support for rebuilding the bridge as it was. As emotions cooled, however, bureaucracy took over. The highway department requested a temporary bridge. Citizens felt a temporary bridge would bring complacency, and damage the abutments. If the abutments were damaged and a covered bridge not built, the Corbin Bridge would lose its place on the National Register of Historic Places. They also pointed out that some towns have had temporary bridges for twenty-five years.

The bridge was insured for replacement costs, but the town would have to pay additional expenses if a bridge were built that could handle emergency vehicles. The insurance award was $375,000. A new bridge would cost $425,000.

A group of citizens formed the Bridge Advisory Committee, hoping to work with town officials to rebuild the bridge, and asked for a commitment from the town to build another covered bridge. Selectmen didn’t want to commit. Let the state do it, just don’t spend any money, some said. Steel and concrete will be fine. But, townspeople wanted to know, will little children in the back seat shout “Beep the horn, beep the horn!” when they ride over steel and concrete?

Town officials wanted the state to come in on an eighty/twenty cost-sharing plan. For a single-lane, twenty-ton
capacity covered bridge, the state’s estimate was 1.1 to 1.2 million dollars. The state offered a four-year time frame, and would accept bids from builders who had no previous bridge building experience.

The selectmen wavered, but the Planning Board voted to support the construction of a one-lane covered bridge able to handle emergency vehicles. The bridge would be replaced.

The battle began anew. Town officials held out for state involvement. Opponents campaigned fiercely. At a selectmen’s meeting, a petition with sixty-three signatures called for a special meeting to let voters decide. They overwhelmingly decided to replicate the covered bridge as a one-lane, twenty-ton capacity bridge, keeping local control but with an option to accept state funds if needed. The Bridge Committee, now joined with
the Newport Historical Society, called it a compromise.

The battle continued. Town officials then chose a “design-bid-build” process, which means that they would hire an engineer to design the new bridge and then invite builders to bid on it.

The Bridge Committee favored the “design-build” process, which awards one contract, either to the engineer or the builder, who then subcontracts the other work. Design-build is generally faster and less expensive, although exact costs are not known ahead. The Department of Transportation will not fund design-build projects, and told town officials that design-bid-build was the only acceptable method. The people said, “That doesn’t sound like local control.”

Stubborn Yankees hell bent on getting their bridge back would not surrender to the bureaucracy. With the words of a DOT representative, “Take the king’s shilling and do the king’s bidding,” ringing in their ears, they united in an unyielding front with a six to three vote recommending the selectmen use the design-build process. The Historical Society, the Bridge Committee, and the people pledged to raise the fifty thousand dollars needed to fill the gap between the insurance award and actual costs.

With hearts full of victory and indomitable spirits, the people of Newport called upon the Wizard of Bridges-Arnold Graton, forty miles away in Ashland. Graton’s reputation as a bridge builder is unsurpassed in the United States. Graton said he would build a replica of the Corbin Bridge and have it in place by October, and, he’d do it for $425,000.

“He is a truly ethical Yankee businessman,” said Town Manager Dan O’Neill, who over the months saw the light and came to believe in the bridge. “If Arnold says he’s going to do it and shakes hands on it, it’s done,” O’Neill said.

Graton’s company, started by his father Milton, has an impressive track, or bridge-record. They have constructed ten covered bridges, done repairs on twenty-nine more, and they also build and repair stone bridges and barns. The fifty-seven year old bridgewright with the Mr. Rogers smile always welcomed the volunteer workers, many of whom came nearly every day to be a part of history

While Graton and his crew went to work turning Oregon Douglas Fir timber into a nineteenth-century covered bridge, often with nineteenth-century tools, the town girded its loins to raise the money needed. By this time nearly everyone was a believer. The sale of Tshirts, mugs, commemorative coins, fourteen karat gold covered bridge charms, covered bridge postage stamps, a children’s book about the bridge, and the sale of wooden treenails (pronounced trunnells) that would hold the bridge together all contributed to the fund.

On Friday, October 14, 1994, eighteen months after the bridge burned, teams of oxen began turning a capstan winch to draw the new bridge into position over the river. Moving a millimeter for each turn of the winch, the eighty-ton bridge slowly glided on oak and beechwood rollers on top of wooden cribbing.

Nearby, Parlin Field, graced by three days of smiling weather, brimmed with the sights and sounds of nineteenth-century New England. Thirty-five peddlers hawked the wares and fares of another era, while musicians garbed in period costumes filled the air with music and song. Spinners and weavers plied their yarns and their wares, demonstrating the alive and well art of homespun.

Victuals for the three-day celebration included Uncle Buck’s venison, buffaloburgers, and barbequed chicken, along with pies topped with latticework crusts, a delicious reflection of the reason for it all. From Friday to Sunday, nine thousand good folk strolled the field and kept watch.

Sunday afternoon, with the sun slanting through the eighteen-foot high sides of the latticework leviathan, the bridge claimed its rightful place. “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything,” the Yankee saying goes. The people of Newport took a stand, held their ground, and made believers out of all who came to watch as their bridge rose from the ashes-like the Phoenix, more glorious than before.