Canton officials, area residents celebrate reopening of Town Bridge
By John Fitts
CANTON – More than 100 people came out Dec. 12 to celebrate the reopening of Town Bridge, approximately two-and-a half-years after it was removed from its perch over the Farmington River for rehabilitation and reinforcement.
The National Register of Historic Places listed the bridge, a rare example of an in-service through truss bridge; it was constructed by Berlin Iron Bridge Co. in 1895. It replaced previous wooden bridges at the site as well as earlier bridges that crossed Collinsville a short distance downriver.
First Selectman Robert Bessel reviewed some of the modern history of the bridge rehabilitation – from the town’s application for a grant 12 years ago to the repaving of the bridge surface two weeks ago.
“We made it! Some of us who participated in this project - well all of us really - we thought it would never end. The bridge would keep itself from getting fixed one way or another. But we prevailed.”
He later added, “And here we are, ready to cut the ribbon and drive across this historic bridge with cars that represent some of the eras of traffic that have crossed this bridge. It has been my honor to help shepherd this bridge across the finish line. But I must thank the many, many people who made this day possible,” said Bessel, who said it was impossible to thank everyone but specifically noted Canton Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner; former town engineer, the late Robert “Ken” Wassal; former first selectmen Dick Barlow, Leslee Hill and Beth Kandrysawtz; retired town project administrator George Wallace; Russell Bush, vice president of project general contractor - Avon-based ROTHA; current town Project Administrator Glenn Cusano; Canton Public Works Director Robert Martin; and Brian Tarbel, engineer from Transystems, the town’s project consultant.
Canton deputy town Historian and Poet Laureate David K. Leff also spoke, sharing both the history and the emotional aspects of the bridge, noting, for example that it cost approximately $8,500 when built in 1895, when Canton had a population of approximately 2,500.
“What a beautiful December day to have Town Bridge back where it belongs so I say welcome back Town Bridge,” he said. “Here in Canton what is old is new again.”
He also said that the bridge was designed for horses and wagons but noted that commercial automobiles were being built even as it was erected and a decade later there would be at least four cars in Collinsville. The bridge, Leff said, is a survivor, that’s “weathered floods, ice storms, hurricanes, and about 120 years of traffic.”
“More than a span joining one bank of the Farmington River to another, it’s become a beloved community icon, a symbol of our resilience,” Leff said. “So, while Town Bridge left us for more months than we care to count, we never left the bridge, for it has a special place in the heart of Canton’s people, whether your great-great-grandfather watched it go up in 1895, or you moved into town yesterday. Town Bridge says ‘home’ to all of us. Why else would citizens gathered in a town meeting vote overwhelmingly to commit millions of dollars to a one-lane bridge?
Yes, the once innovative Town Bridge is now a delightfully old-fashioned structure. But I believe it serves one of the most important of contemporary functions. In an increasingly frenetic world, its narrow passage and high perch forces drivers, at least for a moment, to slow down and enjoy the river and hills through a graceful web of metal trusses. Few can cross at this spot without gratitude for where they are, and feel an urge to protect our fragile Earth.”
It was in 2010 when town electors voted 2,996 to 1,389 to accept a grant for the bridge and allow the town to fund 20% of the restoration cost.
In January 2015, town residents at an annual meeting reviewed options by the town’s consultant TranSystems, and most urged officials to endorse one that involved rehabilitating the bridge and increasing its capacity from 12.6 tons to 36 tons but keeping its historic one-lane function. The Board of Selectmen later endorsed that idea.
In the spring 2019, the bridge was removed from its perch via a crane operated process, after which its pieces were sent to Michelman Steel Enterprises in Bethlehem, Pa., for rehabilitation and, in some cases, additional reinforcement of some 300 pieces of steel. Initially the pieces were slated to be galvanized, but after some issues with that process the town opted to go with painting of the bridge, a change eventually accepted by the state Department of transportation.
When the pieces were returned to Canton earlier this year, ROTHA crews reassembled the bridge, which was then tented. Atlas Painting then applied coats of “Zombie Grey,” which town officials said, despite its modern name, is likely the historic color of the bridge.
On Oct. 6, crews from ROTHA Contracting Company Inc. with support from their subcontractor Bay Crane, used two cranes to carefully hoist the structure back on to its abutments on either side of the river. The operation took several hours as the crane operators moved the bridge, which with the addition of rigging and spreader beams, weighed in at 129,000 pounds.
Following its placement, crews worked on the decking and supporting stringers for the bridge, final assembly of some pieces, concrete approaches and, finally, paving.
Resident Greg Sims is one who has been there with his camera for each major step with the bridge. Sims has many memories of bridges in town, including seeing the main one in Collinsville float away in the Flood of 1955, when he lived in Church Street in Collinsville. After that event, the school bus driver still used the bridge to come into Collinsville and bring students back to elementary school at the building that currently houses the town’s library and community center, but apparently wanted to keep the load as light as possible when crossing the structure.
“Right after the ‘55 flood, the school bus would come over town bridge here come down and pick up (kids) on Bridge Street, Church Street, Dunne Avenue – all the students and kids that went to school - come up Torrington Avenue, come down to the bridge and stop. [The driver would then have] all the kids get off the bus and made us walk across the bridge to the other end. Then the bus would come across and we’d get back on the bus and continue to school and then reverse it in the afternoon.”
On Dec. 12, state Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw talked about the bridge’s symbolism, the character of those who kept with the project and the importance of the town’s history, noting, for example, how crucial the bridge became after the Flood of 1955.
“I want to echo the thank yous that Bob had for all the wonderful public servants that had the fortitude and the forethought to preserve this wonderful historic achievement for a wonderful town like Canton,” said Kavros DeGraw, comparing it to those who envisioned and planned great cathedrals, sometimes never seeing the results, much less imagining their rebuilding.
“This day represents that for your generation, for the generation beyond you and the generation beyond that, this bridge will always be here,” she said. “One of the things I love most about Canton is how much you love your history.”