Whenever I have found myself standing next to a postcard rack I always looked for the Bartonsville covered bridge. I rarely found it, but I invariably walked away secretly satisfied. Vermont postcards and calendars focus on more famous and picturesque bridges, and that is just fine with me. It fits. She wasn’t one of the glamor girls, one of Vermont’s iconic bridges who show up in advertisements, town websites, tourist brochures. She had no pretensions. She was a working bridge, just serving the purpose for which she was made.
I had to laugh at the snarky comments posted on Susan Hammond’s video of the bridge being swept away. Ignoring their cruelty, I realized the writers had no clue what it meant to have something precious in their own community. I loved our bridge for three lessons she taught me: the legacy of our forebears, our heart’s need for beauty, and the value of faithful service.
In some ways the bridge was a work of art; the designer and builder are both known to us. The structural design was Ithiel Town’s lattice truss. Sanford Granger built this bridge with horsepower and ingenuity. I don’t know who paid for it but they got the job done without relying on some government agency to do it for them. It was strong and built out of natural resources with ordinary men, for Town designed his truss to be simple enough for local teams to build it out of local materials. Granger’s team of laborers and the townsmen who made the project possible left something important that outlasted themselves. I can imagine them standing on the broken abutment with hats off in a silent tribute. I feel connected to these men and their wives who settled in these valleys and labored to create a better world for the next generation. Their example encourages me to pass down the best of our national and Vermont history to my children so they are inspired to go and do the same.
Isn’t it a bit foreign to our way of thinking for our infrastructure to be something beautiful as well as strong? The Bartonsville bridge taught me something about beauty. We could easily solve the river crossing with a cement and steel bridge, like the one that replaced the stone arch bridge at the mouth of the Cold River after the Alstead flood, or that ugly thing that stands in place of the Arch Bridge in Bellows Falls. And if we had to leave it to voters, considering our heavy property tax burden, we would have to yield to common sense and slap such a bridge in our gap. But those of us who walk to and commute through the covered bridge can never look at function in the same way again. Function can be wed to beauty. She taught us that our hearts need it. She was just so beautiful! We loved her perfect geometry, the warm tones of weathered wood, the pretty views of the river framed by her diamond windows—why, she even smelled good, of the engine oil dripped onto floorboards. She taught our children about the play of light and shadow, of silhouettes and shafts of light. I have pictures of them scampering through the tunnel, black shapes of joy against the golden light at the end of the tunnel.
Besides what I learned from her about what man can accomplish, and that beauty matters, the third thing she taught us is that faithful service beats glamor any day. She wasn’t for show; she was for real. She got us over the river. Not only that but it was in a way that humanized us, for we often had to pause to let someone cross over first, followed by a lift of the hand to acknowledge our transaction of courtesy. Without occasionally looking a driver in the eye we—and they—are just boxes of glass and steel on wheels. These gentle engagements with my neighbors connected us.
My heart pangs to see her picture now that she is gone. Just by coincidence, the Vermont covered bridge calendar this year features her in June. How cool is that? From now on I will look over those postcard racks for her picture to see an old friend who has taught me so much.