Friday, February 17, 2017

Then and now - Babb's Covered Bridge: A history and future by Walter Lunt

This is the second installment of a series on the history and the unique heritage of Windham, then and now

New England embraces a romantic fascination with its covered bridges. Once numbering in the hundreds, they were in the 19th century, a practical means of conveyance. By the early 20th century, suburbanization and practicality dictated that many be replaced by concrete and steel.

In the 1850s, more than 150 covered bridges dotted the Maine countryside. Today, only nine remain – two that had been destroyed, were replaced by exact replicas. The Windham/Gorham structure over the Presumpscot River was one of them. Historians disagree on the age of the bridge, as is evident in the historical photo/essay book series: “Images of America”. In “Windham: Images of American”, (Bell) states the original bridge was built in 1767. The “Images” series, “Gorham” (Fogg) records that the first construction occurred in 1763. And the “Images, Maine’s Covered Bridges”, (Conwill) maintains the bridge dates to 1864.

Almost certainly, there was a wooden span of some kind connecting the two towns during their early development in the mid to late 1700s. The disparity may lie in whether the bridge was closed-in or open. Earlier, open bridges may have been replaced with closed structures. Both types were common. A few, known as boxed pony trussed, had sides, but no canopy.

As noted by Conwill, “The historical record is never complete…most bridges disappeared early and their history is spottily recorded.” Windham’s early historians, Smith and Dole, are silent on the subject. Old town reports in both Windham and Gorham offer few clues, referring to expenditures like: “For work on the bridge.”

THEN: Babb's Covered Bridge, c. 1948
Babb’s Bridge can be awarded special mention however, for several distinguishing characteristics. Most historians agree it is the oldest of Maine’s covered bridges, and the shortest - with a span of just 66 feet. It is also the only queen-post truss covered bridge in the state. Truss systems are framing styles, usually adapted to the requirements of span and usage.

One question frequently posed by visitors and schoolchildren is, “Why were these bridges covered?” Some speculate it was to provide shade and protection from the weather for the weary traveler. Others maintain it was to keep snow clear of the bridge. Neither is correct. In fact, early town reports record expenditures to: “snow the bridge”.  That is, they hired an individual who would shovel snow onto the bridge for the accommodation of sleighs - the principal form of transportation “back in the day.” Early bridges were, in fact, roofed to prevent the decay of their wood construction.

Even covered, dangers persisted. The most common were wind, waves and wildfire. In 1767, what was then termed a hurricane, but more likely was a microburst or a tornado given the early descriptions, destroyed  “…all but the sturdy oaks”,  in ¾ mile wide swath from Gorham, over Duck Pond (Highland Lake) to Falmouth, and sending  almost the whole bridge downstream. Rebuilt, it became known as Hurricane Bridge. Floods upended the bridge on several occasions during the 1800s. It took the name Babb’s Bridge around 1880 after a Gorham family who lived nearby.
NOW: Babb's Covered Bridge, c 2016
In modern times, and still within vivid memory of many, Babb’s Bridge burned at the hands of arsonists in 1973. Residents and members of the Windham and Gorham Historical Societies teamed with the Maine Department of Transportation to engineer and build an exact replica, which was dedicated in conjunction with the nation’s bicentennial in July of 1976.

Today, the most recent threat to the historic bridge occurred over a two-year period in 2015 -2016. Vandals, intent on high-jumping off the structure into the water, removed side boards and cut holes through the roof. The bridge’s secluded location hindered adequate security.

In the early fall of 2016, following concerns expressed by local residents, the Maine DOT commissioned a nearly total make-over of the bridge at a cost of over $160,000 - once again, respecting its original design. State highway officials now say, that while they will continue to maintain the bridge, lack of manpower and funds make them reluctant to respond to fixes that result from vandalism.

Windham resident Gary Plummer has begun assembling local citizens and state legislators to form a, Friends of Babb’s Bridge Group, which will be aimed at providing increased security and heightened awareness.

“Babb’s Bridge is now in great condition,” says Plummer. He closely monitored the recent work and said it included cementing stone blocks that make up the bridge abutment. Water had collected in pockets between the stones and the freeze-thaw cycle had caused the blocks to move. 

The roof was stripped and replaced with rough cut boards and plywood, then topped with cedar shingles. Restoration was also completed on the sides and entrances.

Plummer hopes the Friends Group will increase awareness and appreciation of the historic nature of the bridge and encourage wary eyes on the activity there. He said police chiefs in both communities are committed to increased surveillance and,  “…we are also planning to install security cameras (which) have been shown to decrease problems.”

“My hope is that 150 years from now it will (continue) to be a stately structure.”  <

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