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Commission renews efforts to reopen Burkeville Covered Bridge to traffic

Recorder/Paul Franz
Burkeville Covered Brigde in Conway.

Recorder/Paul Franz Burkeville Covered Brigde in Conway. Purchase photo reprints »

CONWAY — The Conway Historical Commission is renewing its efforts to reopen the Burkeville Covered Bridge to vehicular traffic, and the Board of Selectmen is throwing its support behind the commission.

On Oct. 3, the seven-member commission sent a letter to the board requesting its support to reopen the bridge. The board has unanimously agreed, according to Town Administrative Aide Tom Spiro.

The 1871 bridge connects Route 116 to Orchard Street and Main Poland Road across the South River. It is only one of three original covered bridges remaining in Massachusetts and one of 10 similar bridges remaining in the United States. Due to structural deficiencies, the bridge was closed in 1985. For the next 20 years, the townspeople worked to restore or rebuild the covered bridge with the help of the state and federal funding amounting to $1.09 million.

In the fall of 2003, the $1 million repair job began. In 2006, the bridge was reopened, but only to pedestrian traffic and emergency vehicles despite being posted for eight tons and meeting the standards for 15-ton bridges.

Over the years, the Historical Commission has lobbied to get the bridge open to vehicular traffic so it can once again carry vehicles across the South River and serve as a “living history” — a desire expressed by town residents at the annual town meeting in April 2006.

Residents directed the commission “to pursue opening the Burkeville Covered Bridge to regular passenger-vehicle traffic.”

Sarah Williams, chair of the Historical Commission, said the commission has never given up efforts to fulfill the wish of Conway residents.

“We are trying to do our job,” Williams said. “The Conway Historical Commission put in 20 years of effort to get that bridge renovated. We haven’t ever dropped it. We were courteous to the selectmen in 2010 when they asked us to wait.”

The historic bridge not only has value in offering another route across the South River, but it brings in tourism.

“We have a unique covered bridge here,” Williams said. “There is an undoubted tourism value. People are always trying to pull off Route 116 to look at it. I am positive people would like to drive on it for tourism.”

In the past, the commission has been at odds with the state Highway Department.

In 2006, the then-state highway commissioner, Luisa Paiwonski, said the bridge would remain closed after renovations because it lacked steel, crash-tested guardrails and it could not safely handle vehicles.

In a letter dated July 5, 2006, from Paiwonski to the commission, she states the decision of the state to ban vehicle traffic is the “judgment of our structural engineers and historic preservation specialists that allowing the daily crossing by vehicles would constitute a preventable threat to public safety and to the structure itself.”

She also reasoned that vehicles would bring salt onto the wood structure during the winter time, causing damage.

Williams said if the effects of salt remain a concern, the commission will agree to keep the bridge closed to vehicles in winter.

The backing of the selectmen is a reversal from previous years.

In the most recent letter to the board, the Historical Commission sees the restrictions on the bridge as driven by the desire of state highway officials to “preserve the few remaining Massachusetts covered bridges by ceasing to use them for their intended, designed, and expensively renovated ... purpose.”

This time around, the Historical Commission hopes it will different. In 2011, Paiwonski was replaced by Frank DePaola.

“We, and evidently most in Conway, disagree with the state’s approach to the preservation of the Burkeville Covered Bridge. We hope that you feel the same way, and might now consider reversing the contrary impression conveyed to the state in 2006 by your predecessors on the board,” writes the Historical Commission.

With the support of the selectmen, the Historical Commission will decide at its November meeting what its next steps will be.

Kathleen McKiernan can be reached at:
kmckiernan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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