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New life for Schell Bridge?

Recorder file photo
The proposed recreational river crossing to replace the Schell Memorial Bridge in Northfield would be designed as an homage to the 515-foot steel cantilever truss bridge donated to the town by wealthy summer resident Francis Schell in 1904.

Recorder file photo The proposed recreational river crossing to replace the Schell Memorial Bridge in Northfield would be designed as an homage to the 515-foot steel cantilever truss bridge donated to the town by wealthy summer resident Francis Schell in 1904.

NORTHFIELD — The Schell Memorial Bridge could be replaced with a new bike and pedestrian bridge, at no cost to the town, if the project gets the green light from the Selectboard and state.

From 1904 to 1985, the bridge connected East and West Northfield, giving motorists a second way to cross the Connecticut River. In 1987, the town voted to approve the closed bridge for demolition, and it has been on the state’s list ever since.

The Friends of Schell Bridge was formed in 2004 to prevent the demolition of the piece of Northfield history. Though the group has worked to save the structure, members are in favor of replacing the bridge, according to Sue Ross, co-chair of the group’s board of directors.

Now, the state Department of Transportation is working on a five-year plan to use the latest round of federal funding, and the Schell could make the short list.

“It’s kind of stunning, to finally have something happening after such a long time,” said Ross. She said she’s spoken to everyone else on the board, and they’re in support of the proposal too.

If the project, pitched by Al Stegemann, District 2 director for the DOT, is approved, it would be eligible for federal funding, costing the town nothing at all.

Unmaintained for decades, if the bridge were to be restored, much of the original structure would need to be replaced anyway.

Ross feels a plan for replacement will have better chances of state approval than a costly rehabilitation plan.

A Monday letter to the Selectboard from state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg said that the state would try to use pieces from the old bridge in the new construction, or use them as features in a park near the new bridge.

Oddly enough, the new bridge would be based on another footbridge that was based on the Schell.

At the suggestion of the Friends of Schell Bridge, Stegemann’s office reviewed the North Bridge, on the Cheshire Rail Trail in Keene, N.H., which opened last September. It provides bicyclists and pedestrians with a safe way to cross the busy Franklin Pierce Highway.

That bridge was designed as a tribute to the Schell, and resembles Northfield’s 515-foot steel cantilever truss bridge.

Though the Friends of Schell Bridge and the Selectboard have petitioned the state to do something about the bridge in the past, Stegemann’s proposal came out of left field.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the news,” said Selectboard Chairman John “Jack” Spanbauer. “I think it would be a win-win for everyone.”

A pedestrian bridge, along with increased recreation opportunities and public parks, has been suggested by numerous residents throughout the ongoing master planning process.

In public master plan forums, residents have also expressed a desire to make Northfield a destination town, capitalizing on its outdoor attributes, like hiking trails and river access.

Spanbauer said the bridge would be a tourist attraction, especially if it becomes part of a tri-state bikeway.

That’s in line with a 2011 economic impact study detailing the benefits of a footbridge over the river. The study, put together by the University of Massachusetts, is available on the Friends of Schell Bridge website, www.schellbridge.org.

“I think everyone sees the opportunities (a new bridge would bring) to the town,” said Ross. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a recreational asset like this. That’s what we were looking for all along, with hopes that it could be historical as well.”

Ross hopes a kiosk with the history and photos of the original bridge would be included in replacement plans.

The Selectboard will discuss the bridge proposal at its next meeting, June 4.

“I anticipate that (the board) will vote to send a strong letter of support for the proposal to the DOT,” said Spanbauer.

Once the Selectboard signs off, the DOT’s District 2 office will flesh out the proposal and take it to the DOT in Boston, for a vote in mid July.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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