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Schell Bridge replacement gets one step closer

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. Purchase photo reprints »

NORTHFIELD — After the Schell Memorial Bridge is torn down and replaced, the town won’t have any obligation to maintain it.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation has announced that it plans to take ownership of the bicycle and pedestrian bridge that is planned to replace the long-closed automobile bridge spanning the Connecticut River.

That means the town won’t be responsible for maintenance and repairs to the new structure, and won’t be held liable for any mishaps that may occur there.

All three were areas of concern for the town when the state announced its plan to replace the aging structure. At the time, Selectboard Chairman John “Jack” Spanbauer called the issue of ownership “a fly in the ointment that needs to be resolved.”

This week, Spanbauer said DCR’s plan to own the bridge removes a “major hurdle for the town.”

While the state Department of Transportation was willing to advocate for the project and partially fund it, the agency said in no uncertain terms that it would not assume ownership.

The demolition and replacement of the bridge is expected to cost $5 million, according to the state Department of Transportation. Federal funding has been promised to the tune of 80 percent, with the state paying the remaining 20 percent.

Area state legislators have advocated for the project, including Sen. Stanley Rosenberg and Rep. Paul Mark.

The DOT has not yet scheduled the demolition and replacement, but representatives said the agency is trying to put it onto its five-year transportation improvement plan.

The new bridge would be incorporated into the Franklin County Bikeway, and could also complete a three-state bicycling loop with New Hampshire and Vermont. It would also provide a shortcut for those looking to walk or bike between east and west Northfield.

Town officials have spoken out in favor of the plan, and so has the group that tried to save the historic bridge for nearly a decade.

The Friends of Schell Bridge formed in 2004 to spearhead the effort to rehabilitate the bridge. In 2011, the group funded a study on the economic benefits of restoring the bridge for use as a bike and pedestrian path.

The study, done by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, estimated that such a bridge would bring an annual $843,137 in tourist revenue to area businesses.

Friends of Schell Bridge members said they hope that parts of the original bridge can be included in the new structure, or used in a park at either end of the bridge.

The steel cantilever truss bridge was built in 1903 for wealthy summer resident Francis Schell, who donated it to the town. It was closed to vehicle traffic in 1985, and a demolition plan was formulated by the DOT in 1987 by the DOT.

The new bridge’s design will resemble the original structure, and is based on the North Bridge Bikeway in Keene, N.H., which was itself inspired by the Schell Bridge.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279 On Twitter, follow @RecorderRain

Why bother to replace an authentic heritage structure with a replica? A cipher? This is New England and we're supposed to value our heritage more than other parts of the nation. But if it doesn't date to the Revolutionary War, all bets are off apparently. Like the destruction of the Jack Kerouac ( Textile Memorial ) Bridge in Lowell last year and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Bridge ( a rare lost National Trust for Historic Preservation listee ) in Portsmouth, NH Better no bridge than a replica. A replica only serve to remind future generations of our poor stewardship of our culture's resources. ---SWL

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