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Editorial: Bridge building

For roughly nine years, The Friends of Schell Bridge have existed for one reason — to find a way to keep the Schell Memorial Bridge from becoming just another memory of what life was once like in Northfield.

And for those years, the Friends have been trying to find the right combination that would unlock the bridge’s fate. During those years, it certainly never looked like time was on the side of those wanting to keep the steel cantilever truss bridge from the state’s demolition plans. But now appears that time was exactly what was required to come up with a potential alternative to losing this historic and picturesque bridge that once provided passage over the Connecticut River between East and West Northfield.

As reported last week in The Recorder, the state Department of Transportation is working on a five-year plan, using money that the state has received from the federal government. What Al Stegmann, the DOT’s District 2 director, is proposing is a replacement bridge, one suitable for bicycles and pedestrians, rather than sinking money into a costly renovation of the existing structure — something the state has been adamant against doing.

But he apparently has in mind a replacement of the kind that could be a tourist attraction as well a structure tied to the bikeway that connects Massachusetts with Vermont and New Hampshire.

And while it would mean the removal of the Schell, state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg told Northfield selectmen recently that the state would try to use parts of the old bridge, either as an actual part of the new structure or as part of a park near its location. What Schell supporters, including the Friends’ board of directors, are also hoping that the new span will take its cue from the old bridge, much like a pedestrian bridge in Keene, N.H.. That bridge, part of the Cheshire Rail Trail, was designed to look like the Schell as a tribute. A replica across the Connecticut would be a fitting way to bridge the old memories with a new purpose.

The next step is for the Northfield Selectboard to get behind the idea and for the proposal to get the DOT’s seal of approval, as early as mid July.

Maybe at long last, the Friends are seeing some positive light at the end of the bridge. Everyone will know more come later this summer.

Except of course the new bridge will be a replica. Like Keene's. There is something to be said for preserving heritage. And Massachusetts seems indifferent to preserving its civil engineering heritage, as seen in the demolition of Lowell's Textile Memorial Bridge. These things have value. Perhaps there will be more luck in New Hampshire upstream as the group trying to save the Harlan Fiske Stone Memorial Arch bridge are hard at work. Maybe they will find victory, north of the border?

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