Schell Bridge will make this town whole again

  • The Schell Bridge separating East and West Northfield has been closed for years. Recorder FILE PHOTO/Paul Franz

Published: 2/18/2019 10:43:33 PM

NORTHFIELD — Once upon a time there was a castle, right here in Franklin County. 

Well, a chateau, really. Built for New York City diamond merchant Francis R. Schell, the 99-room mansion was constructed in Northfield, beginning in 1900 and completed in 1903. To make sure that ordinary people didn’t drive by to gawk, Schell paid Northfield selectmen $5,000 to discontinue the road that connected his driveway to Highland Avenue.

After Schell’s death in 1928, his wife, Mary, sold the chateau — a French-inspired fortress-like manse with turrets, marble fireplaces, Italian gardens, and chandeliers — to the neighboring Northfield Inn, which had been built in 1888 by evangelist and educator D.L. Moody for his summer conferences. Mary Schell, whose husband had kept construction of the chateau a secret from her, spent summers in a room at the inn – one purposely facing away from the chateau, which had never been the comfortable country home she had wanted.

The grand chateau, which served as an annex to the inn for decades, fell into such disrepair that it was demolished in 1963, despite its sturdy construction. The 125-room inn was destroyed 14 years later. Both had proved too expensive to be maintained by the private school that owned Northfield’s iconic attractions.

Schell Bridge, built in 1903 and dedicated to the memory of his father, Robert Schell, a New York banker who died in 1900, was a steel cantilever truss structure built one-half mile upstream from the double-decker rail and carriage bridge and used by Northfield Seminary students arriving by rail across the Connecticut River. His $32,000 gift to the town, controversial at the time, was – according to one account –  inspired by an incident in which Schell’s horse carriage was bringing guests back to the chateau on the double-decker bridge as sparks from the steam engine passing above the carriage blew onto passengers. The noise from the engine frightened the horses enough that an angry Schell told selectmen he would pay for a new bridge for just carriages.    

The bridge, damaged in the Flood of 1936, was said to have never recovered since, squeaking and shaking every time a vehicle crossed it. 

Schell Bridge may have been engineered to carry 10 tons. Like many residents for whom the bridge was a friendly link between the two sides of this town divided by the river, I remember fearing the worst every time I drove across it  (as I did traversing the Bardwells Ferry Bridge between Shelburne and Conway or Cold River Bridge connecting Charlemont and Florida.

But when it was closed by the town in 1985, which already had halted crossings by school buses and fire trucks, those of us in East Northfield (including the center) and West Northfield had to travel miles out of our way to get to Route 142 to cross the river.

 After years of trying to win federal assistance for repairs — estimated in 1984 to cost up to $1.5 million, compared to $2.25 million for a new bridge — in January 1985, selectmen gave up the struggle, and the bridge — its trusses and plates rusted, its bearings corroded, its braces buckled — was closed.

The state announced in 1991 its plans to demolish the 515-foot span, leading to remorse for those who had already watched the inn and the chateau destroyed. For cyclists like me, who preferred a quiet West Northfield route to Brattleboro over the curvy Route 63 path that empties onto busy Route 119 through Hinsdale, losing Schell Bridge was less serious than it was for my fellow Northfielders, who felt isolated from their town center on that side of the river.  

But in a town with obvious potential as a tourist destination, especially when the Northfield Mount Hermon School campus was bustling, and with a bicycle shop there drawing riders through the center, it made sense at the time to do all we could to draw visitors.

At one point, I’d worked briefly with a graphic designer to create a visitor’s map to connect Northfield Mountain and other attractions in town. After the bridge closure, I remember approaching Robert Johnston – a retired state DPW engineer who was a selectman at the time, and whose wife, Rosa, had chaired the Northfield Historical Society –  to win his support in pushing for a pedestrian and bicycling bridge where the Schell stood.

“They’ll never pay for that bridge to be repaired,” I remember him telling me. Unwisely, I took his expert opinion as the final word, and gave up hope.

Hindsight is a great teacher, and the lesson I took from that, years later when I’d moved from town and then heard that Friends of Schell Bridge had managed to win the support of Sen. Stanley Rosenberg in getting funding for a pedestrian structure, was that we should never give up.  

Now, Northfield, after suffering its landmark campus being closed for years, is looking forward to seeing the bridge restored for bikes and pedestrians in 2021. It’s also about to see life come back to the campus as Thomas Aquinas College and the Moody Center develop, and there’s a push to promote the town as a tourist destination, as it once was for Moody summer conferences and the families with a longstanding connection to the historic town. 

The inn and the chateau — where the nation’s first youth hostel was initially housed — may be pieces of this historic town’s storied past, but the restoration of the Schell Bridge is also godsend for cyclists traveling along the Routes 63-47 scenic byway, extending 274 miles northward along the river.

Schell Bridge, with ornate Gothic Revival elements, is also a rediscovered gem for pedestrians, as well as cyclists, who want to explore this richly historic, scenic town that’s bisected by the river and truly needs to be made whole again.


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