Highlighting history at future recreational bridge

  • Members of the Schell Bridge Advisory Committee, Friends of Schell Bridge and Northfield Historical Commission met at the Dickinson Memorial Library Wednesday evening to discuss the key themes to showcase through signs and other materials that will accompany the bridge’s reconstruction. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DELUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 2/13/2020 10:28:30 PM
Modified: 2/13/2020 10:28:19 PM

NORTHFIELD — Members of the Schell Bridge Advisory Committee, Friends of Schell Bridge and Northfield Historical Commission met Wednesday for the first time since November to discuss “key themes” to showcase through signs and other materials accompanying the bridge’s reconstruction.

“We want to think about what message we feel needs to be conveyed at the build site,” said Schell Bridge Advisory Committee Chair Judy Wagner during the meeting at Dickinson Memorial Library.

The Schell Bridge was closed in 1985 due to its disrepair. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) plans to demolish the old bridge and replace it. The new one is envisioned as a recreational facility for walkers, runners and bicyclists, rather than a road for cars, like the old one was.

Conversation on Wednesday was centered on highlighting aspects of Northfield and the bridge’s history through informational signs. In November, designers hired for the project by MassDOT said they hoped to salvage one of the entrance arches of the old bridge to be displayed near the eastern landing of the new one, along with an explanatory plaque. They also discussed restoring the original stone entry “wing walls” and creating a small, grassy park area with a river view.

“It sounds like MassDOT is planning to have the signage on the east side of the river, but we raised the question of whether there could also be signage on the west (side),” Wagner noted. “That is not decided yet.”

Wagner said the area’s history and themes will be highlighted through photographs and text. For example, a sign may note that Northfield is the only town to have land on both sides of the Connecticut River, and thus is truly united by the bridge.

One idea pitched by committee members was to include historical photos and information about when and why the bridge was built. Northfield Historical Commission President Susan Ross said the commission has photographs of people using ferries to cross the Connecticut River before the Schell Bridge was built, as well as photos of the bridge construction.

“We have a wonderful old photo of some girls walking over the original bridge,” Ross said.

The main themes proposed Wednesday include: town access and unity; the unique architecture of the original bridge and connection to the old railroad; unique local landscape features and wildlife; information on local Native American history; and the history of the bridge’s early use by visitors, staff and students at the Northfield campus (now home to Thomas Aquinas College and The Moody Center).

“We will meet again to narrow down and condense the options as the process moves along,” Wagner said.

While it may not be covered in the MassDOT budget, meeting attendees also put forth the idea of creating a brochure with a bike path or hiking trail map and extended information, like details of native wildlife or local businesses. Ross said the Historical Commission is planning to hold an exhibit on the extended history of the Schell Bridge in tandem with its demolition.

Following a meeting last May, a timeline for the bridge rebuild was predicted to begin in early 2022, and will take two or three construction seasons. Whether the bridge will have a new name or not is a topic of conversation for the future, committee members said.

When MassDOT met with Northfield residents in March 2018, its representatives presented three design ideas for residents’ consideration. In a community poll, residents chose a design that features a high suspension arch and thin vertical support beams. MassDOT accepted the community’s chosen option. Minor details of that plan may be tweaked to suit the architectural necessities, like the spacing of the support beams.

Wagner said the committee hopes to hear from MassDOT in the next few months to set up a 25 percent design public hearing. Design images more detailed than the currently available mockup renderings will be presented by MassDOT at this tentative meeting.

MassDOT expects to advertise for the construction work in early 2021. Between now and then, the department will continue to work with local groups, like the Historical Commission and the Recreation Commission, to learn more about the community’s desires for the project.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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