By Tom French
Depending on how you count, more than three dozen bridges cross the Ausable River from its headwaters in the high peaks to its mouth at Lake Champlain. The first was built in 1810; the oldest, the Stone Arch Bridge in Keeseville, is now 179.
Sixteen of the bridges represent two centuries of engineering history and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, part of a thematic nomination, “Historic Bridges of the Ausable River Valley,” written by Steven Engelhart, executive director emeritus of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), a nonprofit Preservation Organization for Adirondack Park. AARCH occasionally offers a tour of some of the bridges. I had the privilege of participating in a project led by Mr. Engelhart.
Highly recommend the AARCH tour, but for those looking for a scenic day trip, the first historic bridges are near St. Hubert’s as they follow the East Branch river.
Beer’s Bridge (look for the street sign on the right) is known not only for its history, but also for the local owners’ efforts to restore it.
The bridge was relocated from the Town of Lewis to its current location in the 1920s after a flood washed away the previous bridge. As a pin-connected bridge, it was easy to pull, disassemble, and relocate the pins – a common occurrence across the country when bridges on major thoroughfares were upgraded from one to two lanes. The nearby Ranney Bridge (near Rooster Comb Trailhead) was previously in New Russia and the Slater’s Bridge on St. Huberts Road was elsewhere in Essex County. Unfortunately, the Walton Bridge, an elegant lenticular truss bridge that originally came from Black Brook, Clinton County, was lost to Irene in 2011.
According to Irene, engineers noticed significant rust spots on the Beer’s Bridge. So the owners rose to the challenge of repairing it and received an award from AARCH for their efforts that included a fair amount of elbow grease – literally wire brushes and sinks to keep chips from falling into the river.
A mile and a half downstream is Notman Bridge, a stone-clad concrete arch bridge built in 1913 by Arthur Notman, a mining engineer from Staten Island, for access to his cottage. With stonework by Italian masons from Staten Island, it’s an early example of the aesthetic that blends in with the natural surroundings. Unfortunately, the bridge is privately owned and not open to the public.
Jay Covered Bridge
The Jay Covered Bridge is well known on the Ausable, although it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places for a variety of reasons. Head north on Route 9N from Keene to get to the restored bridge, which is now part of a recreational area with directional signs on either side.
The first bridge on the site, also a covered bridge, was washed away in the “freshness” (flood) of 1856 when a dam on Lower Ausable Lake failed due to heavy rain. Within minutes, a wall of water wiped out every bridge and dam along the East and Main branches except the Stone Arch Bridge in Keeseville.
An innovation in this Howe truss bridge was the use of vertical iron tension bars instead of wood. The iron bars were replaced with steel during the refurbishment, allowing the bridge to be stronger and lighter.
Keeseville is the largest hamlet on the Ausable with three bridges designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks (along with the Brooklyn Bridge and many others) as it is the only known location in the United States with bridges that represent the development of bridge design in the 19th century in such close proximity to one another.
A wooden truss bridge from 1810 was replaced by the stone arch bridge in 1843. Using a makeshift wooden structure to support the stone during construction, stone arch bridges have been built for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, in 1842, before the arch was finished and the wooden formwork was still needed, a heavy rain swelled the river and washed away the formwork. The bridge still under construction collapsed. Newspapers reported it could be heard in Port Kent, about four miles away.
When the water receded, they fished the wood from the river, put the formwork back on, and finished it the next year.
It survived the Freshit of 1856 and several other floods. A white stone on the east side marks the level of the flood of 1856. Above it is the sign of the even higher flood of 1998. Irene buried both markings with the highest level ever recorded.
The Keeseville Swing Bridge, the third at its location, is a twisted wire rope suspension bridge within sight of the Stone Arch Bridge. One of its predecessors was made with chains. While the stone arch bridge was under construction, an annual parade crossed the chain suspension bridge and it collapsed due to the added weight, killing many people.
The Upper Bridge, the oldest metal Pratt truss bridge in New York and one of only about 75 cast and wrought iron bridges in the country, is a quarter mile upriver. In 2008 it was closed due to dilapidation. A local group is campaigning for government officials to save and restore several historic bridges from “demolition” and / or replacement, and Clinton Counties so that responsibility for the bridges is shared by different jurisdictions.
Like most bridges along the Ausable, the Upper Bridge was not the first in its location. At the time it was built in 1878, bridge construction was a significant area of engineering with a number of manufacturing companies able to mass produce components that were packaged, shipped and assembled on site.
The first settlers in Ausable Chasm called it Birmingham Falls because they wanted to be the great industrial center of Birmingham, England. Moisture from the falls was problematic for the first wooden truss bridge over the river, but a single-lane steel Pratt Truss bridge, currently located along Old State Road and now closed, was installed in the 1890s. In the 1920s, the bridge and winding road around the abyss could no longer handle the heavy traffic associated with an important north-south thoroughfare and a tourist destination (a stone-clad concrete arch at the north entrance) now jumps over the river.
For those who want to do a day of the car tour, it should end with a paddle. Expert kayaking is permitted through the abyss from the powerhouse during certain times of the year (and with permission). But for those looking for more of a lazy river, there’s nearby Carpenter’s Flats Bridge from 1941 (2.5 miles north), which allows you to go under two Warren truss railroad bridges from 1913 near the estuary swim. Or just check out the tourist attraction. After living in Plattsburgh for forty years, Steve Engelhart’s father finally fell into the abyss and was “horrified at the end of the day” that he had waited so long.
More information about AARCH and their tours can be found at aarch.org.
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