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Vergennes men follow bridge from its birth to burial

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Posted on December 10, 2009 |
By John Flowers



web_bridgeguys.jpg
BILL LARRABEE, LEFT, and Al Abair, both of Vergennes, were present at the dedication of the Champlain Bridge back on Aug. 26, 1929, and hope to again be present when the span is demolished this winter. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON — Transportation officials have yet to set a specific date for the demolition of the Champlain Bridge, but its impending destruction is looming as perhaps the most keenly anticipated event in Addison since the day 80 years ago when a veritable who’s who of New York and Vermont politicians, businessmen and area residents marked the grand opening of the span on Aug. 26, 1929.

Vergennes residents Al Abair and Bill Larrabee were among the teeming masses on that hot, sunny day in ’29 when Govs. John Weeks of Vermont and Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York ceremoniously met at the center of the new $1 million bridge, then considered a wondrous feat of engineering.

But soon — perhaps in less than a month — demolition experts will in a split second send the nearly 2,200-foot-long span to oblivion. And when it happens, Abair and Larrabee want to be there. They believe it’s only fitting that since they saw the bridge come into being, they should be there to close the proverbial loop when the structure is torn asunder.

“For generations, we have traveled over it,” Larrabee, 86, said during an interview late last week at Abair’s Vergennes home.

“It’s history. It is something that is passing by us.”

That history was captured on film by the late Allen Beach of Basin Harbor Club fame. Though silent, black and white, and a little grainy, the 30-minute film of the bridge’s opening is a veritable time capsule that showcases — from a very close vantage point — all the dignitaries, marching bands, military processions and a wondrous parade of floats. Among them were elaborately decorated entries from Vergennes, Bristol, Middlebury and Brandon, some bearing small-scale replicas of the new bridge and slogans such as, “United At Last,” and “Spirit of Cooperation.”

“It was a very memorable event,” said Bob Beach, grandson of the man who shot the movie, a portion of which can be viewed here. “It was the biggest parade anyone had ever seen. It was a huge deal.”

Beach’s dad, Robert, now 90, said there wasn’t enough room on the family’s boat to accommodate everyone, so he stayed at home. But he’s seen his dad’s film and remains keenly interested in the bridge.

Abair and Larrabee weren’t quite as close to the action as the Beach clan, but they eagerly drank it in from the sidelines. They were but small children, but many of the images have stayed ingrained in their minds.

Abair can remember first visiting the bridge site before the massive span was fully completed.

“I can remember going down there with my folks and looking at it when they just had the piers in, before they started putting the (deck) on it,” recalled Abair, 88.

It is extensive erosion to those piers that prompted the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) to close the bridge on Oct. 16 and subsequently determine that the bridge needed to be replaced.

Abair returned to the construction site, with legions of other county residents, for the bridge’s grand opening. The Abair family at the time lived on a farm in Panton, just south of Arnold’s Bay.

“We went down the Lake Road,” Abair said. “The road was lined with cars, and they were backed up four to five miles on each side of the road, all the way to Addison and Route 17. They tell me it was the same on the New York side.”

Abair said he and his family walked to the bridge from what is now the location of the West Addison General Store. The family staked out a close enough spot to take in the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, including some marching bands, boat races and what can only be called an aerial “fly-under,” as opposed to a “fly-over.” A daredevil pilot in a double-winged, open-cockpit plane flew under the bridge and performed other aerial acrobatics, much to the enjoyment of the crowd.

The Abairs didn’t have a great vantage point from which to see the two governors, but they saw the spectacle from afar. The governors and other luminaries also delivered some remarks from a makeshift pavilion that had been erected at the site.

“After the bridge opened, the cars started disappearing; we walked back to our car and went home,” Abair said.

All of a sudden, nearby ferry service was rendered obsolete.

“There was a ferry right there that was still running; the run-ups to the old ferry dock are right on the south side of the bridge on the Vermont side,” Abair said. “It used to go up what is now under the bridge and to Port Henry, but I think they closed probably the next day, after the bridge opened.”

The Arnold’s Bay Ferry also closed soon thereafter, Abair recalled.

Meanwhile, Larrabee went to the bridge opening that day with his grandparents, an aunt and an uncle.

“My grandfather had a 1925 Buick touring car,” said Larrabee, who sat on the hood of the old vehicle while viewing the day’s festivities from where they were parked near the Bridge Restaurant.

Larrabee, who figured he was 6 years old at the time, recalled being “very much impressed” with the military marchers in the parade. He said the soldiers neatly stacked their rifles mere feet away from where he was perched atop grandpa’s car.

“That is right in my memory; of the whole thing, that was number one,” he said with a smile.

He also sympathized with the soldiers and the heavy woolen uniforms they had to wear on that hot day.

“They didn’t have summer and winter uniforms in those days,” Larrabee said. “They had one uniform. They must’ve suffered with the heat.”

Another treat that day: Larrabee got to see his first look at the truck that shares his family name.

“After the crowd was dispersing and we were heading to get into thinner traffic, my grandfather spotted … two Larrabee dump trucks that had been used previously during construction of the bridge,” he said. “We walked over and he showed them to me.”

Abair and Larrabee didn’t see each other on Aug. 26, 1929, but they would meet shortly thereafter and form a friendship that has lasted to this day. The events of the ceremony have given them a special bond imbued in a history that precious few Addison County residents can now speak of with firsthand authority.

The memories come back fresh every time they pop the Beach film into a VCR and gather around a television — two devices that weren’t even on the drawing board back in 1929.

“When the bridge came, it was a novel thing,” Larrabee said. The Larrabees made frequent trips across the span since of the family lived in New York state.

Both men are disappointed to hear the bridge will soon have to be destroyed. But since the structure has to be removed due to safety concerns, Abair would like to see them try to remove the span deck using boom cranes and other heavy equipment, rather than blowing it up and working in the murky depths of the lake.

“I know it’s going to be dangerous, no matter how they do it,” he said.

Both men are hoping to score a good viewing spot for the demolition, but realize that could be a chore.

“If they announce it publicly, there could be a bigger crowd than there was at the dedication,” Larrabee said with a chuckle.

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