MIDDLEBURY — An army of pirates, goblins and superheroes poured across the Otter Creek on Saturday by way of a brand new span that had been on the town of Middlebury’s drawing board since the early 1950s.
And as the Halloween revelers danced on what a half century ago was only a dream, town officials had to be pinching themselves.
This was not a trick.
It was a treat.
Middlebury officially unveiled the new, $16 million Cross Street Bridge project on Saturday evening after a massive party that included a “Spooktacular” for young trick-or-treaters; a parade; musical entertainment and dance; fireworks; and speeches by some of the key players who helped make the long-elusive project a reality. Among them were former town officials who traveled hundreds of miles to see, finally fulfilled, the fruits of their many hours of past labor on behalf of Middlebury.
“It’s wonderful; it’s a great experience,” said former Middlebury Town Manager Betty Wheeler, who came in all the way from Florence, Ariz., to take in the sight.
“So many attempts have been made … I have blood in this,” Wheeler added. “Every manager for the past 50 years has blood in this.”
Wheeler and throngs of people watched intently during a raw, drizzly afternoon as various municipal and Middlebury College officials paraded down the centerline of the new span, accompanied by the contractors who built the bridge and surrounding infrastructure in a dizzying 18 months.
Interspersed between the groups of dignitaries were vintage cars, representing the decades since Middlebury’s primary Otter Creek crossing — the Battell Bridge on Main Street — was erected in 1893. Fittingly, the first vehicle to cross the bridge was a Morgan horse-drawn carriage with a man impersonating Henry Sheldon, the first person to cross the Battell Bridge 117 years ago. The actor was local resident Henry Prickitt.
In a speech, Jan Albers, executive director of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, reinforced the historical significance of the new span by referencing the then-Herculean task of erecting the Battell Bridge. She noted that celebrated resident Joseph Battell had, during the 1870s, lobbied for a stone bridge to replace the then-wooden span on Main Street.
Residents feared that such a project would increase their taxes and instead elected to make repairs to the wooden bridge — which sustained major damage during an 1891 fire.
“Middlebury has never been an easy place to build a bridge,” Albers said.
But townspeople were still not immediately sold on the idea of a stone bridge even after the fire; they instead warmed to the idea of an iron span that could be quickly slapped into place, Albers noted.
“They actually had a contract to build an iron bridge over there,” she said.
Undaunted, Battell, Sheldon and other allies called a special town meeting at which they convinced voters to go for a stone bridge. The Pittsburgh-based contractor begrudgingly let Middlebury out of the contract, paving the way for the Battell Bridge — erected for a then-staggering sum of $31,237. Local residents picked up the first $12,000 in costs, with the Joseph Battell and his father, Philip, picking up most of the balance.
“It was a public-private partnership,” Albers said, noting the similarity to the manner in which the far most costly Cross Street Bridge is being funded. The costs are being covered through a 30-year bond, to be paid down through a $9 million contribution from Middlebury College and $7 million in local option taxes.
“Today we celebrate something many of us never thought we would see — another public/private partnership has made this new bridge a reality,” Albers said. “Middlebury College has generously stood in for Joseph Battell, in the same spirit of civic engagement, and the town and the taxpayers have done their part.”
Middlebury officials saluted townspeople and the college for making the dream of a new bridge come true.
“This has been one fantastic project,” said Selectman Dean George, chairman of the Middlebury Bridge Committee, who credited the late resident Arch Tilford for resurrecting the in-town bridge debate around six years ago. At the time, Tilford had pitched a new span at the site of the former Three Mile Bridge south of town.
While the idea of a new Three Mile Bridge did not gain traction, the selectboard latched on to the notion of a new downtown bridge with new fervor. When faced with some of the permitting and funding obstacles inherent with state and federal construction programs, the selectboard resolved that the town should take on the project itself — and with a huge assist from Middlebury College. It was selectman and Middlebury College professor Victor Nuovo who made a funding overture to the institution. College President Ronald D. Liebowitz saw merit in the concept of bridge funding, and the institution’s trustees ultimately green-lighted the $9 million gift.
“The college has never forgotten its roots, and from its beginning in 1800, the college really owes its beginnings to the town of Middlebury,” Liebowitz said at Saturday’s grand opening. “So it was an easy decision to collaborate with (Selectmen) John Tenny, Victor Nuovo, Dean George and all the selectboard and the whole town, on a project that I — and eventually the board of trustees, and I would say the entire college community — believes was very important for this town.”
Liebowitz said the bridge will not only be valuable as a transportation conduit, but also for public safety and as an economic development tool. The town and college are currently exploring ways of enhancing business growth near the new bridge.
“I firmly believe that a strong town makes for a strong college, and a strong college makes a strong town, and this is the best example when I think of that,” Liebowitz said, from the podium on the east end of the bridge.
It’s a project that helped construction-related businesses weather some tough economic times, noted George. Leading the project was a design-build team of Kubricky Construction, GeoDesign Inc., North Ferrisburgh-based Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (formerly VHB Pioneer) and Middlebury-based J.P. Carrara & Sons.
“It has been rewarding to work with everyone as we share this achievement with all of you,” George said in front of a crowd that numbered at least several thousand.
It’s an achievement that Tenny said instilled a great sense of pride in Middlebury residents during construction. He heralded the bridge as the beginning of “a new era of opportunities for Middlebury and her downtown,” characterized by a “friendlier, healthier environment” supportive of shopping, dining, the public library and the many other activities Addison County’s shire town.
“These real benefits will work forward for man years, evolving with the changing needs of a dynamic community,” Tenny said.
“As you cross the bridge, think again of the great journey we have taken together, and just how much Middlebury can accomplish when we put our minds and our shoulders to the task,” Tenny added.
As music played in the background, Middlebury residents took in the new traveling view of the creek that they will be enjoying for decades to come.
“The thing that is really remarkable about this project is that every vote the selectboard took in the course of building this bridge has been unanimous, which shows the bridge was well thought-out, well planned, and obviously well executed,” said Selectman Craig Bingham.
Former Middlebury business manager Kathleen Ramsay made her way from Killington — where she is currently town manager — to see the new bridge that seemed an elusive goal only a handful of years ago.
“It’s so exciting, because I have been gone for three years and then to come back and, ‘here’s the bridge,’” she said. “Congratulations to the town.”
Middlebury Bridge Committee member (and former selectwoman) Peg Martin called the accomplishment “astonishing.”
“It is the project of a lot of work by a lot of people — some excellent builders and excellent designers,” she said. “It just came together. This is sort of like putting in the last piece of the 1,000-piece puzzle that you’ve been working on.”
Saturday was a very happy day for Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger, who recently marked his 10th year as the town’s chief administrator. He recalled the in-town bridge was on the agenda for his first selectboard meeting back in 2000. It is a subject that would crop up many additional times during the ensuing decade.
“We did it,” Finger said. “It feels good.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]