Lake Champlain Bridge Photo Update

You can read the full construction updates on the NYSDOT project webpage, but for those who are only interested in the short version of the story, here are two of the latest pictures that I’ve taken on site for use in my preservation monitoring reports (also available on the NYSDOT webgage).These are large files, so click and zoom in for amazing clarity and perspective!

April 14, 2011. The view from Vermont. Seen from background to foreground: Pier 3 (tall pier), Pier 4 (with forms), Pier 5 with falsework), Pier 6, and edge of Pier 7.

April 14, 2011: View from Vermont.

Note how it is finally looking like spring after this long, cold winter.

I Wear a Hard Hat

I love the regulatory world. I love preservation law. If you’ve known me since college and even while I worked at Fort Bragg, you may have just fallen off your chair. I apologize (Michelle M, ahem). For years I thought Section 106 project review would be the most boring job in the world. I have asked people to to remind me that I would never want such a job. However, I made these bold statements before studying preservation law and before studying the case of the Lake Champlain Bridge. And of course, before my summer internship with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

My internship (and now job) includes two main parts: historic preservation monitor for the Lake Champlain Bridge project and project review for compliance with preservation laws. The preservation laws that I’m referring to are the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. The brief reason for the existence of my historic preservation specialist and monitor job (with technical preservation law information thrown in there for fun and background knowledge) begins with this: the 1929 bridge that was demolished in December 2009 was historically significant.

Historic bridges are often part of our transportation systems, and thus serve two purposes: 1) sharing a part of our transportation history and 2) servicing our current transportation needs. But, often, historic bridges need to be widened or altered in order to keep pace with modern safety regulations. Unfortunately, some bridges will end up being demolished. However, Section 4(f) of the DOT Act of 1966 states that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) may not approve a project that involves the use of a 4(f) resource unless there is 1) no prudent and feasible alternative, 2) all measures have been taken to minimize harm, and 3) there is a de minimis impact on the resource. Section 4(f) resources can be defined as any significant historic or archaeological site, any publicly owned park or recreation area, or wildlife or waterfowl refuge. Thus, historic bridges fall under historic resources. Normally, historic bridges fall under the Section 4(f) Programmatic Agreement for historic bridges. In the case of the Lake Champlain Bridge, it did not apply because there was an adverse effect to the historic bridge (i.e. demolition). That meant that an agreement through Section 106 mitigation must be reached by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, the State Historic Preservation Office, FHWA, and the AOT/DOT.

To add more federal law into the mix, Section 106 also applied because the bridge traversed the Chimney Point State Historic Site. Any demolition or construction would involve the historic site in its area of potential effect. Section 106 applies to projects that constitute an undertaking, meaning a project, activity or program, funded in whole or in part under the direct or indirect jurisdiction of a federal agency, including those carried out by or on behalf of a federal agency; those carried out with federal financial assistance; and those requiring a federal; permit, license, or approval” [36 CFR 800.16].  If this project has the potential to affect historic resources, then the Section 106 process must be followed. Any adverse effects to the resource must be avoided, minimized, or mitigated.

So, to achieve mitigation of the loss of the historically significant Lake Champlain Bridge, a lengthy Programmatic Agreement (PA) was developed between the Federal and State agencies, both New York and Vermont. The mitigation involves protection of the historic sites with stipulations such as site delineation (via fencing), vibration monitoring, dust suppression, archaeological monitoring, and most importantly: communication. My job involves insuring compliance with the PA. If you’re really interested, you can read my weekly reports. (Click there and scroll all the way to the bottom of the “Construction” page.) The most interesting portion of each report is the photo section, fyi. Check out the construction webcams, too, if you want to see the live action. Working on a construction site is an interesting, exciting challenge, and while new construction and historic preservation rarely speak in the same vocabulary, I’ve learned that better communication and a willingness to understand the other side can make a huge difference. And yes, I do walk around in a hard hat and a reflective safety vest. And I wear many, many layers to combat the frigid winter air that blows from Lake Champlain.

Working on site at Chimney Point, January 2011. It’s alright; I know I look ridiculous. But, everyone else on a construction site looks the same.

I do not always wear a hard hat; some days I am in the office. But, I will say that a few times I’ve been walking down the hall and reached up to see if I was wearing my hard hat. I think I’m getting to accustomed to wearing it! Aside from the Lake Champlain Bridge, my job involves project review: all transportation funded projects must be reviewed for compliance with provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106) as well as the DOT Act of 1966 (Section 4f). Unlike other states, Vermont has a Programmatic Agreement between the Agency of Transportation and the Division for Historic Preservation that allows the Agency of Transportation to conduct in house Section 106 reviews on standard projects. (The Lake Champlain Bridge is not an ordinary project, mostly because it was jointly owned by New York and Vermont.) Project can range from paving project to sidewalk improvements to road realignment to sign replacements and much more. It is absolutely amazing just how often preservation and transportation interact and just how frequently other fields intersect, such as wildlife, hydraulics, engineering, and construction. Every project requires careful review by all of the disciplines and when there is a problem with one, all must work together to find a solution and still meet the purpose and need of the project.

So that’s my job – without getting into too much detail. I love it. Each law has way more to it than I’ve outlined here, but clicks the links throughout the post for more information or ask me what I meant. I love talking through the laws!  And while the laws aren’t perfect and we will not agree with them all of the time, they make the preservation world go round, so to speak.

Care to share stories about your job?

The Best Part of My Job

While ensuring protection of the historic site and complying with the Programmatic Agreement and Section 106 and Section 4f, I also get to see history as it happens. Behold the first girder of the new Lake Champlain Bridge:

The view of the Lake Champlain Bridge from Chimney Point on January 27, 2011. Photograph by Kaitlin O’Shea.
The first girder over Pier 7, January 27, 2011. Photograph by Kaitlin O’Shea.


While the new bridge is not the historically significant 1929 Lake Champlain Bridge, and its loss remains a tragedy, I can’t help but be excited by the construction of the new bridge. I think of the anticipation of the 1929 bridge and the photographs that show spectators and the parade on opening day. There are many parallels between 1929 and 2011, and, as cliche as this sounds, this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime event. This isn’t any ordinary bridge; the Champlain Bridge is incredibly important to the region and it is constantly in the news. It’s one of those events about which I’ll tell my grandchildren. I’m witnessing history and loving it. 

Preservation Photos #36

A view that not many people have seen in the last eight decades; I took this picture sitting on the porch at the tavern at Chimney Point Historic Site in Addison, VT. The old Lake Champlain Bridge would have traveled straight through this picture, and the new one will do the same. The view without the bridge is amazing and such an incredible historic scene.

A Landmark Lesson

In another post I asked this of preservationists:

How do preservationists feel about watching the demolition of a bridge they fought to save? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime type of situation or more of an I-can’t-bear-to-watch issue or more like I-will-not-dignify-this-decision-by-watching-it? What lessons could preservationists learn from watching it?

So, would you watch the bridge? Did you watch the bridge demolition? If you are interested, here are a few videos: 1) from Now Public, 2) from You Tube, 3) from WPTZ news.

Undecided at first, after a few conversations with fellow preservationists, it seemed that the demolition of such an important landmark would be something worth watching, mostly because it serves as a sort of reality check or a bitter reminder of how impermanent everything is. Hopefully such an event would not be commonplace in our lives.  Since I’m not in Vermont this week, I watched it online and on television. Here on Long Island, Fox News showed a (very small) segment on the bridge, mostly the demolition. Watching the demolition, my mouth dropped. It is such a shock to see an engineered structure standing and just seconds later, behind a cloud of smoke and dust, it disappears. And I saw it without the sound of an actual explosion. And it’s strange to think that the bridge is no longer there; it is gone forever in a matter of seconds. It certainly was a heartbreaking reality.

My next question relates to the environmental effects. I have not been able to find the answers yet, but what are the consequences of the bridge falling in the lake? Obviously, demolition experts have overseen this event, but how are the effects mitigated and how is the process decided? If you know the answer, please share.

Did you see the bridge demolition in person? Please share your experience; I’m very interested.

Most of all, let’s hope that we all learn and apply lessons from the Lake Champlain Bridge (1929-2009).

Lake Champlain Bridge Demolition

For those who haven’t heard, the Lake Champlain Bridge is scheduled to be demolished on Wednesday December 23, 2009 at 10am. (Talk about a terrible Christmas present for preservationists, huh?)

See this NYSDOT Press Release. The public may view the demolition at specific areas, such as on Vermont 125 (read this release from VTrans). If you are unable to attend the demolition, it will also be available online via live streaming – see the NYSDOT website on Wednesday morning.

How do preservationists feel about watching the demolition of a bridge they fought to save? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime type of situation or more of an I-can’t-bear-to-watch issue or more like I-will-not-dignify-this-decision-by-watching-it? What lessons could preservationists learn from watching it? Please share your thoughts.


UPDATE: NYSDOT has issued a press release stating that the bridge demolition will be on December 28, not December 23. Read it here.

Building a New Bridge

The sad news has likely reached all interested parties by now: the Lake Champlain Bridge is to be demolished as soon as possible. A demolition company has been hired and design for the new bridge (to be erected in the same place as the current bridge) are moving full speed ahead. On Saturday December 12, NYSDOT held three public meetings to offer a summary of issues and present six new bridge designs. See the presentation here. Now the public is invited to view the designs online and to participate in a survey, categorizing reactions to the bridge designs, choosing what new bridge features are important, and commenting on how to commemorate the old bridge. The opportunity to participate in this bridge survey is available only until midnight on Monday December 14. Participants do not have to be New York State or Vermont residents. The survey is anonymous. Historic preservationists, bridge enthusiasts, historians, citizens, everyone can voice an opinion. This is an important chance to have a voice in the outcome of the new bridge.

Preservation Photos #10

Given the fate* of the Lake Champlain Bridge and the amount of my life that is has consumed lately, it seems fitting to share another photograph. My photographs cannot do it justice, however. Check the Center for Digital Initiatives at the University of Vermont for beautiful, historic photographs by Louis McAllister. The Special Collections Library at UVM has a wonderful postcard collection with many Lake Champlain Bridge views.

* from the NYSDOT website: NYSDOT is expecting Federal Highway Administration approval for the bridge demolition by Monday 12/7. NYSDOT’s prime contractor will be receiving bids from subcontractors for the controlled demolition of most bridge sections on Monday 12/7 and select subcontractors on Wednesday 12/9. Crews will start preparing the bridge for demolition as soon as next week.

1929: Lake Champlain Bridge

Since we are so far removed from the past, often it is hard to imagine why something was so significant at a certain time, e.g. just how much of an impact the Lake Champlain Bridge had on the lives of citizens, the economy of New England and New York, and technology.  And even if you are a history buff or a preservationist, stepping into history can help to understand the significance of a structure, building, or event.

Watch the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s short film titled, The Champlain Bridge. There is a short introduction and then wonderful footage from opening day on August 26, 1929. It is only about 7 minutes in length and worth your time.

Lake Champlain Bridge

The Lake Champlain Bridge is a continuous steel truss bridge that opened in 1929, linking Chimney Point, VT and Crown Point, NY, serving as the gateway to New England or to the Adirondacks. The engineers Fay, Spofford, and Thorndike set the location in an especially scenic and historic pass over the water and the land. For the past 80 years the bridge has connected the livelihoods of many New Yorkers and Vermonters, has served tourism, and has provided a beautiful, landmark example of engineering.

In July 2009 the bridge was shut down to one lane of traffic at a time as repairs were conducted on the other side. On October 16, 2009 the bridge was closed indefinitely. On November 9, 2009, the engineering report suggested the bridge be demolished.  Why? In a nutshell, the engineers found the deterioration of concrete piers to be unpredictable and potentially disastrous. Rehabilitation would be more expensive than replacement. For the long version of this see the news and reports from NYSDOT’s Lake Champlain Bridge webpage.


Ground level view of the bridge from Chimney Point, VT. November 8, 2009.

However, ethically and legally there is more to the issue than just an engineering report. This bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a National Historic Landmark nomination on the table. Take in the federal laws of Section 106, 110, and 4(f) and all options must be analyzed and exhausted; because a historic resource is involved a bridge cannot just be slapped in place. This gives the pro-rehabilitation candidates more weight than just passion. (I won’t get into the preservation laws at this point, but this issue is a topic for my preservation policy class, so I will at a later date.)


The bridge is impressive and immense - note the gentleman in the photograph. November 8, 2009.

What is the fate of the bridge? We don’t know yet. It is more complicated than other bridges because it is jointly owned by New York and Vermont. The communities on either side have had to rely on ferry service across the lake, which will last only as long as the unusually warm weather remains. Lives are inconvenienced and businesses are shutting down as a result of the loss of this main thoroughfare. This has been in the Vermont/upstate New York news for months now, and there is no shortage of articles and opinions.

Stay tuned for more information and discussion. Any if you’re familiar with the old General Sullivan Bridge in New Hampshire, it is the twin of this bridge. It has been closed since the mid 1980s. That itself adds additional levels pf conversation, huh?


Bridge closed. November 8, 2009.