Friday, October 27, 2006

Bridges: Preservation, loss, and a suicide.

I had mentioned earlier that the Farmington is crossed by five bridges in the town of Simsbury. Only four of those are available to traffic, however. The one foot bridge is historic for a number of reasons.

Built in the late 1800's, it was a relative marvel of engineering success for its time. The truss work is not only functional, it is quite beautiful as well. Relative to the more modern truss-style bridge further south,

it is more graceful and appealing to the eye. The engineering success is upheld by the fact that this bridge served one lane of traffic up until the construction of the span bridge just down river in the late 1980's. It is also one of the few bridges that survived the 1955 flooding. Bridge footings and abutments can be found in a few locations in town where the feats of engineering succumbed to the force of water in that year. I happened to be down at the foot bridge several weeks ago on a short bike ride/picnic with my wife, Paula. There we saw an elderly couple with out-of-state plates admiring the bridge and taking photographs. The rails are now adorned with wonderful flower box arrangements and hanging planters dangle from above all along its length. It is a scenic highlight for the town. Well, after a brief exchange the gentleman identified himself as the designer and builder of the new span.

However, he went further to point out that he had spearheaded the debate to preserve the old truss structure as an historic landmark. The intent to remove the bridge was purely economic, I suspect. The bridge is submerged by flooding every few years and I suspect that town officials recognized preservation as a costly option due to the need for painting and upkeep. Townspeople now sponsor the bridge by paying for the floral arrangements or donating to a general fund to maintain the structure. I is, indeed, well worth the visit.

Further downstream, another new structure is in place where a less glamorous span with a low clearance existed.

The route 315 bridge was frequently submerged by seasonal flooding blocking the most accessible route to Tarrifville and forcing a rather long detour. Here, the new construction and removal of the old bridge made perfect sense. However, it remains unclear as to whether the project was also designed in such a way to eliminate a very significant unofficial town landmark. A highly popular rope swing and dirt parking area was right at the foot of the downstream, river-right side of the old bridge. This swing was frequented all summer long by families and small group gatherings for picnics and even barbecues. Adults would converse and listen to music from car stereos while children would delight in the thrill gained by the perfect release at the height of a good sway out over the river on the rope. Many of the visitors were from Hartford and the more urban communities surrounding the city. They would trek to Tarrifville via routes 189 and 187 and gather at this well-known water hole of sorts. With the parking area access eliminated by the subtle rerouting of roadway, the clearing was frequented less often and has now grown over with vegetation to be just a memory of former summer fun. The rope has long since rotted or been removed and no trace of the old gathering place exists.

The last span, and highest, to cross the river marks the beginning of the famous Tarrifville Gorge where whitewater enthusiasts get year-round access to challenge and amusement.

This span will always remind me of a recent and strange paddling experience. My friend and kayak mentor, David, and I spent a morning last fall paddling from one end of the rapids to the other. Not having yet learned the kayak roll technique, I found myself having to wet exit on occassion. Toward the end of our run, I successfully negotiated the set of class 2's where the slalom course gates are hung only to experience a tactical lack of attention toward a large boil at the base of the last wave. When I emerged in mid-pool and started swimming my kayak toward the east bank, I noticed a rather large crowd gathered on the rock outcrop which marks the breached dam at the botton of the gorge. Among those in the group of about 15 people were a few police officers and rescue personel. Dave and another friend who had joined us part way down the gorge were over by the west bank where two EMT's were standing over a large white object floating just above the surface. Dave paddled over as I pulled the kayak and my dripping self up onto the shore to tell me that the object was, in fact, a woman's body. Stunned, we just sat and contemplated the fun we had just had juxtaposed with this tragedy unfolding before us. We stayed there for about twenty minutes and, when it became clear that our help would not be required, we continued past the dam and down the final set of the run.

Later we learned that the woman had lept to her death from the bridge. Her shoes were found on the roadway at mid-span. One of my co-workers knew the woman and commented on his understanding of the difficult life she had led. David and I later realized that, given our early start to the day, we had probably just missed her suicide by no more than an hour or so; a commutor had reported to the police, later in the day, that they had spotted the woman walking on the bridge as they passed by on the way to work that morning. Did she die upon impact? Could we have saved her if we had been passing under at about that time? I thought about these things for many days. Bridges are metaphors for many things.

No comments: