One of my great pleasures is to go exploring the back roads whenever I have to drive here to there in Vermont. Time permitting, and if the kids are up for it, we leave the state highways behind on trips from Middlebury or Rutland or Shoreham and turn onto dirt roads instead. I haul out my trusty atlas of Vermont, having long since learned that my car’s navigational system likes to insist that I am on an “unverified route” once I get off the main-traveled roadways.
The knowledge I’ve acquired on these adventures served me well when Irene flooded downtown Brandon and effectively divided the town in half for almost a week. Miraculously, every bridge crossing the Neshobe River survived, though the roadways were impassable because of the mud and rubble the river left behind as it jumped its banks to flow downstream on these conveniently nearby routes down the mountainside. As the water receded and the road crews went to work, my kids and I visited each site that the river had made impassable, marveling at the muck that now covered fields and pastures, at the marble blocks strewn on the landscape that were once part of the historic mills and dams on the river.
Photos by Rebecca Reimers
It is up to the engineers who understand hydrodynamics and geology to decide if, as one letter to editor suggested, it is time to reposition some bridges and perhaps build new ones to adjust to the Neshobe River’s changing course and give it more spill-over room during spring thaw and heavy rains. As a local historian and lover of stonework, I want to ensure that Brandon’s historical marble bridges remain accessible and visible for tourists and residents alike. One of my favorites is the old Stone Mill Dam Bridge. Lying east of town on what the early proprietors termed “the uppermost falls” within Brandon, it is a humble bridge. Prior to Irene, it allowed people to reach the Stone Mill Dam Inn and Neshobe Winery directly from Route 73. Locals also knew that the best swimming hole on the Neshobe lay just upriver. On hot summer evenings, my husband and the boys would ride their bicycles there and jump into its chilly waters, biking home wet and refreshed and ready for dinner. And many runners incorporated a trip over the bridge as part of their loop from town as a way of avoiding the more treacherous Route 73, with its blind curves, narrow shoulders, rock falls, motorcyclists and heavy truck traffic.
Though a simple and short bridge, its abutments are made of beautifully cut classic white Brandon marble, probably quarried nearby and uniform in shape and size. The fill that strengthened the approach on each side is probably rubble, although one of the joys of living in Brandon is that our rubble is often more of the same almost pure white stone—the “factory seconds” that did not pass quality control inspections during the quarrying or cutting process.
Mills had been built along this section of the Neshobe as early as the mid-1780s, both for sawing timber and grinding grain. The proprietors in Williamstown, Massachusetts who chartered Brandon and continued to conduct its affairs during this time period voted to reserve all prime mill locations in the town for “public use and benefit,” along with a parcel of land for the mill itself. The uppermost of three waterfalls along this section of the Neshobe already had a saw mill and grist mill in operation on what was then known as Town Farm when the town voted in 1789 to build a bridge across the river at that location. This early bridge was probably constructed of timber, but given the Neshobe River’s history of washouts it probably needed frequent repairs if not outright replacement. That would explain the investment in the more expensive and labor intensive bridge we are fortunate to have today.
Brandon’s geology soon provided stronger and more durable bridge materials. By 1828 the first marble mill had been opened in town, suggesting that marble had already begun to be quarried in small hand-saw operations throughout the town. A stone mill had already been built by 1843 on the uppermost falls, and the new owner began finishing marble there from his own quarry, which lay west of the village. With no railroads yet connecting Brandon to the wider markets, most local marble was produced for local consumption, and it may have been during this period that the original marble abutments of the Stone Mill Dam Bridge were built. However, it seems unlikely that the Stone Mill Dam itself would have been built until after Brandon was connected to the Rutland Railroad, for the cost of transporting marble overland or by waterway was simply too high prior to 1849; so too, the expense of constructing an artificial dam across the uppermost falls would probably not have been a profitable undertaking until after that time.
Ironically, eventual obsolescence of the Stone Mill Dam Bridge may account for its preservation. With the decline of the marble industry and the eventual destruction of the dam, there was no need to build a bigger bridge, nor to widen and reinforce it with concrete and steel as happened with the graceful double arch marble and granite bridge that crossed the Neshobe under what is now Route 7 in downtown Brandon. Today, all that remains of the spectacular falls once created by the dam are historical photos; the dam itself is only chunks of cut rock that have washed further downstream over the years. Somewhere in the underbrush must lie the foundations of the old stone mill, and perhaps the grist and saw mills as well. But the Stone Mill Dam Bridge offers a peek into Brandon’s prosperous industrial past, its abundance of natural resources, and the energy source that powered its history. We humans have repurposed the buildings and land surrounding it, but the bridge is worth preserving for as long as the Neshobe River allows.