Lincoln eyes flood impact on Gove Hill Bridge, Burnham Hall

LINCOLN — The mountain town of Lincoln was hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene on Sunday with floods closing many roads, including the main connector with Bristol (see story on Page 1A).
Town officials this week said the massive amounts of water flowing through town raised questions about one important piece of local infrastructure — the Gove Hill Bridge — and put to rest worries about another — Burnham Hall.
Mark Benz, a Burnham Hall Building Committee member, and his wife Nancy on Monday surveyed the Gove Hill Bridge over the New Haven River in Lincoln village. They were looking at the potential for the bridge to act as a dam in future flooding events. There is concern that the new bridge might raise future floodwaters to record levels.
After a 1998 flood that let five feet of water into the town hall, the Burnham Hall Building Committee made a series of flood prevention renovations to the building. But that was before the Gove Hill Bridge was built in 2009.
“My concern is that if the water comes up to the ’98 level it will be backed up by the bridge,” said Benz, who explained that the bridge could act as a dam, which is a situation the town hadn’t previously considered.
On Sunday, high water levels left only about two feet of clearance between the top of the water and the bottom of the bridge’s girder. With little room to pass, whole trees rushing down the river smashed into the bridge.
“Every once and a while we thought we heard thunder, but it was whole trees coming down the river … that would crush and crumble as they hit the steel girder and get washed under the bridge,” said Town Clerk Sally Ober, who was in nearby Burnham Hall during the storm. “It was the crushing trees that were booming. The power of that water was intense.”
With whole trees coming down the river, the potential that they could pile up underneath the bridge and raise the water level poses a real threat to the town, said Benz.
“We hadn’t paid much attention to the bridge until we saw the water almost touching the bridge,” he said. “And that was only three feet deep. What if it was five feet? What would that do to Burnham? What would that do to the town?”
Benz doesn’t think drastic measures are needed, nor does he see a need for bridge to be taken down. He simply believes the town needs to have a plan to address rising water levels as a result of the bridge.
“Our mantra is learn to live with (the bridge)” he said. “As a town we need to have an active plan to conduct that water around the bridge.”
Local officials consider Burnham Hall’s performance a total success. After a 1998 flood ruined the library in the historic hall, the building was renovated to better weather storms. Waterproof materials and drains were put in the lower section of the building and rubber gaskets that fit aluminum seals were also installed around windows to keep water out.
When town officials heard about Irene, they ordered a team of municipal workers to install the aluminum panels to prevent floodwater from entering the building.
“And it worked!” exclaimed Ober. “Water came up to the windowsill level. That’s three to four feet (of water) that would have been in the building but didn’t enter.”
Selectboard chair Barb Rainville agreed.
“It just did so well,” she said on Monday morning. “All we have to do is mop the floor to freshen up, and we could have a function there this afternoon.”
Lincoln’s extensive flood mitigation work — digging larger culverts, outfitting Burnham Hall and making federally approved flood renovations — helped Lincoln weather this storm, said Rainville.
“I think we faired very well. Lincoln Sports took a hit. Their backstop is pretty much gone. It’s bent over and hanging. But I think a lot of the mitigation work we’ve done over the past years has paid off, at least this time,” she said.
“The weather is changing, so we have to change with it.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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