Police say covered bridge burning not ‘malicious’; temporary span planned

SALISBURY — Area residents have been uttering some choice adjectives to sum up their emotions about the blaze this past Saturday that destroyed the historic covered bridge spanning the Otter Creek between Salisbury and Cornwall.
And “sickening,” as voiced by Irene Barna, secretary of the Vermont Covered Bridges Society.
“It makes me sick, it really does,” the Middlebury resident said of her reaction to Saturday’s loss of what is also referred to as the Salisbury Station Bridge. It connected Swamp Road on the Cornwall side and Creek Road on the Salisbury side.
It was at 2:51 p.m. on Saturday that Vermont State Police were informed that the 151-year-old covered bridge was on fire. The structure was unfortunately fully engulfed when Salisbury and Cornwall fire officials arrived on the scene. The blaze — which reduced the bridge to charred ruins — was still under investigation as the Addison Independent went to press.
VSP Lt. Reg Trayah said on Tuesday the fire remains suspicious in nature, but added arson investigators have concluded the blaze was not the result of a malicious act. He confirmed investigators have found no evidence of accelerants — such as gasoline — at the scene.
“We will continue to investigate the cause and origin of this fire,” Trayah said, adding, “we do not believe we have an arsonist out there burning historic bridges.”
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call Trayah at 802-773-9101.
Vermont Agency of Transportation officials on Tuesday gave the towns of Salisbury and Cornwall permission to remove the bridge debris from the Otter Creek in hopes of building a temporary span across the gap before the snow flies, according to Salisbury Road Foreman Tom Barker. It’s a process that will likely include commissioning a crane to lift charred pieces of the bridge out of  creek, Barker said.
Current evidence does not indicate the bridge timbers were coated with any kinds chemicals that might preclude conventional disposal of the debris, according to Barker.
Barker added Cornwall and Salisbury both maintained insurance on the covered bridge through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. He was not sure on Tuesday about the exact sum for which the bridge was insured.
Cornwall Fire Chief Dennis Rheaume said the insured value of the span will likely not be enough to replace it.
He said the temporary bridge is expected to be a steel, one-lane structure that will cost the towns a combined total of around $220 per month while it is in place.
The Salisbury selectboard on Tuesday evening OK’d funding for its share of the temporary bridge.
Until a temporary bridge is in place, Swamp Road/Creek Road will remain closed to through traffic. Drivers will instead detour through Middlebury to the north, or Leicester Four Corners to the south.
Meanwhile, area residents are mourning the loss of a beloved utilitarian landmark that has been omnipresent since the close of the Civil War (1865) before suddenly being wiped from its bucolic resting place within a matter of minutes.
State officials are unable to identify the builder of the Salisbury Station Bridge, but they agree it was a masterful piece of work that was substantially renovated in 2007 and 2008.
At 154 feet, it was one of the longest single spans in the state until 1969, when a mid-stream pier was added for extra support. The plank-lattice design was first patented in 1820 by architect Ithiel Town of New Haven, Conn., according to the Vermont Covered Bridges Society. A lattice bridge is constructed entirely of planks instead of the heavy timbers used in the queenpost and kingpost trusses, according to covered bridge society information. The planks — usually of spruce or hemlock — are fastened with hardwood pegs called treenails.
Barna said the Salisbury Station Bridge was a true feat of engineering, as opposed to a slab placed across a waterway “with a shed slapped on top.”
While some might have wondered about the presence of a covered bridge in a relatively remote location near a swamp, historians noted the span provided 19th-century Cornwall with an economic link to railway shipping services in Salisbury.
Now destroyed, the bridge will have to live in history books, photos and memories. And with arson now discounted as the cause of its demise, residents are left to wonder just how the span ignited.
Salisbury resident and architectural historian Glenn Andres said he believes it was highly unlikely the fire was an act of nature.
“There’s no way you can light one of those bridges on fire by accident,” Andres said, noting the size of the structure. And he believes the metal roof contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, as the flames had no vertical escape outlet and thus advance horizontally.
Andres said he attended a local social event Saturday evening, and the destruction of the Salisbury Station Bridge was the topic of conversation.
“The town is in shock,” he said of Salisbury.
Shock, tinged with some profound anger amid suspicions that the bridge had some help catching fire.
“People are really furious,” Andres said.
“A lot of people used that bridge,” Andres added. “People are afraid it will have the same fate as the Three-Mile Bridge (in Middlebury), in that it won’t get rebuilt.”
Andres does not believe there will be adequate funds to invest in a reproduction Salisbury Station Bridge, meaning a more modern, non-descript span is probably in the cards. And a conventional span won’t provide the same magnet for tourism, officials noted.
“Putting anything but that covered bridge there is not going to be the same,” Andres said.
“We’ve lost something special.”
Many folks used to make special trips to the Swamp Road covered bridge, one of around 100 left in Vermont, according to Judith Ehrlich, historic preservation officer for VTrans.
“This was one of the earliest and longest (covered bridges) in the state,” she said.
These historic covered bridges, Andres noted, are a “finite resource. It’s what our bike tours trade on. People want to find these out-of-the-way places.”
Salisbury Selectwoman Pedie O’Brien took in the sight of the covered bridge remains on Monday and said she felt sick about what she surveyed.
“I had a knot in my stomach,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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