Op-ed column: A wooden time machine held many memories for Blenheim
It was a sticky afternoon in late June, and I was on a road trip in Schoharie County.
From Cobleskill, my old Subaru huffed and puffed up big green hills, then coasted down winding roads into woodland broken here and there by small farms. For several miles, I didn’t see another car. Then there was an unexpected stop as a small herd of wide, bushy sheep toddled across the road, followed by a farmer who waved hello.
Just when I was sure I was lost, Route 30 appeared, and the sign for Blenheim, population 377.
I was writing a story for The Sunday Gazette about an outdoor art show in Blenheim. But this wasn’t your average outdoor art show. The paintings and photographs in the Blenheim Bridge Art Walk were exhibited inside a covered wooden bridge. And not just any bridge. The 232-foot-long Blenheim Bridge, which opened in 1855, was the world's longest wooden, single span, two-lane covered bridge, a claim to fame that made it a National Historic Landmark and put it on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Art Walk was a special one-day event, drawing about 2,500 people to the county’s tiniest hamlet, and it was the bridge, a Schoharie County icon, that made it special.
Artists, locals, out-of-towners, square dancers, musicians, children and grandparents — every person who made their way to the old bridge — was there to connect with the 19th century.
Through the years
The Blenheim Bridge was like a time machine, a wooden tunnel that whisked them back through the years.
And why do people gather at old places?
Maybe we are hungry for history. We desire that tweak of the mind, that pinch of the soul that happens when we see an object that tells us about the handwork and habits, the ambition and industry of those who walked the earth before us.
You can read all the books and see all the movies about American history, but for most folks, it’s National Historic landmarks, like this bridge, that bring the past to life.
When you stepped inside Blenheim Bridge, there was the air of a rustic cathedral. It was quiet and dimly lit, there was a soft scent of wood, and through crevices in the floor, one could see the boulder-strewn waters of Schoharie Creek. Clouds and sky were visible through slats near the roof.
Building the bridge was a Herculean task, and the man in charge of the $6,000 project was Nicholas Powers, a Vermonter famous for his bridges.
In the old days, wooden bridges with covers were protected from rough weather and lasted for up to 80 years, while uncovered ones needed to be replaced after 10 years.
As for the Blenheim Bridge, records show that 94,000 board feet of lumber was hewn from local pine and oak trees; and its roof, sides and floor were secured with 3,600 pounds of bolts. Instead of being constructed on site, the giant bridge was built in the village, taken apart and then re-assembled over the creek.
For more than 50 years, horse-drawn wagons crossed the bridge, until cars and trucks came along in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, the bridge was closed to vehicles when a modern steel bridge was built next to it.
In the summer, tourists would visit the old bridge, and with the Internet, more and more people seemed to be making stops as they drove through New York state.
On the June day that I visited, a woman from Africa pulled in and then a family from New Jersey.
Thirty years ago, when my husband, Dan, was a young civil engineer in his native southeast Massachusetts, he mailed out Christmas cards adorned with a drawing of the Blenheim Bridge that came from the American Society of Civil Engineers. When we landed in eastern New York, he couldn’t wait to visit the bridge.
Two months after my June visit, the Blenheim Bridge was destroyed, a casualty of Tropical Storm Irene.
‘It was a quick death’
Blenheim was pounded in the record-breaking flood, which wiped out homes and historical buildings in the little village.
Around 7 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, the water in Schoharie Creek was so high and so powerful, it lifted the old wooden bridge and slammed it against the steel-and-concrete Route 30 bridge. The historic structure was shattered and the pieces were swept down the creek.
It happened so swiftly, and the scene was so dangerous, no one was apparently able to capture the event on video, although there were eyewitnesses who reported seeing the crushing of the bridge’s metal roof.
“It was a quick death. There’s not even a scrape mark.
It looks as if it just floated off,” said Don Airey, a co-director of Schoharie Valley Watch, a non-profit citizens organization.
Within an hour and a half, before many people in Schoharie even heard about it, the bridge’s destruction was reported by CBS, and bridge watchers had recorded its demise on Wikipedia.
“It was Blenheim’s little claim to fame. It was their heritage, a town symbol,” says Airey. “The homes will be repaired, the homes will be rebuilt, but the bridge will never come back. It’s a personal loss.”
At the Gazette, one of my co-workers, Paul, who grew up in Scotia and still lives there, told me that when he was a kid, his family would picnic at the bridge.
Paul kept up the tradition, and over the years, he took his three children to the bridge in the fall, after the leaves turned color. His 10-year-old daughter was especially fond of the bridge.
“When I told her what happened to the bridge, she cried,” Paul says.
On the Internet, you can see eerie photos of the creek without its historic bridge. The arrow on the state sign for the landmark points to an empty space, where only the bridge’s two non-descript abutments remain.
Blenheim will continue to struggle as people re-build their lives and homes. Tourists from New Jersey and Africa may never stop there again.
But those who knew and loved the bridge will have their memories and stories. Historians, architects, engineers, poets, artists and lovers will remember their bridge.
Couples who married on the bridge and posed for prom pictures, will never forget.
‘We belong to the bridge’
In 1991, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the bridge, historian Fanchon Dewell Cornell penned a 25-page booklet.
“It’s not so much that the bridge belongs to us as that we belong to the bridge, to record its history, to celebrate its milestones, to rest in the serenity of its just being there,” she wrote.
The little history book is laced with poems and songs about the bridge.
“Emboldened by the darkened shade, some bashful swain here kissed a maid,” a 1930s poet wrote.
The bridge survived proposals to tear it down in 1931 and 1953. In 1970, a Binghamton attorney offered to buy the bridge. It was struck by lightning, was rescued from three fires and weathered more than a few floods.
Cornell concludes the bridge’s history with a quote from The Bible’s Proverbs.
“May it always remain standing, a reminder that civilization is to “remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set,” she wrote.
A hundred years from today, no one will know what it was like to stand inside the bridge, to drive along Route 30 and see it from a car window. To dance and picnic with the scenic bridge as a backdrop.
Without the bridge, Blenheim — and Schoharie County — will never be quite the same.
Karen Bjornland is a writer in the Gazette’s feature department. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.