Delhi - Delaware County's deputy commissioner of public works admits he's obsessed with covered bridges.
Phillip C. Pierce engineered the restoration of the Hamden Covered Bridge, which is in the final stages, and he has begun work on Fitch's Bridge in Delhi.
Fitch's Bridge, which spans the West Branch of the Delaware River, above Delhi, off state Route 10, closed Wednesday and will remain closed until the restoration is complete. Pierce said if the county's bridge crew could work on the project full time, the project could be completed in about four months, but because of other bridge projects, the bridge probably won't be completed until late summer or early fall.
Pierce left the private sector to go to work for Delaware County in October 1999. He said he was enticed by a promise that he could work on the restoration of the county's covered bridges.
"For the last seven or eight years I have been obsessed with covered bridge work," Pierce said. "Or maybe its actually more of a passion."
Pierce has 30 years of experience with bridge engineering, but in the early 1990s, the company he was working for, McFarland-Johnson Inc. in Binghamton, was hired by the Vermont Agency of Transportation to do a comprehensive study of all of Vermont's 75 covered bridges. Pierce conducted the study, wrote up the reports -- and found himself hooked on covered bridges.
Pierce and Wayne Reynolds, Delaware County DPW commissioner, both worked for McFarland-Johnson 10 years ago and have been friends since. When Delaware County needed a bridge expert, Reynolds knew who to call.
Nobody is more enthusiastic or knows more about covered bridges than Phil does," Reynolds said.
Pierce said Fitch's Bridge last had extensive work in the 70s.
"The bridge is just tired," Peirce said. "The bracing is leaning badly."
Fitch's Bridge is a Town Lattice truss bridge. The design was patented in 1820 by builder/architect Ithiel Town. The design consists of a horizontal top and bottom chord connected by a web of closely spaced, alternating diagonal timbers. The design, with its inherent strength coupled with its ease of construction, made the Town lattice truss design a popular design for highway and early railroad bridges until the post Civil War era.
Pierce said 140 of the 880 original covered bridges in existence in the United States are Town lattice bridges.
Pierce said that former Delaware County Historian John Raitt supplied him with the history of Fitch's Bridge, which was built in 1870 by James Frazier and Jasper Warren at a cost of $1,970. The single-span bridge of 100 feet originally spanned the river in the village at Bridge Street and was moved to its present location in 1885.
The bridge was listed on the Historic Register on April 29, 1999, through the efforts of Trish Kane.
The work on Fitch's Bridge will begin with a unique study to determine how the structure behaves.
Reynolds said the nondestructive testing involves attaching diagnostic equipment to the low chord of the bridge, which will produce a mathematical model to make sure the plans are accurate. Electrical devices will monitor the bridge as a known weight travels across it," Reynolds said. Pierce said the testing is the first of its type to be done.
After the testing in complete, inside bracing will begin. A temporary structure will be assembled inside the bridge to support it during the restoration process. Pierce said scrap materials are being used to build the temporary structure to save the county money.
A few changes will be made in the bridge to bring it back to its original state.
"The bridge must have been longer when it was at the original site," Pierce said. "The truss was modified to make it fit, which splayed the lattice closer together at the ends. The new trusses will be 8 feet longer, which will mean recasting part of the abutment so the lattice will be parallel. The buttresses, which I call elephant ears, aren't original and won't be replaced."
The top chord of the bridge will be preserved, but the two bottom chords and the flooring are all junk, according to Pierce. When the bridge is complete it will still have 80 percent of its original material.
The new material will all be sawn. The chords will be Southern pine and the rest of the new wood will be Douglas fir. Pierce said he thinks the bridge was originally constructed of local hemlock. The roof will be wood shingles.
Pierce has been selected by the Federal Highway Administration to be the principle investigator for a new research project and will prepare an all-encompassing covered-bridge manual to be published by the federal government. He said he plans to use knowledge garnered from his work on the restoration of two of Delaware County's three historic covered bridges in the manual.
For more information about Pierce's covered bridge projects, visit his website at www.philsbridges.com on the Internet.
There is also extensive information about projects Pierce was involved with in Vermont and about the renovation of the Hamden Covered Bridge at www.vermontbridges.com.
The New York Covered Bridge Society's website has photos of the Delaware County bridges before they were restored at www.nycoveredbridges.org.
1. This article appears here with the kind permission of the Oneonta Daily Star for which we of the Vermont Covered Bridge Society are grateful.