It is more expensive to restore and maintain a covered bridge than to replace it with a steel or concrete structure. And yet, New Hampshire is still home to 60, thanks to local communities that have fought to keep them alive.
Hancock resident Kim Varney Chandler tells the stories behind New Hampshire’s covered bridges in her new book, Covered Bridges of New Hampshirepublished by Peter E. Randall Publisher, which features his own photographs and years of extensive research.
Chandler, who grew up on the coast, says the idea for the project began in 2012 when, after a decade of living in Virginia, she and her husband returned to their home country.
“When we moved to Hancock, honestly, I had only been west of Concord half a dozen times in my life. I didn’t know the area at all and I’m one of those people who have I needed to know more. I immediately bought all of Hancock’s history books — there are three of them — and walked around, looking at buildings and different places around town,” Chandler said.
She was particularly drawn to covered bridges, which seemed very “New England” to her. She was curious; who built these bridges, and why? And more importantly, why were they still there? Swanzey was not a very big town, and yet it had four. Covered bridges are not cheap to preserve.
Chandler, an amateur photographer, says her original idea was to photograph every covered bridge nearby — and then every covered bridge in the state — but, eventually, life got in the way and she shelved the project.
In 2020, with fewer social obligations, Chandler finds himself with a bit more time and returns to covered bridges. She decided to organize her notes and photos and go over the remaining bridges with her husband and their Chocolate Lab, Pemi.
Between these visits, she contacted engineering firms, construction companies, bridge builders, historical societies and spoke with the experts. The deeper she went, the more complex the project became. Instead of just photos, what if she created a website about everything she had learned? While doing research at the Cheshire County Historical Society, its director, Alan Rumrill, suggested she write a book.
“I didn’t want to write a book. It kind of happened,” she said. “I have always loved history. I have always liked to write. I guess I just felt like it was my chance to finally do something with it. Not that I couldn’t a long time ago. But I had never given it much thought. I’m not going to say that with COVID there was more time, but it definitely changed my mindset thinking about what was important and what were the things I really wanted to do.
Chandler says one of his favorite stories in the book is about the Corbin Bridge, which was built in the 1800s and lives on a rural road in Newport. When, in 1993, it was mysteriously lit and burned to ashes, the city had a choice. They could either take the insurance money, build a steel or concrete bridge and have it taken over by the state, or raise more money and rebuild a replica.
“It was a fight. City leaders and a small group of people who identified themselves as ‘bridge people’ kind of fought. Nobody wanted to tax ratepayers to build another covered bridge,” she said.
Ultimately, the townspeople hired Arnold Graton and his late father, who Chandler says were pioneers in restoring and rebuilding covered bridges using 19th-century methods, to build a replica of the original. “He invited the community to come and help, and people felt part of it. They felt a sense of pride. When they talk about this bridge now, it means a lot to this city to have it there,” she said. “These are the stories that I found incredible – these cities that fought to keep them.”
She says Newport’s story is one you’ll see across the state over and over again in different variations. Some communities have built roads around the covered bridges, leaving the original structures intact. Others have enhanced them to accommodate two-way traffic.
Since its publication in November, the book has been endorsed by the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, and Chandler has started a podcast about New Hampshire’s covered bridges. “I just felt like I had more to say and other people had more to say, and I wanted to give them space to say it,” she said.
For Chandler – who by day is a counselor at Fall Mountain Regional High School – the part she enjoyed most was meeting the people involved in preserving these structures and being part of the community. “people of the bridge”.
“This is by no means a complete story. It’s a start,” she said. “I hope this book will inspire people to stop for a minute and think about what they are watching; reflect on why this bridge is there, and honor it and the people who worked to keep it there.
You can find out more about Chandler, his book and his upcoming events at coveredbridgesnh.com and his podcast at podcast.coveredbridgesnh.com.