CHESTER, Vt. – From the Chester Historical Society’s glass plate collection; this is a view of the Church Street covered bridge that once spanned the Williams River. Like many of our country’s lost covered bridges, it is likely that learning of the design and construction details of this bridge would be difficult. Information such as truss type, exact bridge length, source of materials and date of construction may only come after years of research, if at all. You may ask why would we want to know these details?
As we take a few days to celebrate Chester’s 250th Anniversary, we are of course showing respect for the accomplishments of Chester’s men and women of the past. It is natural at a time like this to also think of the future. There will likely be some talk of what Chester ”should” be like in ten, twenty years or way down the road to our Tercentennial. If Chester wants to remain a destination town for tourism, I have a suggestion: Build a covered bridge. Not just any bridge, but if possible one that replicates a bridge from Chester’s past, a bridge that would qualify for inclusion in the World Guide to Covered Bridges. Build a bridge and they will come. I know, as I am “one of them”, a covered bridge enthusiast. I have been to many small towns across the country that I have never heard of except for their bridges.
A great deal of our collective knowledge of American covered bridges has been saved for us by the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges. Founded in 1950, this organization produced its first edition of the World Guide to Covered Bridges in 1956. Thanks to the Society’s efforts, we know a lot about the bridges that have survived in the ensuing six decades. But of the bridges that were lost previous to the founding of this organization, such as the Church Street Bridge in Chester, we know relatively little.
The present covered bridges in America are standing examples of the bridge builder’s skills. Many of these revered men had little training in their craft. In some cases a farmer simply needed to cross a stream for access to part of his land. Having participated in a community bridge building project the previous year, he may have said, “I can build the bridge I need with just a little help from my neighbors.” In some cases, these modest bridges still stand today, and thousands of people go to see them, as well as drive or walk through them.
The larger covered bridges attract even more people. They are the sites of festivals and annual celebrations. Unlike the casual projects I mentioned above, some surviving bridges are quite large and strong. They are the products of the forests, of the men who ran the sawmills, the skilled joiners who made the final adjustments of the truss structures, and the farmer whose oxen hoisted these strong passages into place for the benefit of the surrounding community. Think about it. We could build a bridge like this right here in Chester, after all, we’ve had them here in days gone by.