Clock ticking on grassroots effort to save historic bridges in Keeseville

Local News

KEESEVILLE, N.Y. – In Keeseville, a trio of 19th century bridges that have sat abandoned for years are the focus of a growing community effort to preserve history.

Throughout the village, you’ll find 250 signs that read “Save Our Historic Bridges!”, and an online petition has managed to gather over 2,300 signatures.

All three bridges — the Upper Bridge, the Swing Bridge and the Old State Road Bridge — have historical significance, and all three are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

“These bridges need to be restored, they’re that significant,” said Matthew Pray, a key organizer of the Save Keeseville’s Historic Bridges group. “They’re not just every day run of the mill bridges.”

It’s taken well over a decade of advocacy from the community to try and get the bridges restored to their former glory, and the clock is ticking before they could eventually fall unceremoniously into the Ausable River.

The Upper Bridge was built in 1878 with iron that likely came from repurposed Civil War era cannons. It’s the oldest metal Pratt truss bridge in New York, and Pray said it’s gained a bit of a celebrity status among engineers.

“I’ve reached out to engineers across the country who are experts in historical bridge restoration, and every single one of them that I’ve emailed photos of this bridge to were aware of it, visited it, or planned on visiting it,” Pray said.

Further upstream, the Old State Road Bridge has sat abandoned since 2005, no longer offering tourists what Pray called one of the best views in Upstate New York – the Ausable Chasm. Engineers have said the bridge could still be repaired, and even re-opened to traffic.

Four men repair the Old State Road Bridge (Circa 1900) Photo Credit: Sara Perkins

Lastly, there’s the Swing Bridge – the only one you can still walk across.

It may not stay that way for long, however, because a 2018 inspection revealed some yellow flags that needed to be addressed within the next five to six years, and the clock continues to tick.

“This is where the project sort of started,” Pray said. “Last summer this bridge was covered with trees on this side of the river, and my thought was that this bridge was going to be the next one to close.”

History isn’t the only motivating factor for reviving the bridges, either. Chesterfield Town Supervisor Clayton Barber said the closures have had a negative impact on the community.

“Look at the businesses that are near them,” Barber said. “Right now, we have an application for a motorcycle shop on the other side of one, and I think one of their biggest concerns is whether or not that bridge opens back up.”

By now, you’re probably wondering what the hold up is, given that the grassroots effort to get them repaired dates back over ten years. Pray said a lot of politics came into play when people first advocated for their repair, and organizers have been keen to avoid that in this campaign.

That said, keeping things civil for the sake of civil engineering hasn’t eliminated the money issue.

“The main hurdle is getting both Essex and Clinton County to work together and find either federal funding or grant funding that will cover 80 percent of the cost of the bridges, and finding a way to reduce the remaining 20 percent that the counties would have to pay for,” Pray said.

Joshua Kretser, head of the Clinton County Transportation Committee, recently told the group that everyone in his committee and the county legislature supports saving the bridges.

A recent proposal that has surfaced would require an application for the bridges under the Preserve NY, RAISE, or Northern Border Regional Commission State Economic & Infrastructure Development Investment Program. The RAISE program deadline is on July 12.

Pray said anyone who wants to get involved in the effort should write a letter to their county leaders. For more information on the bridges and the ongoing work to restore them, visit the group’s website and Facebook page.

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