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A Conversation with Mark Cote, Covered Bridge Contractor

On the morning of December 17, 1999, in response to an e-mail from Dick Roy of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, I contacted Mark Cote by telephone. Blow and Cote, Inc., General Contractors, of Morrisville, VT won the contract to rehabilitate the Paper Mill covered bridge. The e-mail reported that the Paper Mill Bridge in North Bennington had been purposely set on fire.
        Mr. Cote explained that what was burned was the un-reusable material set aside after the bridge was dismantled, mostly from the roof. The construction team found that much of the bridge was rotted, the roof a total loss, Cote said. Roof leaks allowed most of the truss to rot beyond reuse; only nine truss members could be salvaged and these will be used in the new truss at the ends of the truss where the stress is least. Unfortunately, said Cote, they will be hard to see because they will be behind the splash panels when the bridge is completed. Good pieces from the original chords will also be used.
        What follows is a portion of the transcript of the telephone conversation:

Joe Nelson: "Mark, what else did you find when you examined the bridge?"
Mark Cote: "It has a double knee brace system. One set of knee braces comes off the [upper secondary chord] of the truss to the bottom side of the tie-beam and second set come from the top chord and runs up beside the tie-beam to a roof rafter. We're saving about half of those, we are saving about half of the ridge pole and we are saving about nine lattices out of the whole bridge -- we're not saving lattices per se for replacement because they are in such terrible shape. We are using some good pieces of chord, and they've put these on the ends of the truss where the structural integrity doesn't have to be as good as in other places. You're not even going to see them when the bridge is done because they will be behind the doors. We've kept a whole lot of other stuff in case there is something we've got to replace.
       "Even the roof rafters are so rotted we'd have to use pieces of them in other places. We've saved a lot of the X-bracing in the top and the X-bracing in the bottom and reusing that."
JN: "I assume the X-braces are mortice and tenoned?"
MC: "Well, some are and some aren't, because over the years with different repairs, anything they replaced, they didn't mortice and tenon, they only nailed in. They're going to have us mortice and tenon everything back in. By the way, when we took those down we noticed some of the tie-beams were hardwood."
JN: "When I explored that bridge I saw a lot of sisters had been used.
MC: "Yes, they had tripled and doubled that lattice. Of course, the top chord had failed. They had shored it on the inside with steel to hold it up so it wouldn't fall into the river. I don't think it would have -- any one of those chords could fail and there are still three others."
JN: "You guys did the Henry Bridge a few years ago."
MC: "Yes, in '89."
JN: "The Henry is a self-supporting complete bridge. This one will be also?"
MC: "It is pretty much an identical design as the Henry Bridge. I think it was the same guy who kept going upstream, or downstream, there is one more in Bennington, and that one is also the same.
JN: "Yes, the Silk Road Bridge. It was repaired in the early nineties."
MC: "Yes, that was a repair job. It's in use and they've kept better track of the maintenance on it. On the Paper Mill, the roof rotted and no body took care of it. That's the downfall of covered bridges the roof and cleaning the decks. Nobody wants to clean the decks off them and they get a dust build up that absorbs water and the wood never dries out.
       "The people down in Shrewsbury called me. Their bridge, the Brown Bridge, needs repairs. There are some boards missing and stuff like that and they had me look at the roof. It's slate, one of the three slate roofs left. There is a leak in that one, but fortunately, it's down low, [and] . . . unfortunately, it's leaking onto the top chord. And they've got about an inch and a half of dust on the floor, the whole length of it. It'll keep the moisture in there, it'll never get a chance to dry."

I contacted Mark Cote again on January 11, following an e-mail from Dick Wilson who had visited the site and found the bridge removed and its components cut and stacked into piles. The purpose of the call was to determine why the bridge was dismantled in this way. See "The Bridge is Gone."

JN: "You said safety is your first concern."
MC: ". . . Safety is a big issue now with everything we do because somebody is always saying we are doing it wrong. With that particular bridge, if I had to dismantle it to save any one component, I'd have lifted a whole side at a time and laid it on the ground and then dismantled it. The production is three or four times than if you are working off of a scaffold fifteen feet off the river. The other thing is what mother nature does to you when you are working over a river. You could have high water any time and lose your scaffolding. There is a lot more to working on a bridge than meets the eye. When they built these things, some of them were built on land and moved over the water, others they cribbed them right up from the river bed.
       "The builders of these things used what they had available to them when they built them and did it the most economical way they felt there was to do it."
JN: "And that is what you are doing?"
MC: "Yes, and someone else made the decision as to what was salvageable and what was not on that structure. We are just doing what the contract says."
JN: "I read the inspection report on this bridge and it mentions several problems, one being the use of sisters. In rebuilding, you would need to replace those lattice members the sisters were supporting?"
MC: "Yes, because they are all broke on the tails, the tails being the down end where the floor is supported. That is the problem with this system -- all of the floor beams rest on the bottom chord, and all of the stresses are transferred there, along that bottom chord."
JN: So, you are saying the reason you didn't just lift the bridge off of the river is because so little was salvageable and it was the economical way to do it?"
MC: "Right. We dismantled the roof system and all that stuff above the floor, the vertical sides because of the

salvage we had to include there, and by the way, some of that wasn't as good as they thought it was going to be -- we've had to order extra pieces. When the roof fails the rest follows. We couldn't even walk on that roof to take the shingles off. We had to put a platform on the tie- beams to stand on and punch holes through the roof to take the shingles off. The roof failed throughout and nobody picked up on it. Some of the roof was original because of the square nails that we found in it.
       "There is quite a process that the AOT goes through to get a bridge rebuilt; clearances from Vermont Historic Preservation, they concurred with everything that is being done. They sent their people down to look it over. They had meetings [in Bennington] attended by Dick Pembrook, who chairs the House Transportation Board. [He] was aware of [the plans for the bridge]. He said, 'There! It's about time we got this thing fixed!' They've had that temporary bridge there for what? Fifteen years?
       "What do you do with old, no good wood. People want us to use it. We can't splice it, we can't weld it, we can't do anything with it. You can't build anything out of bits of wood, especially if it's going to carry load."
JN: "The observation was "perfectly good wood cut into ten-foot sections."
MC: "Yeah. Any particular section of it could have been good, I brought back here (to Morrisville) ten-foot long pieces that were salvageable without having to take the treenails out. I told the guy if he found what he thought was a good piece, to cut it out between the top chord and the bottom chord, we'll find a use for that piece. We salvaged about thirty pieces that way. What looks like a perfectly good piece of wood might only be good in the section you are looking at. Some of the truss was cut up because it was so difficult to disassemble. It was found that the oak treenails used to secure these members were actually so bent after years of shear stress that they couldn't readily be driven out.

Note: Blow and Cote were the contractors for the Henry Bridge in Bennington, and the Gates Farm Bridge in Cambridge, as well as the bridge in Irasburg. Mark Cote said that his company stockpiles pieces of the salvaged lumber left over from the projects for ultimate reuse. A recent purchaser was a local guitar maker. Maybe the CB societies might find a use for some of this stock in promoting preservation.

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Joe Nelson
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