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Vermont Hosts First-Ever Conference On
Best Ways Of Preserving Covered Bridges
by Ed Barna
Initially, the organizers of the Firs National Covered
Bridge Conference in June had thought to have an evening celebration in the 186-foot, two-lane
covered bridge at the Shelburne Museum.
Then some of the more engineering-oriented people
involved started calculating: 220 people, perhaps 180 pounds average, equals . . . . The
organizers, confronted with the fact that they might be loading about 20 tons on the 158-year-old
bridge, decided to use a rented tent instead.
It was a heavy conference in more ways than one.
Top academic historians, timber-framers, engineers, and agency officials came for the first ever
conference on best practices for preserving covered bridges. According to coordinator Judy
Hayward of Historic Windsor, Inc.'s Preservation Education Institute, people from 23 states and 7
It was "the largest event that our organization has
ever put together," Hayward said. Sponsoring it were the Federal Highway Administration, the
National Park Service, and the University of Vermont's Graduate Program in Historic
Preservation, with 12 other groups listed as "cosponsors."
Behind the event was a growing consensus that the
struggle to save the nation's roughly 1,000 remaining covered bridges (more than 100 of which
are in Vermont) has entered a new phase. No one would simply demolish one now to make way
for a new concrete-and-steel structure, but when poor maintenance combines with a demand that
the old bridges carry modern traffic loads, "repairing" them all too often means replacing most of
the timber and using historically inappropriate materials like glued laminates.
As an unexpected validation of the conferees' work,
Sen. James Jeffords gave the concluding remarks for the discussions--and made an unexpected
announcement. He said the new federal transportation bill, continuing a program he had started,
several years ago, would provide $50 million a year for six years to help state's rehabilitate their
The nuts and bolts of the conference (or perhaps it
would be better to say the joints and pegs) were sessions on ways of testing and assessing the
conditions of timber structures, case studies of renovations, examinations of how bridges relate to
tourism, looks at new materials and ways of fireproofing bridges, and so on. But the key moment
came at the end, when everyone gathered in UVM's Billings Center theater to discuss, amend, and
possibly adopt the Burlington Charter for the Preservation of Historic Covered Bridges.
The exact statement, modified by comments made in
the forum, will be released later. But in the end, the conferees voted almost unanimously (one
dissenting voice) for a set of principles based on the following five priorities:
1. "To preserve the historic structural and material integrity of covered bridges to the maximum
2. "To retain covered bridges for limited, protected use on roads whenever feasible and practical,
and with the minimum possible compromises to historic structural and material integrity."
3. "To identify and preserve, to the maximum extent possible, all features that define the historic
character of covered bridges, including but not limited to setting, approach roads, surrounding
cultural landscapes, or viewsheds."
4. "To establish, whenever possible, partnerships among local, state, and federal governments and
among non-profit organizations in order to provide the best opportunities for continued
stewardship of covered bridges."
5. "To identify and preserve, whenever possible, examples of ingenuity in timber craftsmanship,
unique practices or traditions designed to address specific problems on specific bridges. These
practices and examples of craftsmanship are an important part of the history of America's historic
covered bridges, and that tradition of ingenuity should be continued by future generations."
Some thought wording like "whenever possible"
should be taken out in favor of stronger statements."We can do it;" said one timber-framer, if that
is clearly the goal.
There were suggestions for other priorities:
promoting tourism, educating the public, finding funding, making sure the wood taken out of old
bridges during repairs finds respectful uses. The conference organizers, pressed for time, said
these could be lumped into the original five statements as sub-categories.
The final say will be with the National Park Service.
The Burlington Charter is intended as a suggestion that the Secretary of the Interior's Standards
for Preservation, Rehabilitation. Restoration and Reconstruction--widely used in making decisions
during work on Vermont's historic buildings--include specific recommendations for covered
Assuming the Secretary of the Interior's office (which
is in charge of the National Park Service) does develop such guidelines, the conference organizers
suggested that they "be presented at the Second National Best Practices Conference for Historic
Covered Bridges, time and place to be announced."
Judging by people's remarks and the amount of
networking that went on, a vote on whether to hold such a second conference might well have
gained unanimous support.
[Ed Barna serves on the VCBS Board of Directors and is author Vermont's Covered
Bridges, published by Countryman Press.]
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Joe Nelson, P.O Box 267, Jericho, VT 05465-0267
This file posted July 13, 2003