Rebuilding Old Stage Road Bridge: ‘An Eye Sore into a Postcard’ Without Tax Dollars
By Donna Green
An historic stone arch bridge which connects two New Hampshire towns has been given a new life thanks entirely to volunteer labor, donated materials and approximately $45,000 of private funds. In May, town residents will celebrate the official opening of the rebuilt Old Stage Road Bridge, and the end of a remarkable story of volunteerism and inter-municipal cooperation.
Old Stage Road Bridge straddles the Taylor River between Hampton Falls and Hampton, New Hampshire. Each town owns one half of the bridge, which connects two large conservation open spaces, Applecrest Orchards in Hampton Falls and the Hurd Dairy Farm in Hampton. A dam and waterfall grace the site.
“It can be difficult to get towns to work together on mutual projects,” commented Hampton Falls Town Administrator, Eric Small, but he says once the boards of selectmen approved it, the project moved ahead under the strong leadership of Judy Wilson.
Wilson is a communications specialist and a resident of Hampton Falls who often walks her dog along the river. Saddened by the deteriorating state of the old bridge, she formed and led the 13 member committee that coordinated the rehabilitation of the bridge, and the creation of one of southern New Hampshire’s few covered bridges.
Why replace a bridge with a covered bridge? Wilson says, “[It was] felt it would be a lot easier to do something special, an old fashioned covered bridge, with volunteer labor akin to a barn raising—something that engaged the community—that just repaving [a public road] wouldn’t have accomplished.”
She was evidently right. “Neighbors and area businesses were extremely generous,” Wilson says, with both money, volunteer labor and, surprisingly, varied expertise. The committee has even funded an endowment for a dedicated maintenance fund, as required by the inter-municipal agreement.
The Hampton Falls Board of Selectmen approved the committee so that donations could be made out to the town and be eligible for a tax deduction. Fundraising began by approaching major donors. With that backing in place, the committee then reached out to the neighborhood surrounding the bridge. Steve Volpone, the committee’s vice chair and treasurer, said 70 percent of total dollars contributed came from the neighborhood.
Initial quotes for the basic structure renovation and the roof came in around $150,000, says Volpone. Because of the donations of professional services, materials and labor, Volpone believes the final cost will be between 25 to 33 percent of that original estimate, for a better built and more beautiful structure.
Hampton Falls has a long history of civic pride. At least two historians have written detailed histories of the town. Warren Brown’s history, volume I, published in 1900 says:
“Between their homes and the old church at Hampton was a long stretch of salt marsh with only an apology for a road; this was overflowed and impassable during high tides.” (p17).
According to Brown, this apology for a road was used by the Eastern Stage Company on its route from Boston to Portsmouth, so it must have come as some relief to passengers when the bridge was built in 1825. Repairs were done in 1875 and 1895, and the bridge was rebuilt in 1897. The architect who designed the latest renovation, Jack Fermery, says the stone arch is original and still sound.
Nevertheless, with the surface and façade of the one-lane bridge in great disrepair, the Department of Transportation condemned the structure in 1998 and closed it to all traffic. Discussion to rehabilitate the bridge arose in 2002 when a boy received minor injuries after he slipped through the guardrail and into the water, but a story on Seacoastonline.com from June 27, 2004 says, “Hampton officials opted against putting taxpayer money into the bridge.”
Opening the bridge for pedestrian uses would expose both towns to potential liability, and as Small points out, “It would have cost a lot of money … to tear it down.”
This is how an historic bridge at a scenic location became a dilapidated eye sore with future liabilities.
Liability issues cripple many a good volunteer idea, but the Old Stage Road Bridge Committee powered past them. “Both towns share the same insurance carrier,” Wilson states, “and we worked closely with them to be in compliance while it was under construction.”
Not only that, but the committee discovered, after voters had approved the project, that the Attorney General had 30 days to object to the inter-municipal agreement between the towns. Fortunately, no objection was voiced.
The rehabilitation itself was something of a risk. Wilson says they didn’t know what to expect when they began because “no maintenance had been done on it for such a long time … Lots of prep work needed to be done….”
Hampton Falls’ Road Agent Dick Robinson used to own an excavation company. He volunteered his time and personal equipment to work on the bridge. Robinson thought, based on the extremely poor condition of the road surface, that he was going to have to remove all the underlying concrete. Once exposed, however, Robinson says, “The condition of the concrete was surprisingly good, so we formed it, capped it and put the new concrete right over the top of it, 16 to19 inches taller than the old concrete to make the structure for the new roof.” All reinforced with steel.
“These guys really made sure this was not just a cosmetic change,” says Wilson. “From the ground up this bridge is fixed right.”
Wilson applauds the committee for taking advantage of current knowledge to minimize future problems and ongoing maintenance. “Water drainage was a big issue,” she remarks, requiring the road to be regraded to direct water off the bridge.
“We didn’t build something now that is going to be a headache to future generations,” says Wilson. “That bridge is so over built and over engineered, it is good to go for hundreds of years … There’s so much pride in it.”
In Volume II of History of Hampton Falls, N.H., which Warren Brown published in 1918, he wrote:
“Seventy years ago this town took a high rank among the towns of the state for temperance, morality, industry and intelligence and in all things which go to make up a desirable community.”
Mr. Brown would be well pleased to know that the important things have endured.
Donna Green is a freelance writer, a member of the Sandown Planning Board, and a commissioner with Rockingham Planning Commission (RPC). She would like to thank Ted Tocci for communicating this inspiring story to the RPC, and an unidentified Hampton Falls resident for providing the title quote at a Board of Selectmen meeting.