By Tom French
Depending on how you count, over three dozen bridges cross the Ausable River from its headwaters in the high peaks to its mouth at Lake Champlain. The first was built in 1810; the oldest, the Stone Arch Bridge in Keeseville, is now 179.
Representing two centuries of engineering history, sixteen of the bridges are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, part of a thematic nomination, “Historic Bridges of the Ausable River Valley,” written by Steven Engelhart, retiring Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), a nonprofit historic preservation organization for the Adirondack Park. AARCH occasionally offers a tour of some of the bridges. I had the privilege of participating in one led by Mr. Engelhart.
I highly recommend the AARCH tour, but for those looking for a daytrip scenic drive, the first historic bridges are near St. Hubert’s, if following the flow of the East Branch.
Beer’s Bridge (look for the street sign on the right) is notable not only for its history, but for the efforts of local property owners to rehabilitate it.
The bridge was moved to its current location from the Town of Lewis in the 1920s after a flood washed away the previous bridge. As a pin-connected bridge, it was easy to simply pull the pins, take it apart, and relocate it – a common occurrence across the country as bridges were upgraded from one lane to two on main thoroughfares. The nearby Ranney Bridge (near Rooster Comb Trailhead) was previously in New Russia and the Slater’s Bridge off St. Huberts Road was also somewhere else in Essex County. Sadly, the Walton Bridge, an elegant lenticular through truss bridge originally from Black Brook in Clinton County, was lost to Irene in 2011.
After Irene, engineers noted significant rusting on the Beer’s Bridge. As a result, the owners took up the challenge of repairing it and received an award from AARCH for their efforts which involved a fair amount of elbow grease – literally wire brushes and dishpans to prevent chips from falling into the river.
One and a half miles downstream is the Notman Bridge, a stone faced, concrete arch bridge built in 1913 by Arthur Notman, a mining engineer from Staten Island, for access to his cottage. With stonework by Italian masons from Staten Island, it is an early example of the aesthetic to blend and fit in with the natural surroundings. Unfortunately, the bridge is privately owned and not accessible to the public.
Jay Covered Bridge
The Jay Covered Bridge is well-known on the Ausable, though it is not on the National Register of Historic Places for various reasons. Travel north on Route 9N from Keene to reach to the restored bridge, now part of a recreational area with interpretive signage on both sides.
The first bridge on the site, also a covered bridge, was washed away in the “freshet” (flood) of 1856 when a dam on Lower Ausable Lake failed due to a heavy rain. Within minutes, a wall of water wiped out every bridge and dam along the East and Main Branch except for the Stone Arch Bridge in Keeseville.
One innovation in this Howe truss covered bridge was the use of vertical iron tension rods instead of wood. Replaced with steel during the rehabilitation, the iron rods allowed the bridge to be stronger and lighter.
Keeseville is the largest hamlet on the Ausable with three bridges designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks (along with the Brooklyn Bridge and a host of others) because it is the only known location in the United States with bridges that represent the evolution of 19th-century bridge design in such close vicinity to each other.
An 1810 wooden truss bridge was replaced with the Stone Arch Bridge in 1843. Using a temporary wooden structure to support the stone while under construction, stone arch bridges have been built for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, in 1842, before the arch was completed and while the wooden formwork was still needed, a heavy rain swelled the river and washed away the formwork. The bridge, still under construction, collapsed. Newspapers reported you could hear it in Port Kent, about four miles away.
Once the water receded, they fished the wood out of the river, re-erected the formwork, and completed it the next year.
It survived the freshit of 1856 and several other floods. A white stone on the east side marks the level of the 1856 flood. Above it is the mark of the even higher 1998 flood. Irene buried both marks with the highest level ever recorded.
The Keeseville Swing Bridge, the third in its location, is a twisted-wire, cable suspension footbridge within sight of the Stone Arch Bridge. One of its predecessors was made with chains. While the Stone Arch Bridge was under construction, an annual parade crossed the chain suspension bridge and it collapsed from the extra weight, killing many people.
The Upper Bridge, the oldest metal Pratt truss bridge in New York and one of only about 75 cast and wrought iron bridges in the entire country, can be found a quarter-mile upriver. It was closed in 2008 due to disrepair. A local group is lobbying government officials to save and restore several historic bridges from being “taken down” and/or replaced, including the Upper Bridge – an endeavor complicated by the fact that this part of the Ausable River serves as the county line between Essex and Clinton Counties, so responsibility for the bridges is shared by different jurisdictions.
Like most bridges along the Ausable, the Upper Bridge was not the first in its location. By the time it was built in 1878, bridge building was a significant engineering field with a number of manufacturing companies able to mass produce components which were packed, shipped, and assembled on site.
The first settlers at Ausable Chasm called it Birmingham Falls because of aspirations to be like the great industrial center of Birmingham, England. Moisture from the falls was problematic for the first wooden truss bridge across the river, but by the 1890s, a one-lane, steel Pratt Truss bridge, currently along Old State Road and now closed, was installed. By the 1920s, the bridge and winding road around the chasm could no longer handle the heavy traffic associated with a major north-south thoroughfare and tourist destination, so Route 9 was rerouted and the 222-foot, steel-arched Ausable Chasm Bridge (with a stone-faced concrete arch on the northern approach) now leaps across the river.
For those wishing to make a day of the auto tour, consider finishing with a paddle. At certain times of the year (and with permission), kayaking for experts is allowed through the Chasm from the powerhouse. But rentals for those looking for more of a lazy river are available near the 1941 Carpenter’s Flats Bridge (2.5 miles north) allowing for a float under two 1913 Warren truss railroad bridges near the mouth of the river. Or just check out the tourist attraction. After forty years of living in Plattsburgh, Steve Engelhart’s father finally went to the Chasm and was “aghast at the end of the day” that he’d waited so long.
More information about AARCH and their tours can be found at aarch.org.