Park Perspectives: A community rebuilds

The Wanakena footbridge was a beloved landmark for 112 years.
The Wanakena footbridge was a
beloved landmark for 112 years.

This January morning in Wanakena couldn’t be more different from the day two years ago when a violent turn of nature broke the historic heart of a community.

Today, a bracing wind moves over the dry, cold snow that covers the homes, walkways, and riverbed of this former mill town. The Oswegatchie River flashes in the sunlight as it moves swiftly over and around anchored ice, well below its banks. You can see the power that is latent in this stream, but as we stand beside it the conversation is of construction, not destruction.

How unlike January 14, 2014. On that day, following a series of thaws and freezes, the rain fell and the river rose and the ice of the Oswegatchie broke loose upstream of Wanakena, hurtling into a footbridge that had stood for 112 years. Soon the landmark lay across the ice floes, battered beyond repair.

Standing on an abutment that had been the north end of the 171-foot bridge, Sue Westbrook and Allen Ditch talk now of how a simple structure had come to mean so much to a remote community in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Park. And of how a drive to rebuild, which began within days of the loss, may culminate with a new bridge this year.

It was clear from the start that the Town of Fine, which encompasses Wanakena, couldn’t bring back the bridge on its own.

“In a town this small anything like this has to be community driven,” says Sue, who was on the Town Board and has since become supervisor. “The community has to make it happen.”

“The day the bridge went down, everybody’s crying,” says Allen, who has led fund-raising by the Wanakena Historical Association. “They asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I think Wanakena without the bridge is like Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”

The original bridge dates back to the founding of Wanakena in 1902 by the Rich Lumber Company, which was beginning operations here. Workers needed a way to cross from the company homes over the river to the mills clustered around a pond on the far side. (Many of these homes had been purchased from Sears and used in a Rich Lumber mill town in Pennsylvania before being transported to Wanakena.) When the lumber company pulled out in 1912 some town fathers, including members of the Rich family, chose to stay and develop resorts served by the rail line that was built to haul lumber. Well-heeled visitors from distant cities strolled around Wanakena, and the bridge became a social center as well as the key link for the walks that held the community together.

The heyday of trains and tourists came to a close with the beginning of World War I. But even as the population fell from its high of more than two thousand in the mill era to the fifty-five year-round residents today, folks continued to stroll and the bridge continued to draw people together.

“Every day, it didn’t matter if it was summer or winter, people were walking the bridge,” says Allen. “Every evening you’d start out and you’d see everybody in town. You’d stop and talk.”

And the memories endured with those who had come to Wanakena for the Ranger School, the families who lived here for a time or those who visited for the fishing or hiking. Hundreds of letters poured in as word of the calamity spread.

Sue Westbrook and Allen Ditch are leading the effort to restore it. Photo by Mike Lynch
Sue Westbrook and Allen Ditch are leading the effort to restore it.
Photo by Mike Lynch

“There were grandfathers who remember their dad bringing them over to the bridge, and they brought their kids here,” Allen says. “People remembered how they got married or renewed their vows on the bridge. We got letters from France and England and Germany.”

“I had to stop reading them because I was crying,” says Sue.

The bridge remnants were pulled from the river in June, but months before that, the people of the area were telling the story of their bridge and looking for help. Many people understood. Local government, economic-development groups, the historical association, Adirondack Architectural Heritage, and former visitors from around the world pitched in with money or services.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation pledged $125,000 that had to be matched by other contributions, creating a pool of $250,000. That match has now been met. The fund-raising efforts included a “Community Bridge Day” last summer that raised $23,000 in six hours through an auction and other activities.
Sue says they don’t know what the final cost will be, but the more than $250,000 received so far should bring them close. They hope that work with architects and engineers can begin soon. The project also needs approval from the Adirondack Park Agency.

Organizers plan to rebuild the bridge as it was, which creates a challenge since they don’t have plans for the original construction. But as contractors were removing the debris from the river, an engineer took measurements and studied what remained in order to draw “as built” plans to guide the reconstruction.

Will all this effort be worth it in the end?

“Some people have said, ‘Why would you do this?’” says Sue. “‘Don’t you think there’s other things you could spend money on?’ I say this is a project about heart, about community, about people coming together.”

Allen refers to the response he has received: “The letters tell of families and the times they spent together. This is just a magical little place with a sway bridge.”

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