The Maine Department of Transportation is considering the fate of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, which serves the communities of Brunswick and Topsham. This bridge, built in 1931, has seen many upgrades, repairs and changes over the years. Also known as the “ Green Bridge,” it has become an iconic landmark to the area, and although it is not very green these days — with paint flaking off the steel structural beams — it still looks quintessentially New England.
Passing over the Androscoggin River, this bridge connects the Cabot and Bowdoin mills, and it once serviced a train that ran down the center of the decking, delivering vital coal to the area. This bridge has seen many winters and summers, falls and springs, and above all else, it is a piece of history tied to this community that should be preserved, not torn down.
Let’s backtrack a bit. The year was 1961, and many important events occurred that year. President John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president. The Russians and Americans launched astronauts into space. And while construction began on the Berlin Wall dividing Germany, the town of Brunswick tore down its iconic town hall, leaving an indelible mark upon the community.
If you ask anyone from Brunswick today, the demolition of the town hall is spoken of with sorrow. There is a palpable air about that calamity and shortsighted affair that resulted in the loss of that grand structure. And today there is a chance to preserve the past for the future instead of reduce it to rubble.
The structure of the Frank J. Wood Bridge is sound enough for all traffic under 25 tons. The superstructure requires some repairs, and the decking and some needle beams need to be replaced. The majority of the superstructure of the bridge is sound enough to allow daily traffic to utilize this bridge. So, excuse the expression, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; let’s preserve our past.
In 1970s, an open grid system — remember singing bridges — was put in place to replace the original decking. This was upgraded with a patch in the 1980s, when cement was poured over the decking. In place of rebar, the deck was used as the support, a temporary, quick fix that resulted in the short lifespan of the decking. This bridge should not be punished for shortsighted work done in 1980s.
But why save the bridge? For posterities sake, to prevent regret, to preserve a piece of our community. How about the endangered status of these bridges in Maine? Since 1999, Maine Department of Transportation has replaced numerous steel truss bridges, such as those in Lisbon and Richmond. Look at those new bridgers and tell me it’s the same.
Maine has no program to rehab these truss bridges, and the state has done little to maintain these structures within the state. While other states, such as Massachusetts, Virginia, Vermont, Texas, Pennsylvania and others, are rehabbing these bridges, using appropriate methods for the materials of the bridges, Maine tears these bridges down and erects in their place cement structures with little to no architectural character. If a replacement bridge is constructed for the Frank J. Wood Bridge, it will only be a foot wider and change the aesthetic of Brunswick and Topsham.
Width is important in this discussion. The current proposal for the rehabilitation of the Frank J. Wood Bridge would add another sidewalk and have space enough for bike lanes. On top of that, the current bridge adds safety to pedestrians. While a new bridge will have sidewalks, a small curb will be the only protection for pedestrians from a distracted driver. The current bridge an automobile would have to contend with the superstructure first.
I believe the rehabilitation of the Frank J. Wood Bridge is important. It helps preserve an aesthetic of historic architecture while maintaining the character of a picturesque downtown. We need to look at preservation as a future, instead of tearing everything down, making society disposable. This about posterity, this is about preservation, this is about identity of a community.
David F. Jester is a firefighter and paramedic, writer and traveler. He has a master’s degree in American New England Studies. He lives in Brunswick.