The beautiful and historic Lake Champlain Bridge crossed Lake Champlain at a historic location. The bridge was an interstate bridge, with shared ownership, and New York State Department of Transportation being the lead agency which among other things meant they were responsible for maintenance of the bridge.
The bridge was opened in 1929 (a couple months before Black Tuesday of the 1929 stock market crash), under the name "Lake Champlain Bridge" in 1929, being the only bridge on the entire lake. Its opening was a major event and was celebrated in a ceremony and celebration at the bridge by a general public in large numbers. Among other dignitaries was New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would soon go on to be president of the United States. At the time of its demolition, the bridge was still often known as the Lake Champlain Bridge, or simply as Champlain Bridge, but was also commonly called the Crown Point Bridge.
The historic Lake Champlain Bridge consisted of three main spans. The central main span was a cantilever span with a rare arched design, which was balanced by two deck truss anchor spans. On the Vermont side there was a single deck truss span with a polygonal bottom chord and five short deck plate girder spans. The New York side included two polygonal bottom chord deck truss spans and three short deck plate girder spans.
The bridge was engineered by the firm of Fay, Spofford and Thorndike, a company formed in 1914 and still in business today, and also the engineer for the only other bridge following a similar design including main and approach spans, the General Sullivan Bridge. The contractor for the superstructure was one of the largest national contractors in the country, the American Bridge Company.
The Lake Champlain Bridge was nationally significant as one of the earliest surviving examples of an extremely rare and beautiful design of cantilever truss that is often called an arch-cantilever on account of its shape. The design only looks like an arch bridge, it is in truth a cantilever truss and not an arch. The design was a response to a desire for a more pleasing cantilever bridge appearance, with an arch shape that is more graceful than the traditional cantilever form that has an obvious suspended span and pointed towers rising above the piers. The earliest known example of a bridge that contains prototypical examples of some of the engineering thinking and appearance of this arch-cantilever design is the 1903 Schell Bridge. The Schell Bridge does not represent the true arch-cantilever form, but is an important prototypical representation, since its bottom chord is polygonal to form part of the cantilever shape, and the polygonal top chord presents a single curved arch shape with no towers or obvious suspended span, which are two of the main distinctive features of the arch-cantilever design. As mentioned previously, the Lake Champlain Bridge is one of the earliest known examples of a true (non-prototypical) arch-cantilever design bridge. The other earliest known example, the General Sullivan Bridge was designed by the same engineer as the Lake Champlain Bridge, and many design similarities are visible. With the demolition of the Lake Champlain Bridge, the General Sullivan Bridge (also threatened) should receive the highest possible level of preservation priority.
The arch cantilever design continued to be built for many decades, and indeed most surviving examples of this bridge form tend to be from between the 1950s and 1970s, meaning that bridges of this type from the 1920s and 1930s are extremely significant and rare. Aside from the Lake Champlain Bridge and General Sullivan Bridge, one of the most important and earliest examples of the arch-cantilever is the massive Blue Water Bridge connecting Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario. Much like the historic Lake Champlain Bridge, the Blue Water Bridge is a major contributing attraction to the combined tourist value of the Blue Water Area which includes a historic lighthouse, Lake Huron, and Great Lakes freighter watching and other marine related activities. Fortunately, the historic significance, beauty, and tourism value of this extremely busy international bridge has been recognized and the bridge was paired with a modern tied arch. The historic Blue Water Bridge has been very well maintained and preserved and despite the heavy traffic it retains a high sufficiency rating and is not listed as deficient or obsolete in any way, and it continues to be a frequently photographed attraction for tourists. The demolition of the Lake Champlain Bridge has greatly increased the level of historic significance that the Blue Water Bridge enjoys.
The bridge connected and contributed a number of very important historic sites on both sides of the lake. These sites include the following.
In Chimney Point on the Vermont side, there was the Chimney Point State Historic Site, which is also on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is described as one of the most important historic locations on Lake Champlain, the site being one of the oldest known heavily settled locations in the region with a history of humans occupying it for over 7500 years. The site and museum includes two preserved structures including a historic rural post office, as well as one of the oldest taverns in Vermont.
Also in Vermont, the bridge was located near to the western end of the Crown Point Road, a historic military road in connecting the fort at Crown Point, VT to a fort at Charlestown, NH. The 250+ year old road dates back to 1759.
In New York, there is the historic Champlain Memorial Lighthouse constructed in 1912. With the demolition of the historic Crown Point Bridge, this ornate and very unusual design of lighthouse is perhaps the most visible and recognizable area landmark. The lighthouse sits on a former 1858 lighthouse's stone foundation. Rodin Bust La France, a 1912 bronze bust, a gift from France, is affixed to the lighthouse.
Also in New York, there are the historic sites containing surviving ruins of not one, but two 18th Century forts at Crown Point. Both of these forts contain one of the highest historic designations available in the United States, that of a National Historic Landmark. The oldest of these two forts is the French Fort St. Frederic (view history in National Register Nomination), whose construction began in 1739. Interpretive signage is also posted at the site. The second fort is the British Fort Crown Point (view history in National Register Nomination), built in 1759. The ruins of this fort include portions of buildings or walls of buildings that remain standing today. There is also interpretive signage for this State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark.
All of these attractions are open to the public, and along with the demolished historic bridge, were all important sources of tourism dollars. The historic bridge offered not only a functional connection between the historic sites on each side of the lake, it also fit in visually and contextually with the the historical settings since it was itself historic, and appealed to the interests of the heritage tourists visiting the area. The historic Lake Champlain Bridge was part of the historic experience at this location on Lake Champlain. A new bridge will reconnect the two sides of the lake, but it will have no heritage value and as such will fail to offer heritage tourists anything of value nor will it blend in with the historic appearance of the sites around it. Regardless of whether it was determined feasible or not, the fact is that only the preservation of the former bridge could have maintained the heritage value of the bridge.
The Lake Champlain Bridge was closed on October 16, 2009 when heavy deterioration was found on the portions of the piers that were underwater. In particular on one pier, a crack was found (underwater) that extended through the entire pier. This might not be such a severe problem except for the fact that one of the most unusual and bizarre design aspects of the Lake Champlain Bridge was that its piers were made of unreinforced concrete. This means there was no reinforcing rods in the piers. As a result, there was nothing preventing the piers from "slipping" on the crack line and collapsing the entire bridge. Reinforcing in concrete was widely used since the early 1900s for bridge work. By the 1920s, concrete bridge superstructures nearly always had reinforcing of some kind. Based on the information available to HistoricBridges.org, it appears that by the 1920s, not reinforcing concrete would have been extremely unusual for piers. However, an interesting path of future research would be to find out if there are other bridges out there that have unreinforced concrete piers. Identifying these bridges would be important for owners as well, so that they could identify those bridge which should receive the unique attention that their preservation requires. Conducting this research would normally require examination of the original plans, or testing of the concrete itself.
New York State Department of Transportation commented that the bridge had a "design life" of 70 years, and that as a result, it was not surprising that the bridge needed to be demolished and replaced. It does seem indeed that the piers (substructure) had a life of about 70 years and required repair, replacement, or retrofit, however in light of preservation success elsewhere, HistoricBridges.org strongly believes the trusses (superstructure) did not exhibit any characteristics that suggest the idea of a "service life" or "design life" would be appropriate given a reasonable frequency and quality of maintenance. The concept of a "design life" is commonly used in modern bridge design. Whether this is because someone doesn't want to be blamed if a new bridge doesn't last a certain length of time, or simply because many modern bridges do not display the potential for longevity that historic bridge types such as an earth-filled concrete arch bridge or a wrought iron truss bridge exhibit today if maintained and preserved is unclear. However, most bridges built in historic times did not have a design life placed upon them by their builders, and if they did, those design lives have often been proven false, the bridges having lasted far beyond that. With most historic bridges, frequency and quality of inspection, maintenance, and rehabilitation dictate the service life of a bridge far more than the original service intent or prediction. Many historic bridges, particularly metal truss bridges, can have nearly an indefinite life in terms of their structural integrity. As long as paint is kept on the trusses they will not rust, and if heavy loads are kept off of the bridges, than metal fatigue can be greatly reduced.
It remains a mystery why the Lake Champlain Bridge was built with unreinforced concrete, a building material that would have been considered substandard for decades in 1929, as much as it is a mystery why the bridge was described by its engineer as a bridge with a 70 year service life. Why would any engineer or bridge owner want to put a clock on the life of their bridge? The steel trusses of the bridge, made of the same type of material as the Golden Gate Bridge's stiffening trusses, could have lasted nearly indefinitely if maintained. Reinforced concrete was very common in the time that this bridge was built. It remains a mystery why they did not reinforce the piers. Golden Gate Bridge engineer Joseph Strauss designed his bridge to last "forever" and have "life without end" in his own words. Indeed, this statement made by Strauss would hold true for most metal truss bridges if they receive a certain level of maintenance (which the Golden Gate Bridge has received).
In 1969 the the United States put a man on the moon. 40 Years later, following the closure of the Lake Champlain Bridge, that same country determined decided that repairing the Lake Champlain Bridge - something that might seem simpler than walking on the moon - was absolutely impossible to do without putting workers in danger, since the bridge could have collapsed at any moment during repair work. From the moment of that assessment, the hope of preservationists saving the bridge was more far-fetched than walking on the moon might have seen before 1969. HistoricBridges.org does not intend to dispute the findings of inspectors and engineers nor do we condone putting any worker at risk for the sake of preservation. However, it was unfortunate... indeed devastating... for preservationists to learn that the bridge developed this irreversible problem. This event has prompted HistoricBridges.org to begin advocating more strongly for taking any needed action to prevent historic bridges from going beyond the point of safe and feasible repair.
Although it was determined unsafe for workers to be near the bridge to repair it, it was apparently found safe for workers to spend an entire week on and around the bridge structure to place 800 pounds of explosives in 500 pieces onto the historic bridge to destroy it.
There was nothing remarkable about the demolition of the Lake Champlain Bridge, which was accomplished with explosives. Explosives are routinely used to destroy large historic bridges every year. With explosives, a bridge that took years to build and has developed history and significance over decades of existence can be reduced to rubble in a fraction of a second. It is truly a disturbing and heart-wrenching event to witness. According to local news stories, many area and state residents were also angered that an out-of-state contractor (from Idaho) was selected for the demolition contract.
Happy Holidays? Not in 2009 for anyone who was a historic bridge enthusiast. The beautiful, nationally significant historic Lake Champlain Bridge was blasted to pieces with explosives in the heart of a season that is normally a time of peace, joy, and love and a time for looking forward to a coming year. For anyone with a true passion for history and historic bridges, the demolition of the Lake Champlain Bridge on December 28, 2009 greatly detracted from the enjoyment of the holiday season. This demolition date was partially thanks to winter, a dreadful season that destroys bridges almost as efficiently as current federal surface transportation legislation thanks to the destructive powers of ice and also de-icing salt. There were fears that the forces of ice as Lake Champlain froze would cause the piers to fail and the bridge to collapse, accounting for the early winter demolition.
Only future years will tell if 2009 was truly an especially tragic year for historic bridges, or if 2009 is just the latest in a trend of rapidly increased demolition of historic bridges. Nevertheless, in the United States an extremely large number of rare and significant historic bridges were either demolished or condemned during 2009. The demolition of the Lake Champlain Bridge on December 28, 2009 was the final icing on the cake of an extremely dark year for historic bridges.
Regardless of whether or not preservation of this bridge was feasible or not, the fact remains that the bridge's demolition has left an irreplaceable scar on the landscape that will never be filled in by attempts to build the new replacement bridge with a "context sensitive" design. While some of the context sensitive designs for the new bridge may look nicer than a traditional slab of concrete, all investigated alternatives were strikingly plain compared to the historic bridge, typical of modern bridge design. This is because the very tools that builders in the past used to make their bridges so beautiful are not used by modern engineers. These tools included rivets, built-up beams with v-lacing and lattice, complex truss designs including unusual polygonal chord shapes, and extensive bracing systems. The higher level of complexity present in these old bridges presents a geometric art form to the eye that is not seen in modern bridges which are extremely simplified and minimalistic in design. Even a single riveted connection on the historic Lake Champlain Bridge was amazingly complex, with its own unique set of angles and rivets, on account of the polygonal chords of the cantilever truss. A clipping from the original plans for the bridge display this complexity quite well, as seen pictured on this page. Also, these engineers of the past employed ornamentation which varied from bridge to bridge including plaques, statues, finials, railings, etc. The ornamentation usually was designed to fit with the bridge's structure so that it did not look like a "decoration" but was instead given the appearance of being part of the bridge's functional structure. Finally, the modern bridge will have no heritage value whatsoever, and as such it will not fit with the surrounding historic sites and the bridge will no longer be an attraction for the heritage tourists that grace the local area around the bridge.
The loss of this bridge is a devastating blow to the Crown Point and Chimney Point locations upon which the bridge was located... areas with rich history and frequent beneficiaries of heritage tourism. Indeed, the loss of the bridge is a blow to the entire Lake Champlain area as a whole, since the historic bridge was both a functional and beautiful crossing for visitors heading to any number of Lake Champlain destinations.
It is important to note that despite the flaws in the concrete piers, preservation of the Lake Champlain Bridge's distinctive and historic truss superstructure could have occurred if a comprehensive rehabilitation had been executed sooner. Prior to determining that the crack in the bridge was too dangerous to repair, a feasible plan to rehabilitate the Lake Champlain Bridge was developed. It is listed in the final bridge inspection file. It included designing a system that would bypass the original piers, which would safely allow for their retrofit or replacement.
It is interesting to note that such a rehabilitation project might have been able to be completed without the complete closure of the bridge, a fact that even those uninterested in historic bridge preservation, yet reliant on a functional Lake Champlain Bridge would have greatly appreciated. The closure of the Lake Champlain Bridge has been a major inconvenience for area residents trying to get to work, and a near death-sentence for area businesses, some losing up to 80% of their customers according to various area news sources.
With revised regulations, and proper funding to back it
up, both provided by the federal government, (a funded mandate) this
disaster could most likely have been prevented by requiring biennial or
annual underwater bridge inspections. If this problem could have been found
sooner, it would have been possible to repair and preserve the historic
bridge for continued vehicular use without putting workers in danger. It
would also have increased bridge user safety. Since the bridge went from
being open to traffic directly to being closed with fear of sudden collapse,
logic dictates that technically users were traveling on an unsafe bridge for
an unknown time between the previous underwater bridge inspection and the
closure of the bridge. Closure (or repair) did not occur before that time
because the pier cracking and deterioration rapidly and unknowingly
accelerated for unknown reasons. That fact was not predictable and nobody is
really to blame, and no government regulations were violated or ignored
during the operation of the bridge. However, increased inspection frequency
beyond the required frequency would have detected and prevented this
potentially dangerous situation sooner. For safety's sake and for increased
likelihood of feasible historic bridge preservation, increased underwater
inspections should be funded and required by the federal government.
HistoricBridges.org recommends that underwater inspections should occur at a
rate equal to that for above-water bridge inspections.
The job of the bridge inspector is critical to the maintenance and preservation of any bridge including historic bridges. Bridge inspectors identify problems and deterioration on a bridge. This information can then be used to identify maintenance needs, or identify the needs for a comprehensive rehabilitation and preservation project. More frequent bridge inspections can identify any rapidly occurring deterioration and allow for corrective action before the deterioration can become irreparable.
Current regulations require the superstructure and above-water substructure to be inspected on a biennial basis. In some cases bridges may even have these areas inspected annually. However, law only requires an underwater inspection every five years, which is over twice the length of time between the other inspections. Why is this? Are the portions of the piers that are under the water less important? Absolutely not. Actually, they are just as important, and their failure can cause catastrophic and unexpected collapse, which was in fact the fear with the Lake Champlain Bridge.
The handling of bridges following the tragic collapse of the I-35W Bridge has been very poor. Following the collapse, the first result was that agencies (with the assistance of the media) scared the general public to death regarding any metal truss bridge, in particular, deck trusses. Also, emergency inspections of the superstructures of all deck trusses, even those that were completely different designs and ages compared to the I-35W Bridge occurred. Following that, many states developed "accelerated bridge programs" which targeted and funded the demolition and replacement of structurally deficient bridges, many of them historic metal truss bridges eligible or listed on the national register of historic places. Many (if not most) of these bridges could just as feasibly be rehabilitated in a way that would make them both safe and functional for traffic. As such, the value of these programs in terms of increasing bridge safety seems limited, especially considering that focusing on repair, maintenance and rehabilitation might very well cost less money which would mean a larger total number of bridges could be improved.
The final idea to take away from the Lake Champlain Bridge is that underwater bridge inspections should be increased, and federal and state surface transportation funding also needs to focus more on repair and rehabilitation rather than deferring maintenance in favor of funding most costly and inconvenient demolition and replacement further down the road. These solutions would increase bridge safety, decrease user inconvenience, and promote historic bridge preservation.
There are numerous materials beyond those prepared by HistoricBridges.org regarding this bridge. The following are a number of useful links and documents relating to the bridge.
This historic bridge has been demolished. This map is shown for reference purposes only.
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