The case of the very stubborn bridge

While the rest of the country got ready to repair bridges as a decent excuse for putting unemployed people to work, some folks in New England went one step further. They invented even more jobs by blowing up an existing bridge. At least they did their durndest to blow it up.

The 79-year-old Arch Bridge, spanning the Connecticut River between Walpole, N. H., and Bellows Falls, Vt., ought to have collapsed at the first pebble from a well-aimed slingshot, if engineers' reports were to be believed. The 486-foot span was declared structurally unsound in 1971 and closed to cars and trucks. Last year even pedestrians - lean Yankees sauntering from Vermont to New Hampshire or vice versa - were judged to constitute an unsafe burden.

The only thread that held the bridge up - or so it seemed - was the fervor of the National Historic Trust, which delayed demolition by arguing that the structure should be preserved as a first example of its particular kind of suspension and arch configuration.

Early this month the traditionalists finally lost out, and the progressives (or whatever) moved in, explosives and all, to blow up the old bridge, which cost $65,000 to build in 1904, thus making way for a new bridge, which will cost an estimated $5.2 million to erect in 1983 and 1984. (The equation works out to something like twice the time and 80 times the money.)

About 4,000 spectators gathered for the big bang. Demolition charges were placed on the arch and at one end of the bridge. Television cameras appeared to eyewitness the news. The bridge made a lovely, proud sight on the video screen, silhouetted above the river and against the sky in its final pose. Puffs of smoke signaled that the charges had indeed exploded. The smoke ascended and disappeared. With reflexes refined by disaster films, one waited for the Arch Bridge to disintegrate gracefully into the river below. Perhaps - who knows? - there would even be a slo-mo replay.

Absolutely nothing happened. Like an actor who has forgotten his exit cue, the bridge stood frozen - anticlimactic and sound.

Once again charges were planted, larger this time. Again, an ear-numbing blast. Again, the bridge stayed serene. Not a sag. Not a wobble. Not a tilt.

The crowd cheered.

Sgt. John McMasters of the State Police bomb squad was heard to say: ''It's a stubborn bridge.''

The embarrassed blasters called it quits for the day.

When the demolition squad sneaked back with more charges, some 1,500 people were on hand. Two more blasts - to no effect. Two more hurrahs from the crowd.

What is it in us onlookers that identifies with whatever stands, and continues to stand, against all the odds?

A bridge is a metaphor - one of life's hard-won connections. It links humanity to humanity as palpably as a handshake. A bridge rejects the thesis of separation, the plight of loneliness.

But even if this were not a bridge - even if it were an office building or a monument - something in the heart would cheer its defiance, its resolve to go on being the thing it has always been, its refusal to return to dust.

The National Historic Trust could not save it. But in a sense the Arch Bridge saved itself. By lasting two days, and four blasts, longer than intended, it became a legend that will last for years.

In the end, workmen with blow torches weakened one end. With a sudden shift, the bridge twisted on its side and took the plunge.

''It just went when it got ready,'' one of the engineers remarked. And in New England, where understatement counts for almost as much as durability, that's about as admiring as you can get.

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