It is more expensive to restore and maintain a covered bridge than to replace it with a steel or concrete structure. And yet 60 of them are still alive in New Hampshire, thanks to local communities who have fought to keep them alive.
Hancock resident Kim Varney Chandler chronicles the stories behind New Hampshire’s covered bridges in her new book. Covered Bridges of New Hampshireedited by Peter E. Randall Publisher, which contains her own photographs and years of in-depth research.
Chandler, who grew up by the seashore, says the idea for the project came about in 2012 when she and her husband returned to their home state after a decade in Virginia.
“When we moved to Hancock, I’ve honestly only been west of Concord half a dozen times in my life. I didn’t know much about the area at all and I’m just one of those people who need to know more. I immediately bought all of the Hancock history books — there are three — and walked around, looking at the buildings and different locations around town,” Chandler said.
She was particularly drawn to the covered bridges, which felt very “New England” to her. She was curious; Who built these bridges and why? And above all, why were they still here? Swanzey wasn’t a very big town, and yet it had four. Covered bridges don’t come cheap.
Chandler, an amateur photographer, says her original idea was to photograph every covered bridge in the area — then every covered bridge in the state — but eventually life got in the way and she shelved the project.
In 2020, with fewer social commitments, Chandler found himself with a little more time on his hands and returned to the covered bridges. She decided to organize her notes and photos and return to the remaining bridges with her husband and their chocolate lab, Pemi.
Between these visits, she turned to engineering firms, construction companies, bridge builders, history societies and spoke to the experts. The deeper she dived, the more complicated the project became. What if instead of just photos, she created a website that chronicled everything she learned? While researching at the Historical Society of Cheshire County, its director, Alan Rumrill, suggested she write a book.
“I didn’t intend to write a book. It just happened,” she said. “I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved to write. I guess I just felt like this was my chance to finally do something with it. Not that I couldn’t do that a long time ago. But I just never thought much about it. I won’t say there was extra time with COVID, but it definitely made me think about what’s important and what are the things I really wanted to do.”
Chandler says one of her favorite stories in the book is about the Corbin Bridge, which was built in the 19th century and sits on a country lane in Newport. When it was mysteriously set on fire and burned down in 1993, the city had a choice. They could either take the insurance money, build a steel or concrete bridge and let the state take care of it, or they could raise more money and rebuild a replica.
“It was a conflict. The city leaders and a small group of people who identified themselves as “bridge people” fought over it. Nobody wanted to burden taxpayers with building another covered bridge,” she said.
In the end, the townspeople hired Arnold Graton and his late father, who Chandler says pioneered the restoration and rebuilding of covered bridges using 19th-century methods, to build a replica of the original. “He invited the community to help and people felt part of it. They felt a sense of pride. Now when they talk about that bridge, it means a lot to this city to have it there,” she said. “Those are the stories I found amazing — these cities that fought to keep them.”
She says the Newport story is one you’ll see all over the state, in different variations over and over again. Some communities built roads to bypass the covered bridges, leaving the original structures intact. Others expanded them to allow traffic in both directions.
Since its publication in November, the book has been recommended by the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, and Chandler has started a podcast about New Hampshire’s covered bridges. “I just felt like I had more to say and that other people had more to say, and I wanted to give them space to say it,” she said.
For Chandler — who is a daytime counselor at Fall Mountain Regional High School — the aspect she enjoyed most was meeting the people involved in maintaining these structures and becoming part of the “bridge people” community.
“It’s by no means a complete story. It’s a start,” she said. “I hope this book will make people stop for a minute and think about what they are seeing; to reflect on why this bridge is there and to honor it and the people who worked to keep it there.”
You can learn more about Chandler, her book, and her upcoming events at coverdbridgesnh.com and her podcast at podcast.coveredbridgesnh.com.