Blowing up a bridge --  04/17/06

Tomorrow they are going to blow up the bridge to Jamestown.

Oh.. it's the old bridge they are going to blow up.

(RIDOT photo)

You might even be able to watch it happen live on an Internet Webcam feed on the Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation Web site.

The old bridge replaced a ferry service that many considered to be the oldest continuously operating such public utility in the country, dating back to 1675. It was originally owned and operated by a colonist who later became governor and who, ironically enough, drowned in a storm. My mental image is of the ferry in colonial Boston in Neal Stephenson's novel Quicksilver (the first volume of his Baroque Cycle trilogy).

People had talked about building a bridge from the mainland to Conanicut Island for many years but the killer Hurricane of 1938 destroyed the ferry piers and one of the ferries. This gave greater force to the arguments favoring a bridge.The Jamestown Bridge was opened to traffic in 1940, connecting Conanicut Island to the mainland and ending the ferry service. It had been mocked as a "bridge to nowhere" because Jamestown was a mostly rural town but once the bridge was built the population began to grow. (Today it still has a fairly rural feel to it but it has some of the highest housing prices in the state with the average home being valued above half a million dollars and there is a definite school of thought in Jamestown that does not care for visitors from the mainland.) The dark heavy line from the mainland to Conanicut on the map shows where the bridge was located.
It took many more years but finally in 1969 the Newport Bridge connected Conanicut Island with Aquidneck Island (the island -- "Rhode Island" -- that gave the state the state its name) and traffic across the bridges increased every year.

The Jamestown Bridge was narrow -- two lanes, each just eleven feet wide (and they seemed even narrower) -- and it rose steeply (I have only been on one other bridge that approached it for steepness). The roadway at the top was a steel grate -- you could look down and see the waters of Narragansett Bay far below, which was terrifying for people stuck in long summer tourist season traffic jams at the top of the bridge -- and the grate was also very slippery. Many people called it the "Hail Mary" bridge and the Jamestown police dept. became used to dealing with drivers who panicked and became unable to drive over the bridge.

Then the bridge began to decay and crumble. Jamestown has an elementary school and a middle school, but no high school. Instead, they send their students over to North Kingstown High School on the mainland. As the bridge deteriorated more and more, the alarmed school system decided that only one school bus could be on the bridge at one time, the others would have to wait their turn to cross. A recent newspaper article about the bridge quoted a Jamestown resident about her memories of crossing the bridge to get to school, recalling how the students had figured out that the one-at-a-time policy was set so that an entire generation of students would not be lost if the bridge collapsed.

[The old and new bridges as seen from the high speed ferry from Quonset, RI to Martha's Vineyard.]

The new bridge, the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge, opened in 1992 and the Jamestown Bridge was closed.

And ever since then the old bridge has stood there, unused. People have suggested using it for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. That suggestion never got very far. In the meanwhile, it has continued to deteriorate.

[Hmmm, will a chunk of bridge fall on my head today?]

The state offered it to any motion picture company that might want to blow it up for a movie, but got no takers.

Finally the Coast Guard stepped in and informed the state government that it considered the bridge to be a danger to navigation in Narragansett Bay and threatened to fine the state millions of dollars every year until the bridge was removed.

The state government finally got the message and the bridge is coming down.

It was originally scheduled to be blown up last Tuesday, but weekend rain ended that plan because they needed three days of dry weather to place the explosives. The new bridge will be closed to traffic from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. tomorrow, that area of the bay will be closed to boat traffic, and some homes near the bridge will be evacuated. Two or three Providence televisions stations and a cable public access channel will broadcast the demolition live (the actual explosion will probably be sometime between eleven and one) and that dept of transportation Web site will also carry a live Webcam feed.

I have no idea if the demolition will be dramatic or mundane, but I'll be tuned in to watch it on TV and you can see it (unless they have bandwidth problems) at www.dot.state.ri.us tomorrow (Tuesday April 18th) -- the DOT Web page says that at the time of the demolition they will attempt to show a new picture every two to three seconds.

(The bridge will be re-cycled -- the steel will be salvaged and melted down; the concrete will be used to make artificial reefs to improve fish habitat.)
[Soon there won't be an old bridge just 100 feet away keeping drivers company as they zoom across Narragansett Bay on the new bridge to Jamestown.]

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