History of the Saugatuck Swing Bridge

1884 Rendering of Bridge (C.V.N. Kittredge)

The photo above shows the original drawing of the proposed Saugatuck Swing Bridge that was presented to the Town of Westport in July 1884, by Cornelius Van Ness Kittredge, Secretary of the Union Bridge Company. This rare document was likely used during the selection process after seven builders responded to the Town’s request for a proposal to build a replacement bridge over the Saugatuck River. Westport has kept it ever since. With our thanks to the Westport Historical Society.

The Early Years

Built in the summer of 1884 by the Central – soon to become Union Bridge Company of Buffalo, New York as a replacement for a failing 1869 wooden draw bridge on the same location, the current wrought iron structure originally weighed an estimated 220,000 pounds, cost $26,700 (plus $362 to demolish the old wood bridge) and consists of two spans: a 144 foot Pratt through truss fixed section located at the east end and a movable section at the west end comprised of two 71 foot Pratt through truss sections yoked together via special solid die-forged eye bars (See photo below – it is a patented device developed by one of the bridge’s engineers, Charles H. Kellogg). The movable section rests atop a so-called pivot pier which permits it to swing open for maritime traffic. Originally the bridge was fitted with a wood plank deck. In 1925 the wood deck was traded for a open steel grate style assembly.

BW Bridge Truss Eye

The bridge’s trusses are roughly 16 feet from top to bottom, however, because of the variable stresses placed upon the movable portion of the bridge when it opens, some of these structural members depart from the standard Pratt design. For instance, to accommodate the increased compressive force generated when the two ends of the swing portion of the bridge are left hanging in midair (i.e. when it has been swung open to allow for the passage of a boat), the normally non-load bearing hip verticals have been traded for more robust lattice girders. The latter, like the previously mentioned solid die-forged eye bars was a patented, groundbreaking innovation developed by one of this bridge’s engineers, Charles H. Kellogg.

The previously mentioned pivot pier, together with the accompying abutments and piers, is constructed of stone drawn from the quarry at Stony Creek, Connecticut. The pivot pier was modified in 1953 by the addition of “H” piles, steel beams and a metal shell into which was pumped concrete. The bridge’s hand-operated opening mechanism, though now motorized, was geared in such a way as to allow minimal effort on the part of the operator. A pinion gear shaft which rests in a recessed portion of the pivot pier, allows the bridge (still) to be opened by way of a T shaped socket wrench which engages a pinion gear. The gear mates up with a large, fixed ring gear which is fastened to the undercarriage of the deck.

Cantilevered off the north side of the bridge is a wood planked four foot wide pedestrian walkway which is supported by structural steel members. Archival images as well as early town records indicate that the bridge also accommodated local trolley service with the addition of a catenary system affixed to insulating wood blocks which were, in turn, bolted to the overhead members.

It should be noted that the distinctive shallow arches of the portal struts at either end of the bridge appear to have been modified at an indeterminate time in the past. While their fields are now filled with unadorned steel plate, these two areas would likely have been the location of large, cast builder’s plates such as may be seen on other works by the Union Bridge Company.

Starting in 1988, the bridge was removed from service for several years in order to complete a major restoration. After a temporary fixed span was constructed on land owned by the State of Connecticut immediately to the north of the original bridge, (see photo below) the latter was transported to the nearby Sherwood Island Connector for rehabilitation.Replacement Bridge Photo Screen ShotModifications included a new steel deck and bituminous surface together with the previously cited automation. The principal effect of the restoration and reconstruction effort was that the original Pratt truss superstructure that the public typically associates with “the bridge” was completely relieved to its load carrying responsibility. While the previously described opening mechanism was slightly modified at the time of the restoration by the addition of a motor, the bridge retains much of its original gearing and is still capable of being opened by hand. It remains the only highway bridge in the State of Connecticut which may be operated manually.

In order to address the substantial weight of the new load bearing deck – which tends to deflect slightly when not fully supported, a pair of large and very powerful electric screw jacks were bolted to the undercarriage of the movable span. Once that span has returned to its berth, these jacks, which are retracted when the bridge opens, are activated by the bridge tending crew. The screws, whose operation can be viewed from the rear deck of the adjoining Bridge Square property, slowly lower themselves onto steel reinforced pads and cause the ends of the bridge to rise about an inch allowing it to regain its proper trim. After the screw jacks have done their work, the massive steel deck is secure and the bridge may be reopened for vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

The Union Bridge Company, in brief: at the time of the Saugatuck Bridge’s construction, the era of “modern” iron bridges was just beginning and Union was on its way to becoming one of the biggest players in the business.

Kellog Bridge Co Ad (The Railway Age, 1878)

The origins of the company may be traced as follows: in 1870, an engineer by the name of Charles Kellogg, formed Kellogg Bridge Company of Buffalo, New York and appears to be connected with bridge builder Kellogg &Maurice of Athens, Pennsylvania. Mr. Kellogg’s son, Charles H. joined the firm as an engineer. Six years later the firm took on Cornelius Van Ness Kittridge , formerly of Kittridge & Smith, Bridge Builders, as its Secretary and Treasurer.

In 1876, Kelloggs, who specialized in the challenging field of movable bridges, observed that their company’s 444 foot swing bridge across the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Missouri was the world’s longest movable span.

An October 17th, 1878 ad in “Railway Age” magazine touts the company’s ability to manufacture “all kinds of Wrought Iron Railway and Highway Bridges, Viaducts, Trestle Work, Turn Tables, Roofs and other iron structure(s)”.

Interestingly, the ad also contains a depiction of the company’s patented “Solid Die-Forged Eye Bar”, an important innovation which eliminated the internal stresses normally caused by welding. This important structural advance, which helped to pave the way for public acceptance of iron spans may easily be viewed on the Saugatuck Bridge.

In 1881, when Kellogg was acquired by George S. Field, Edmund Hayes and the aforementioned Cornelius Van Ness Kittridge, the firm’s name was changed to Central Bridge Works. Central kept the operation in Kellogg’s old shop and continued to utilize the innovative Kellogg technology. One of the most notable commissions of the company during its three years of operation was the enormous 1883 Cantilever Bridge built for the Michigan Central Railroad across the Niagra River.

Union Bridge Co. Advertisement (Kellogg)At some point in 1884, the very same year that Mr. Kittridge was finalizing the contract to construct the Saugatuck Bridge in Westport, Central was merged with three other bridge building firms: Maurice & Kellogg, Delaware Bridge Co., and Clark, Reeves &Co. The new firm, known as Union Bridge Company would operate as such for another eleven years.

The formation of Union ushered in what might be considered the company’s heyday. Among its notable and technically challenging projects: the towering 1889 Poughkeepsie – Highland Bridge (now restored as the world’s longest footbridge) , Kentucky’s 1889 Young’s High Bridge and a seven span bridge in Australia that reportedly required the deepest footings then on record: 176 feet.

According to a credible published source, in 1895, Union Bridge Company was itself merged with a number of other bridge building firms and became known as the American Bridge Company.

cranking the bridge by hand

Recent History and Current Status, 1965 to Present:

The question is often asked: “How has this bridge managed to survive?”  The answer has a lot to do with Westport’s deeply ingrained culture of activism. From United Illuminating’s proposed 14 story nuclear power plant just off Compo Beach on nearby Cockenoe Island in 1967, to the early conservation initiatives of the 1970’s, Westporters have long been known for the preservation and environmental battles they have waged. The Saugatuck Bridge’s continued existence is, in many ways, a direct consequence of Westport’s outspokenness when it comes to the conservation of both its natural and built environments.

Preserve the Bridge TShirt
A “Preserve the Bridge, Save a Neighborhood” t-shirt designed and created in the mid-1980’s by long time Westporter Bobbi Liepolt as part of a successful grassroots campaign focusing on both the Bridge and its positive impact on the Saugatuck Neighborhood. This original t-shirt has been carefully preserved for over 30 years by Lucy Berry Ackemann who, along with her husband Andy Ackemann, was an active defender of the Bridge and the Saugatuck neighborhood. Photo by Alex Ackemann.

In this regard, many in the community came to view certain design limits of the Saugatuck Bridge as valuable in their own right. In addition to all the functions its engineer, Charles Kellogg, had originally intended, the bridge performed an additional task that no one, including Mr. Kellogg, could have ever anticipated the need for 132 years ago: traffic calming.

As even its detractors will acknowledge, the bridge’s relatively narrow width encourages vehicular traffic to reduce speed as it approaches the Village of Saugatuck. In addition, given its non-standard height, the bridge acts as a kind of “vehicular filter”, keeping large trucks from accessing an area of Westport where pedestrian safety is paramount. Although the “obsolescence as virtue” idea enjoys strong support today, the bridge’s historic value as well as its other qualities were not immediately recognized by everyone. The following is intended to briefly explain the way in which much of the Westport community came to view the bridge as it does today.

By the 1960s, the Saugatuck Bridge’s replacement had been briefly considered twice by state highway officials: there was discussion in 1923 of relocating the bridge south to Ferry Lane and in 1958, the idea was to move it north to around Franklin Street. Both of these were met with opposition and abandoned. However, in 1967, the Bridgeport Post reported that Westport First Selectman John Kemish planned to ask the State Highway Department to replace the Saugatuck Bridge “in order to relieve congestion on the narrow span over the river in Saugatuck which is part of Route 136.”

In early 1968, press accounts indicate the town was shown preliminary drawings of what the State Highway Department called a fixed “high-level” bridge approximately 60 feet in elevation at its apex. As a consequence of the proposed bridge’s height, its approaches needed to be much longer than the present ones. The west approach, as proposed, would bypass Riverside Avenue altogether and go to Saugatuck Avenue instead. The four lane east approach was described as beginning at the intersection of Bridge Street and Compo Road South.

Archival news reports indicate that the scale of the proposal appears to have troubled local leaders and residents. Although a replacement bridge had been requested by the town, the emergence of the “high bridge” plan seems to have been the approximate moment at which public opinion began to build for retaining the existing bridge.

Selectman Kemish, in response to the public’s concerns that the proposed bridge was oversized, requested a smaller scale alternative. Some Westport residents, including Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff, took the position that the historic bridge should remain and expressed the opinion that a wider replacement bridge would usher in commercial development on Bridge Street. Others were concerned about pedestrian safety and increased traffic.

In 1971, opposition to the proposed “high level” bridge gained momentum when five Westport Representative Town Meeting (RTM) members went on the record as being against any new bridge. The group claimed that a new span would only attract more vehicular traffic to the Saugatuck area. The State Highway Department continued to press the case for its proposed high level bridge but, as an accommodation to concerns about scale, suggested alternative locations for the new span. Local news reports of the time indicate that one location was just to the north of the present bridge and the other was to the south near Ferry Lane.

In the early winter of 1972, a consultant was hired by the State Highway Department to prepare four new design concepts for a high level replacement bridge. News reports during this period noted that all four design concepts included four lanes, two sidewalks and cloverleaf exits.

In advance of a public meeting at which the four new concepts for bridge replacement would be presented, the Westport PTA expressed its opposition to any widening of the bridge to Governor Thomas Meskill. The PTA, as reported by the Bridgeport Post on February 13, 1972, stated that the proposed four lane approaches, wider bridge, and highway-style clover leaf exits would pose a safety risk for the many school children who utilized the bridge. The PTA also outlined its belief that a wider bridge would generate additional traffic and higher vehicular speeds.

At the public meeting held at Westport’s Bedford Junior High in January to hear the consultant’s presentation on the four proposed concepts for a replacement bridge, the Bridgeport Post reported that 500 Westport residents spoke out in opposition. During a press interview around the time of the public hearing, State Senator Alan Nevas was quoted as follows:

“The enormity of that proposal and its tremendous impact on the Saugatuck area with its indirect consequences for the rest of the community is one that must be given the most serious consideration. The impact of the Turnpike on the Saugatuck area has been severe, and another massive structure such as a high bridge now being proposed would all but sound the death knell for this area of Westport. Many of these people were uprooted by the construction of the Turnpike and now to impose another massive structure upon them is unfair and inequitable. It seems to me that the construction of the bridge, as proposed, is analogous to the use of a canon to kill a mosquito.”

The 1972 Bedford Junior High public meeting put an end to the possibility of a new bridge in Saugatuck for a while. However, on January 31,1975, the Bridgeport Post reported that DOT officials had approached Westport First Selectwoman Jackie Heneage with scaled down plans for replacing the Saugatuck Bridge. The paper observed that the revised plans involved a lower draw type bridge but still included the four lane approaches.

Selectman Heneage, it was reported, told the visiting DOT officials that she thought the bridge replacement issue had ended years ago owing to public opposition and suggested that if a new bridge was really needed, it was to be no more than two lanes in width so as to avoid establishing an alternate truck route. DOT officials responded that the bridge’s replacement plan had been reactivated due to “safety and traffic flow” concerns. Selectwoman Heneage stated that such safety and traffic flow concerns would need to be substantiated. She encouraged the agency to consider widening the Post Road bridge in Westport to four lanes instead and concluded,“the Saugatuck community has already almost been destroyed by one monstrous highway and we cannot accept any bridge that would again create such monstrous approaches and desecration of homes.”

Preserve the Bridge Supporters
“Preserve The Bridge Save A Neighborhood” supporters: Top Row (L-R) Jacqueline Heneage, Andy Ackemann, Marty Hauhuth, and Sylvia Kamerow Front Row (L-R) Bobbi Liepolt, Jordan Liepolt, and Lorna Christopherson.  Westport News Photo Courtesy of Woody Klein “Westport, Connecticut The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence”

By the mid-1980’s, the Saugatuck Bridge had survived long enough to join the ranks of some of the nation’s most significant movable spans. It was also at a point in its maintenance life cycle where substantial substructure work was indicated. For what would be the fifth time since 1923, State DOT officials, in 1986, once again expressed their intention to replace the bridge.

The Town of Westport immediately restated its longstanding position that the historic bridge be maintained. The DOT officials, no doubt anticipating Westport’s response, claimed a state statute did not allow it to repair the bridge as it would, when completed, not meet current federal or state design standards. Thus, the DOT officials explained, the agency would only agree to repair the bridge if the town also agreed to assume ownership of the span.

Although it likely wasn’t the response that DOT was hoping for, Westport’s legislative body quickly appointed a committee to evaluate the DOT’s proposal. Tension between the RTM and newly elected First Selectwoman Martha Hauhuth, (Below, her First Selectwoman campaign photo showing her proudly walking across the bridge) soon arose over the issue of acquiring the bridge from the State of Connecticut. The RTM’s Bridge Committee took the position that the town needed the RTM’s approval for the transfer of ownership, while Westport Town Attorney, Keith Dunnigan issued an opinion to the contrary. The committee responded by hiring its own attorney who disagreed with Dunnigan’s opinion.

Prospects for the bridge’s survival seemed to dim further when the Bridge Committee issued a report critical of the terms of transfer together with a long list of engineering concerns. After reviewing the report, the RTM voted 18 to 11 against approving the terms of the bridge’s transfer agreement.

image

Following the RTM vote, First Selectwoman Hauhuth, who had specifically run on, among other things, the importance of maintaining the historic Saugatuck Bridge, stated that she wouldn’t sign the transfer agreement until the DOT had addressed all the engineering concerns raised by the Bridge Committee. At the same time, she personally impressed upon Governor O’Neill the need to retain the bridge.

What happened next caught nearly everyone by surprise. On November 11th of 1987, a newly installed DOT Commissioner announced that his agency had reversed its position on the bridge and that it was indeed possible to restore the historic span without running afoul of current state or federal safety requirements. While it is clear that several factors led to this astonishing turnabout, there is one other that should not be overlooked: Earlier in the year, Selectwoman Hauhuth quietly saw to it that the bridge was added to National Register of Historic Places. The National Register listing instantly afforded the bridge certain legal protections and clearly tipped things further in favor of its preservation.

Suffice to say, the surprise announcement by the DOT changed everything. The bridge had, once again, survived an attempt to replace it. Over the course of the next few years, the Saugatuck Bridge underwent a major restoration that involved the fabrication of what amounted to an entirely new underlying support system – one that essentially relieved the original truss system of any load carrying responsibility but preserved its historic appearance nonetheless. Similarly, the hand operated mechanism which permitted the bridge to swing open was conserved – but was discreetly modified to permit that function to be automated. In the end, the bridge, like many other historic spans in the state, was functionally and structurally updated in a way that was not visible to the casual observer.
Chrstimas SaugutuckSwingBridgeChristmas 2015During the 2000 holiday season, a new town tradition featuring the bridge was born when Al DiGuido of Al’s Angels came up with the idea to wrap the bridge with lights.  In a published interview, Al said “I wanted to try to re-create the feeling from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and that bridge has a historic legacy.  It’s a bridge from yesteryear: It brings nostalgia and innocence to Westport, and lighting it is even better.”   Above is a photo taken by Westport Preservation Alliance’s Wendy Crowther capturing the bridge awash in lights on Christmas Eve, 2015.

Although the bridge’s fortunes seemed to fluctuate, there was one aspect of its existence that, for a very long time, remained constant. For Westporters of a certain age, Officer William F. “Crobar” Cribari, the traffic cop who, for Bill %22Crowbar%22 Cribarimany years, presided over the busy intersection at Riverside Avenue and Bridge Street, was somewhat of a landmark himself. (see photo to left of Officer Cribari “in action” and below of his family celebrating the renaming of the bridge in his honor – both photos from WestportNow.Com)

During World War II, Cribari served in the US Army 17th Engineering Battalion under Gen. George S. Patton taking part in three invasions—Normandy, Sicily and North Africa. He also served in the Battle of the Bulge and was ultimately awarded seven battle ribbons.

A lifelong resident of Saugatuck and a life member of the Saugatuck Volunteer Fire Department (at the age of 12 he joined the Saugatuck Volunteer Fire Department band as a snare drummer.), Cribari was a special police officer for Westport for more than 30 years.   In that capacity he was living proof that no automated traffic control system can best the instincts, efficiency and sheer tradecraft of a dedicated human.  When Officer Cribari passed away at age 88 in 2007, the Town of Westport and the State of Connecticut paid him special tribute for his years of service to the community by renaming the Saugatuck span the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge.
Cribari Family at Dedecation
In May of 2015, twenty years after its restoration, DOT notified Westport of its interest in making some repairs to the bridge’s piers and trusses, as well as some “spot painting”.  The agency characterized the bridge as being in “fair” condition but “functionally obsolete” – meaning that the span was structurally sound but no longer considered to be functionally adequate for current vehicular traffic.  Soon thereafter, Westport Preservation Alliance member, Morley Boyd requested that the bridge be studied by the Westport Historic District Commission for possible designation as a Local Historic Property. The request was approved by the commission in a 3-2 vote on September 8, 2015 and was unanimously supported by the Westport RTM on October 6, 2015.

At a public information meeting held in Westport in November, 2015, DOT engineers discussed five alternatives that the agency was considering with respect to the bridge: No Action, Minor Repairs, One Way Travel, Major Rehabilitation and lastly, Replacement of the Existing Bridge. While residents and local leaders who spoke at the meeting urged DOT to retain the bridge, none expressed support for its replacement. The agency’s full evaluation of the bridge was due to be completed by April of 2016 but was only released on June 3, 2016.

On May 25, 2016, the Westport Historic District Commission (HDC) voted unanimously at a special hearing to accept the Study Report for Local Historic District Designation of the Saugatuck River Swing Bridge, 1884  The report was compiled by the HDC Saugatuck Bridge Study Subcommittee.  WPA team member, Morley Boyd, served on this Subcommittee and is one of the report’s four authors.  The report also included extensive historical research contributed by WPA team member, Wendy Crowther.

On Friday June 3, 2016, DOT released its long awaited study report for the Saugatuck River Swing Bridge.  Oddly, the report did not make a final recommendation but instead presented two possible options and called for further study as well as consultation with stakeholders.   The report lists just two options:  rehabilitate the existing bridge at a cost of $19.8 million or replace it with at a cost of $35.8 million.  Both options would eliminate the existing height restrictions and thus allow for tractor trailer trucks to detour from the I95 and cross the bridge.  The ten (10) appendixes that accompany the RSR can be found here at the bottom of the page on DOT’s website.

DOT held a public presentation of the RSR on June 15th in Westport Town Hall.   According to local press reports: “They got more than they bargained for.  State and local officials and many of the 75 persons gathered in the auditorium came out swinging. Their demands of the CDOT bridge engineers and project managers seated at the dais? First, they vehemently said they wanted no new structure to replace the 1884-built swing bridge currently on the National Register of Historical Places.  Second, they want no renovations to the existing bridge that would increase the vertical clearance to 14 feet, 6 inches, thus attracting 18-wheelers. The fear is that trucks will choose Route 136 that crosses the bridge spanning the Saugatuck River, using the local neighborhood as a cut through area.”

IMG_0700
Photo Courtesy of Fred Cantor

On July 7, 2016 DOT announced that the WPA’s application to designate a portion of Route 136 as a State Scenic Highway was approved by the DOT Commissioner James Redecker. The route, which includes a portion of Compo Road South, Bridge Street and the Saugatuck Swing Bridge, will be Westport’s first State Scenic Highway.

According to Helen Garten, Westport’s Third Selectperson and a founding member of the WPA, “This is a great honor for Westport. It’s gratifying that the state has officially recognized that this route, which contains notable landmark properties and includes the iconic Saugatuck Swing Bridge, has special historic significance and character.  The designation adds an additional level of protection for this important area of our town. Any proposed changes to the bridge must be reviewed by the State Scenic Highway Advisory Committee. Effectively, this allows a different set of State officials, who may be more sympathetic to scenic beauty and preservation, to weigh in on the DOT’s plans.  We are very excited about having helped garner this honor for Westport.”

Copyright 2016 Westport Preservation Alliance.  Used by Permission