Norwich — A giant granite block jigsaw puzzle project is underway in the historic Yantic mill village, where bridge construction and masonry specialists are meticulously disassembling and reassembling the 1905 Sunnyside Road bridge over the Yantic River.
The $2 million project, funded with 80% federal highway grants and 20% city funding, had been planned for several years, city Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin said. But city officials decided early on to wait for a state Department of Transportation rule change that would allow federal highway funds to be used for rehabilitation of historic bridges, rather than replacement with modern structures.
The bridge is only 18 feet wide, with a sidewalk along the south side and alternating one-way traffic. It still provides the only access to about 40 to 50 homes in the Yantic mill village. The historic restoration means the bridge will not be widened, but the asphalt sidewalk has been ripped out and will be replaced with a stamped-pattern concrete walkway.
Decorative lighting will be installed at each end and in the center, where semi-circle stone bump-outs and benches allow pedestrians to rest and view the Yantic River below.
The 1905-08 bridge was built by Winslow Tracy Williams, third generation owner of the nearby Yantic Woolen Mill and the mill village. Williams built the bridge to accompany his new “enormous” elaborate stone mansion home on the hill overlooking the village, city Historian Dale Plummer said.
On the mill side, the granite stone bridge is flanked by two matching guardhouse-looking structures topped with slate roofs. Never used as a guardhouse or toll station, the structures provided a “romanticized” grand entrance to Williams’ medieval style estate, Plummer said.
“It gave his workers the ability to cross over, but more importantly, it gave him the ability to cross over the river,” Plummer said. “These mill owners lived a baronial lifestyle. And here you have a quasi-medieval bridge, which certainly fits with that image.”
McLaughlin said the substructure of the bridge is sound, but the stonewalls along the sides had started to lean. At one point, the slate roofs on the entrance structures had been replaced with wood. That has since rotted, so the plan is to restore the slate roofs.
Mattern Construction of Baltic is the lead contractor, with masonry crews from B.W. Dexter Masonry of Danielson. The skilled masons take photos of the bridge walls, number the granite blocks, remove them, build the concrete base to shore up the bridge and then rebuild the wall, one section at a time, project superintendent Ryan Mish of Mattern Construction said.
It’s much different than the usual bridge job, Mish said, which would have crews rip out the old bridge and replace it with a modern, perhaps widened new structure. Traffic remains open over the bridge, with only brief closures at any one time. Concrete barriers protect the workers, but traffic is very slow, as drivers catch a glimpse of the work in progress.
“It’s nice to hear people saying: ‘it’s looking good,’” he said. “At the beginning, they were skeptical that it would look the same.”
Mattern created a temporary wooden bridge over the wetlands beneath the bridge to allow the bucket lift vehicle to reach the side of the bridge from below. He asked crews to remove trash and debris while they are down there. “I don’t like leaving messes behind,” he said.
“It’s a tricky job, dealing with the one-way traffic,” Mish said. “Having to accommodate traffic does limit our work area.”
The project is expected to be completed by Oct. 28.
Mish said the group hasn’t found any historical artifacts during the work so far but has discovered a bunch of what appear to be leftover granite blocks, some of them quite large, that were just dumped into the wetland.
The granite bridge had replaced an earlier bridge and was met with big fanfare. Williams was chairman of the city’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1909, and Williams ushered the guest of honor, President William Howard Taft, over the new bridge in his motorcade vehicle. Taft stayed at Williams’ mansion during his visit.
“So, this bridge has architectural significance, and historical significance because of the mill and the mill owners,” Plummer said. “It’s a beautiful bridge. It’s good they took their time and were really thoughtful about it. It’s nice to be able to walk over it. It enhances the village and makes Yantic more of a place again. It helps to retain its character as a village in the city.”