PELHAM — The newly constructed Willow Street Bridge has risen from infamy. After eight months, the once dangerous structure is now passable and shiny new.
Thunderous cheers from residents weren’t quite audible as the first cars traversed, but the excitement couldn’t be ignored on social media.
Many locals took to Facebook to declare Nov. 6, the day the bridge was announced re-opened, a monumental moment for Pelham. It was more than mundane construction.
Chantal Vivier Montgomery, who lives nearby on the corner of Marsh and Willow streets, took a selfie standing on the bridge.
Her bright smile and caption said the same thing: “This was the best day of my life!!”
She and others spent season after season relying on a long detour. Even Town Administrator Brian McCarthy acknowledges its inconvenience.
“That road is heavily traveled by school buses, people going to work or trying to get to the schools,” he said. “It really was a headache to work around it."
A young couple living a couple miles away wanted to experience the new bridge together, laughing about what a date night can turn into in a small New Hampshire town.
“Did you already go down Willow Street? If not, let’s do it together when I get home,” Adam Wentzel texted Lindsey Niemaszyk. “Don’t go without me.”
Chris Michalek jokes, “Can we close it back down? I was 10 minutes early to work today because of the shortcut.”
A local mom learned just how widespread the excitement of the grand re-opening is.
Beth Cunningham’s 4- and 8-year old were cheering "like they were at a sporting event" when the family cruised down Willow Street on Wednesday night.
“Who would have thought they would have so much interest in small-town construction,” Cunningham said.
The bridge was long overdue to be repaired, according to McCarthy, who served Pelham as a police officer before he became town administrator.
“The original bridge had to be 30 or 40 years old,” he said. “We went over there lots for mirror clipping accidents. The road wasn’t wide enough for two big cars to pass in opposite directions.”
There was no way for pedestrians to cross safely either.
“There was no crosswalk,” McCarthy said. “They’d have to make a run for it.”
Through a bridge reimbursement program, the state will pay for 80% of the roughly $2.6 million project. Pelham has to pay 20%, estimated near $300,000, McCarthy said.
The road was closed and work began in March 2019.
McCarthy said construction was smooth with the exception of a single holdup. The owner of several telephone poles in the area took two months to move them out of the way, he said.
“The new bridge is wider, so we needed that to happen to continue,” McCarthy said. “If not for that, it would have opened a month and a half ago, which was a little earlier than originally expected.”
Town officials have touted the environmental importance of the project. Especially in the spring, the bridge was too short for water to pass through, so it would back up and cause flooding into the road and nearby homes, according to McCarthy.
The ultimate plan is to improve Pelham’s two remaining bridges.
“We’re onto the Abbott Bridge,” McCarthy quipped.
He made clear that the historic stone bridge will not be tampered with.
“The stone bridge itself won’t be touched. We’re going to put a pass through before it, so when water levels get to a certain height, it will go around and down the river,” he said.
According to the town’s historical society, that bridge was built in 1837 without mortar and survived only because of the expertly shaped arched stones that make it up. It is the oldest double-arched stone bridge left in New Hampshire.
Once that’s done, which McCarthy expects to be during “the next year or so,” the state will replace the Main Street Bridge, also known as the Gionet Bridge, at no cost to the town.
Over on Willow Street, the finishing touches of striping will be done in the next week or two, McCarthy said, depending on weather.