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In Memoriam: Troy's Only Covered Bridge

A red covered bridge slumps into an icy river
Anna Van Dine
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VPR
The River Road covered bridge in Troy collapsed over the weekend due to a fire.

Over the weekend, the only covered bridge in the Northeast Kingdom town of Troy burned down. Many in town are mourning the loss of the 111-year-old landmark.

Just before noon on Saturday, Feb. 6, Heather Lighty was sitting on the couch with her husband. He showed her a video someone had posted online. It was of the covered bridge in Troy.

“I just, instantly started crying,” she recalled.  “I called my mom, and I’m like, 'Mom, mom, our bridge!' She goes, 'What about our bridge?' I’m like, 'It’s burning!'”

It was. The only covered bridge remaining in Troy, it stretched 92 feet across the Missisquoi River and 111 years of time itself. It was built in 1910 by the rough hands and old-time ingenuity of local farmers whose names don’t show up in history books. Draft horses likely dragged the timber to the riverbank, and the bridge-builders carefully assembled the wood into a style known as Town lattice truss.

“In the inside, you can see all this like, criss-crossing of the wood,” Lighty said. “And it almost looks kind of mysterious… it made noises underneath your feet when you walked on it. And you could do the echo, like you could holler and hear the echo.”

broken wooden bridge leads into water
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
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VPR
A view inside the collapsed bridge over the icy waters of the Missisquoi. Weak winter sunlight filters in through the criss-crossed wood. Each overlap is held together with a single peg, which is unique for the town lattice truss style.

Walking through, Lighty would look at the names and messages etched into the wood. 

“It was just like, going through history,” she said. “When you got to the end of it, all you saw was a beautiful open field and the dirt road and a little pull off, and you could see the beautiful river. It was magical.”

But old, dry wood burns easily. Around 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, a snowmobile stalled halfway through and caught fire. According to a police report, the operator did what he could to stop the blaze with handfuls of snow. But it was no use. Troy Fire Chief Bobby Jacobs watched it collapse into the river.

“I didn’t ever think that I would ever come across this, or have to deal with it or see it,” he said in an interview.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=27&v=cNM1pJjyQM4&feature=emb_title

This was not an entirely remarkable event. Bridges burn. Accidents happen. About 50 years ago, according to the Troy town clerk, a dump truck fell through the floor of this same bridge and killed the driver. This time, the whole bridge collapsed, but the snowmobiler made it out alive and without injury. 

It was something of a miracle that the bridge was there in the first place. Nathan Cote is a third-generation bridge restorer in Morrisville who worked on the bridge in 2008. He said that an engineer who assessed the bridge told him, “'Nothing about this bridge works in calculations... This thing should fall down.' But it’s been here a hundred years already, so we can’t argue with that.”

photo album with pictures of red covered bridge
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
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VPR
Nathan Cote's photo album of the 2007-8 restoration, which gave the bridge a new roof, new floor, and structural supports. The job, done by Blow & Cote of Morrisville, cost $470,000.

And no one did. The bridge was one of about 100 historic covered bridges left in Vermont, and has been listed on the national register of historic places since 1974. People came from all around to see it.

It was both an attraction and an ordinary way to get from here to there. Anyone would have crossed it going the back way from Jay to Newport, avoiding the pavement of Rt. 100 or Rt. 105.

“There's definitely other ways around,” said fire chief Bobby Jacobs, who also serves as Troy’s road commissioner. “But it was kind of a convenience thing for people, a short cut if you will.”

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At 88, Howard Cota has been in town almost as long as the bridge has. He used to be the town’s road commissioner.

“I used to go over it often,” he said. “Used to see to it, of course, when I was taking care of the roads and stuff.”

He hasn’t been down to see the wreckage. He can’t drive anymore, and even if he could, he wouldn’t be going anywhere. He has cancer, and has been staying at home with his wife, Melba, during the pandemic. But he does have his own small version of the bridge at home. He built it on the edge of his pond in his free time nearly 50 years ago.

“I liked the bridge down there, and of course I used to take care of it and go across it, so I built me one here,” he explained.

young girl poses with watercolor of covered bridge
Credit Courtesy
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Heather Lighty stands with her painting of the bridge in fifth grade.

Cota has seven children, 14 grandchildren, and more than 20 great-grandchildren, including his granddaughter: Heather Lighty.

Now 32, Lighty played on the replica bridge as a kid. But most of her memories are tied to the one that burned down. Skipping stones, fishing, swimming, finding hidden treasures. As a fifth grader, she won a prize for a painting she had done of it. As a teenager, it was a place to escape to.

“I can’t even explain it,” she said. “It almost felt like you were in a whole ‘nother world, like nothing could touch you, that everything was going to be all right. And you could just relax. And there was always someone laughing. You would never feel alone there.”

A few days after the fire, the more intact side of the bridge looked like it was trying to heave itself out of the icy February water of the Missisquoi. Bobby Jacobs, the fire chief, met me there on Monday. We looked out at what used to be a covered bridge.

Jacobs described the scene:

“On this side, it still has the shape of a bridge, other than being charred timbers. But the bridge is facing downward into the river... It’s a complete mess. It’s just devastating, really.”

woman and child next to small red covered bridge
Credit Courtesy
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Heather Lighty and her son, Logan, next to the covered bridge replica built by Howard Cota.

Troy’s covered bridge traversed what was otherwise impassable: a river, a century, the space between two people. Now that it’s gone, the town will likely construct some kind of replacement. For the time being, Howard Cota’s replica is the only covered bridge left in Troy. 

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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