The Historic Bridges of Keeseville, New York

Located west of Lake Champlain, along the River AuSable, the hamlet of Keeseville is one of the pearls of the region that one must see while on a road trip. Originally called Anderson Falls, the village was established after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 but was renamed Keeseville after businessman and founder Richard Keese. As many as 142 historic buildings, built between 1820 and 1936 line up along the street, running along the AuSable, each one having regional examples of Classical, Gothic Revival, and Italianate design, many designed and built by noted local craftsmen Seneca and Isaac Perry, along with more modest structures; many of the structures are built of local river sandstone. The district has been considered a National Register Landmark since 1983.  Also belonging to the NRHP include Tomlinson House and Rembrandt Hall.

Belonging to the district and considered a national landmark are the hamlet’s historic bridges. They consist of three structures located directly in the historic district and one just a couple miles to the northeast. Each one representing a different bridge type and different era of bridge construction. For two of them, they represent the last representing examples built by their respective bridge builders. All four of them are being profiled here, beginning with the following bridge:

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Keeseville Stone Arch Bridge

The Stone Arch Bridge spans the AuSable on Main Street in the heart of Keeseville’s business district. This bridge features a single-span brick arch bridge that is typical of such bridges built in Europe. The structure has a total length of 108 feet, 90 feet is for the main span. Built in 1843, the bridge represents the lone known example of a bridge built by Soloman Townsend. Little is known about Mr. Townsend except to say that he may have had ties to Solomon Townsend (1746-1811), who was a prominent captain of a merchant ship prior to the Revolutionary War but a businessman, blacksmith and politician for New York afterwards.  The bridge has been listed as a national landmark since 1999 and was rehabbed in 2000.

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Upper Keeseville Truss Bridge

If one wants an example of a very rare truss bridge that can (and must) be kept and be included in Keeseville’s history, it is this bridge. The Upper Bridge spans the AuSable at River Street and its junction with AuSable Street, south of the business district. The bridge has one of the most ornamental portal bracings one can ever imagine: A trapezoidal shaped portal system with Town lattice bracings and heels as well as ornamental finials. It’s one of the earliest examples of Town lattice portal bracings in use. Even rarer was the bridge’s association with an even seldomly known company, the Murray and Dougal and Company of Milton, Pennsylvania, located on the West Branch Susquehanna River, 50 miles north of Harrisburg.

Founded in 1842 by William McCleery, the company started off as a saw mill before adding a foundry and blacksmithing business. After changing ownerships and merging, the company was reorganized in 1864 and comprised of William McCleery, Samuel W. Murray, William P. Dougal and Charles C. McCormick. It was about that time, it started building railcars and would continue to do so until its merger with 13 other railcar companies into the American Car and Foundry Company in 1899. The bridge building business started in response to the Great Depression of 1873 and would serve as a side dish for eight years until a fire in 1880 destroyed all but two buildings on the company lot.  Only a handful of bridges were built during this short existence, yet the Upper Bridge is one of two left in the country that was built by Murray, Dougal and Co.

The bridge was built in 1878 and has a total length of 217 feet, including two 107 foot spans. The structure was built using a combination of cast and wrought iron. Since 2008, the bridge has been closed to vehicular traffic.

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Keeseville Suspension Bridge

Located over the AuSable River between the Stone Arch and Upper Bridges, the Keeseville Suspension Bridge is a rarity in itself given the fact that it was built by a bridge company that had specialized in other bridge types. The 240-foot long suspension bridge was built in 1888 by the Berlin Iron and Bridge Company in East Berlin, Connecticut, a company that during that time had specialized in Lenticular Truss Bridges.

Founded as the Corrugated Metal Company in 1868, it had produced roofing and shutters and did not expand into bridge building until Samuel Wilcox purchased the patent rights to the parabolical truss bridge from William Douglas in 1878. Douglas eventually became executive manager and treasurer of the company. After another patent purchase in 1885, Wilcox renamed the company the Berlin Iron and Bridge Company and it constructed its signature lenticular truss bridges throughout the eastern half of the US until its merger with 28 other bridge companies to become the American Bridge Company in 1900. Shortly after the acquisition, the company spun itself off and became Berlin Steel, which still exists today. Over 90% of the bridges and buildings constructed by Berlin are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Among them is this suspension bridge in Keeseville, whose construction is not typical of the bridges built by Berlin during that time. But given the depth of the river and the steep cliffs, a suspension bridge was a more viable choice as constructing a lenticular bridge would have been cost exorbitant and not effective, regardless of how long and whether a pier would have been added or not. The suspension bridge is a National Landmark since 1999 and is open to pedestrians.

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Old State Highway Bridge

The last bridge on the tour is the Old State Highway Bridge, located four miles north of Keeseville along Highway 9 and spans the AuSable River just south of the Chasm. The bridge is a continuous pony truss as it combines two pin-connected Pratt pony trusses into one. As described in bridgehunter.com:

This closed bridge over the Ausable River, just above the scenic Ausable Chasm, is a highly unique 2 span pony truss. The bridge itself is already notable for being a pin connected pony truss, built around the turn of the century. However what makes it truly special is that it has a unique feature in that instead of the more conventional approach of the 2 spans being configured as simple ones, a continuous truss was utilized.

The bridge provides a picturesque view of the Chasm and the rocky cliffs of the river. Built by Groton Bridge Company in 1895 shortly before its acquisition by the American Bridge Company, the bridge was rehabilitated in 1975 and had served vehicular traffic until its closure in 2004. Since then, only pedestrians are allowed to use the crossing.

Several videos have been produced on three of the four bridges in Keeseville, some of which has garnered support from thousands who have seen them. A detailed version can be found here:

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Current Situation:

Despite their historic significance, time and nature have taken a toll on these bridges. And one cannot describe the situation further than in this documentary provided by PBS:

Already a campaign to educate the people on the importance of the historic bridges in Keeseville has been launched and the goal is to garner enough attention and support to restore at least the metal bridges, as they are in dire need of a makeover in order for them to be used again for traffic. Given the hamlet’s location at the Essex and Clinton County border, officials of both counties will have to provide their share of funding and expertise to determine what repairs are needed and how much they will cost.

In my recent contacts with Matt Pray, one of many who are spearheading the efforts, one of the bridges has been inspected recently. The Suspension Bridge was inspected this summer and it was revealed that only minor repairs to the structure and a new coating of paint is needed. Fallen trees were cleared during that time to prevent them from falling onto the bridge and eventually taking it down. The question is whether this is possible for the other two bridges.

Given the current trend and the increase in support from local, county and state officials, the move is into the right direction as many who have visited the bridges have expressed the need to remodel them so they can be used and be part of the historic community again. With Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill being passed recently, this will provide enough funding to fix the bridges and with the case of Keeseville’s historic bridges, make the necessary repairs happen.

The bridges have their own facebook and websites for you to visit and provide support for saving and restoring the structures to their former glories. They include:

Website: https://keesevillehistoricbridges.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Keesevillehistoricbridges/

ASCE: https://www.asce.org/about-civil-engineering/history-and-heritage/historic-landmarks/bridges-of-keeseville/

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Most of the pics in this tour guide have originated from the sites.

Keeseville’s historic bridges are in the running for the 2021 Bridgehunter Awards in the categories of Endangered TRUSS and Bridge Tour Guide USA because of their unique designs, their histories but also their rare value that definitely deserves tender loving care. If a small hamlet like Keeseville has such diamonds in the rough in bridges like these four, they should be known elsewhere so that those who can visit the area can. And by reading up on them and with my correspondence with residents there, it’s one place that’s on my Places to Visit List.

And I bet there are others who would love to take some time in a quiet but historic town of Keeseville, its historic build and especially, its bridges.

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🌉💉BHC