CHESTER — In the high-stakes world of covered bridges, there's a little tension over who gets to claim the honor of the oldest bridge.
Most historians give it to the 1829 Haverhill-Bath Bridge in Woodsville, although there are some stubborn holdouts in Pennsylvania who claim the title for the Hassenplug Bridge in Mifflinburg, which was allegedly built in 1825. Sure, Pennsylvania.
There is, however, no doubt about what will be the newest covered bridge in the nation. It is going up in Chester, over the Wason Pond Dam. It will be the state's 55th covered bridge.
The town has teamed up with the Timber Framers Guild, an international nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the centuries-old art of building with massive beams cut and shaped for each individual structure. Based in Alstead, the guild takes on several field projects each year to offer hands-on training for its 1,500 members and newcomers and volunteers interested in learning time-honored, timber-building traditions.
Joel McCarty, the guild's executive director, said Chester's covered bridge project was a nice fit for the organization's educational mandate.
“It's kind of unique,” said McCarty. “There's a lot of repair and restoration work for timber framers, but there's not too many projects for brand-new buildings. That was one of the reasons the guild was interested.”
Still, it took a couple of years of planning. In early July, when McCarty sent out an email announcing the guild was good to go, members started packing. And timber framers from all over New England, Virginia, North Carolina, and as far off as Vancouver Island, have been chiseling and smoothing down freshly cut timber beams with the help of a crew of local volunteers.
“Everybody here is so knowledgeable and so nice,” said Chester resident Teresa Rogers as she chiseled out the letter C in a thick piece of pine. Rogers, a carpenter who teaches shop at a middle school in Billerica, Mass., picked up the job of carving the town name into a main beam.
“I came because I wanted to help out,” she said. “I thought I would be cooking, but apparently they found out about my cooking.”
Rogers came to the pond with her tool belt strapped on, but other locals stopped by to watch and thank the visiting timber framers.
“This is huge,” said Selectman Joe Castricone as a group of workers slowly pulled the left side of the bridge into place. “The Conservation Commission came up with the idea, and we have so many volunteers, it's unbelievable.”
For Conservation Commission Chairman Charles Myette, the bridge, which is based on a 19th-century design, is the icing on the conservation cake. Wason Pond has been a work in progress for several years.
Chester paid $1.5 million for the 105-acre site in 2003. A former campground, the site had trees, trails and a pretty pond where kids could learn to swim and canoe. A playground was installed, athletic fields were in the works and Wason Pond was on its way to becoming a postcard-perfect community treasure when the 2006 Mother's Day storm roared in and blew out the dam.
It took Chester years and several hundred thousand dollars to repair the damage. When the dam was done, town officials started planning a bridge so hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers could get to the three miles of trails on the north side of the property.
“We wanted to make it a covered bridge,” said Myette. “And we wanted to make it a community project.”
Myette, who serves on plenty of town committees aimed at preserving Chester's rural, small-town character, knew which local talent he could tap. He enlisted Dick Lewis of Chester Forest Products to help cut the trees, which were all taken from the Wason Pond site.
“We held a workshop about the project,” said Myette. “Anybody who wanted to learn about timber cutting and framing was welcome. It just all came together.”
The original plans
Chester originally had plans to install a small steel bridge. But as all members of the Timber Framers Guild will tell you, and as McCarty will tell you the loudest, choosing timber over modern, light-frame methods and materials means it will last.
“Timber framing is a viable building technology,” said McCarty who added it has long been a dominant method of construction throughout the world. “It was so dominant, it wasn't even called timber framing. It was originally called building.”
Chester's bridge is designed for pedestrians, but McCarty said it will probably also be used for hay wagon rides and small utility vehicles if necessary.
“When we're done, the bridge will weigh about 14,000 pounds and it will be standing for hundreds of years,” said McCarty. The roof, which protects the structural supports from rain and snow, adds years of life to a covered bridge.
David Powell is owner of Timberwolf Tools, a specialty shop in Freeport, Maine, that caters to timber framers and log builders.
“When you are timber-frame building, you're thinking about your children,” said Powell. “A timber-frame structure will be around for 500 years and it will look beautiful. And these buildings don't just look good, they are good.”
The allure of the build
Exposed beams are the core feature of timber-building aesthetics. Guild member Katie Hill, a structural engineer from Ferrisburg, Vt., said timber framing lets builders strike the right balance between creative design and practical construction.
“Timber framing in its purest sense is very satisfying,” said Hill. “I love designs that have form following function.”
But Hill, who works on a lot of guild projects — including a recent job rebuilding a roof for a 300-year-old synagogue in Poland — said the single greatest thing about building with big beams are the people.
“I really like the community energy,” she said. “We don't get to come unless the community invites us.”
Lorri Pepper, whose husband and father-in-law were among the local volunteers, said the close-knit town of about 4,000 is pumped about the bridge.
“The people who I've talked to think it's a very cool thing,” said Pepper.
Other communities with covered bridges have learned that they are more than just cool, they can also be profitable. Tourists flock to covered bridges. Chester, which is becoming the proud owner of the state's 55th covered bridge, will no doubt decide what, if any, celebrations to hold for its new landmark.
As for the timber framers, they've tucked another success under their tool belts and headed home, where they'll wait for word for the next project.
As McCarty put it, the guild's visit to places like Chester is timber framing in a nutshell.
“What we want is to build a good building, in a good place with good people,” he said.For a photo gallery of the new covered bridge at Wason Pond, click here.