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About the Jay Covered Bridge [NY-16-01]
- A history collected from the archives of the
New York State Covered Bridge Society*

New York State Covered Bridge Society Courier - March 1993

Jay, New York Covered Bridge
By Dick Wilson

Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson
The Jay Bridge looking upstream at the rapids and swimming hole
Photo by Dick Wilson.
       The Jay Covered Bridge is in the news again, but this time the controversy is over the new bridge which will by-pass the old covered span.
       The Jay Bridge is the only covered bridge still open to traffic in the Adirondacks. It is located across a very picturesque section of the Ausable River just below a very nice swimming hole. If the Department of Transportation has its way, the new bridge will cross at a new location 600 feet upstream of the old covered bridge. This would spoil the view of the mountains from the swimming hole and the covered bridge.
       The bridge history and specifications along with lots of photo's and post card pictures are well documented in Volume 19, number 1, March 1984 issue of the COURIER. The Jay Bridge is located just off Route 9N in the Village of Jay, Essex County, New York. The Howe Truss Bridge was built in 1857. In 1954, 2 small spans were removed after a truck went through them, making it a 175 foot bridge instead of a 250 foot bridge.
       A group has been formed to block where the new bridge will be located. The new group is called "Bridge and Beyond," and the president is Fred Balzac. Their recommendations include preserving and enhancing the visual quality of Jay's landscape, and the protection of the unique natural areas. I have been in contact with Mr. Balzac and have sent him information about the Jay Covered Bridge.
       I first learned about the Jay Bridge problem in a letter sent by Phyllis Wells on November 27th, 1992. In that letter was a clipping with the headline, "Opposition could kill plan for new Jay Bridge." Also included were 2 letters to the Editor about the bridge. The one letter had a very important statement. I quote, "The old bridge could be repaired for far less than a new bridge and should be. The covered bridge entrance should be restored to its original condition, and made useful for the same type of traffic it has handled for over a century." We in the Society know this can be done. It was just done to the Harpersfield Bridge in Ashtabula, Ohio.
       The Community of Jay is unique in this part of New York. We hate to see a covered bridge closed when with some repairs and good maintenance it can be a living historical piece of highway engineering.

Bridge and Beyond
By Fred Balzac

Covered bridge lovers everywhere have a real opportunity to help save a treasured object of affection in my community.
Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson
View of the Jay Bridge from the Jay side showing the old blacksmith shop
Photo by Dick Wilson.
       As Dick Wilson points out, a plan is in the works to by-pass the Jay Covered Bridge by erecting a new concrete and steel crossing 600 feet upstream of it. While much of the controversy engendered by the State Department of Transportation plan centers on the exact location of the new bridge, many area residents and frequent visitors have expressed concerns that the proposal threatens the old covered bridge.
       Since the origins and even the recent history of the Jay span have been recounted so well in these pages, I would like to focus on exactly how the bridge is endangered and what readers of the COURIER might do to protect it.
       There is no disputing the need for some kind of crossing over the Ausable in Jay open to emergency vehicles, school buses, and other local traffic. Bridge and Beyond, the group of about two dozen dedicated citizens with whom I have had the honor of working, is not necessarily opposed to a new bridge.
       At a town meeting in December we endorsed several alternatives, including building a new bridge downstream of the covered bridge. Our first choice, however, remains rehabilitating the covered bridge.
       Before the first concrete pier is submerged in the Ausable, isn't it worth exploring whether a bridge that has served the transportation needs of the area for six generations can first be remade to handle them for six generations more?
       We possess two initial proposals that spell out how the covered bridge can be repaired at a cost ranging from $372,500 to as low as $315,000 -- not much more than a tenth of the $2.122 million that the DOT budgeted for the new bridge, and that was in August 1990!
       That same year, Graton Associates of New Hampshire conducted a study of the Jay Covered Bridge for the Preservation League of New York. Although the Graton report detailed how the old bridge could be repaired and maintained even in the event a new bridge was built, its recommendations went unheeded. According to a spokeswoman for the League, copies of the report were distributed to Essex County, which is responsible for maintaining the bridge, as well as the Jay Town Supervisor, but nothing was done.
       What is even more disturbing is that the covered bridge is not being properly maintained now. In 1986, Essex County passed a resolution committing itself to maintaining the covered bridge after a new bridge is built. But did the passage of that resolution, one is compelled to ask, emancipate the county from maintaining the old span until a new one is constructed?
       If you have not been to Jay lately, you are likely to be quite dismayed at how our town treasure has been let to decay these past few years. More recently, the county has had the gall to lower the height clearance on the bridge -- effectively prohibiting the passage of fire trucks to the eastern side of the Ausable. Rather than do even the most minimal repairs, the county seems to be holding its breath waiting for the new bridge. But if there were ever a serious fire that spread due to the inability of fire trucks to pass through the wooden crossing, many residents will be holding the county responsible.
       Resolutions notwithstanding, this recent action (or inaction) by the county does not bode well for future behavior. If the county is not maintaining the Jay Covered Bridge now, when it is the only thoroughfare here over the Ausable, what incentive will it have to do so once the new span is built and the old one bypassed?
       But this is only the most obvious threat a new bridge 600 feet upstream poses to the existence of our covered one. Another concern we have raised is whether the very construction of a span upstream threatens the structure below it. The DOT has a stated preference for building new bridges upstream of existing crossings in the event the old bridge, as they put it, "fails."
       Let's think about the logic of this for a moment. The DOT officials maintain that even though the Federal funds they would use to cover 80% of this project require the closing of the old bridge, they say they are committed to preserving its "historic integrity." Yet they want to build a new bridge upstream of it in case the "functionally obsolete" one washes out.
Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson
The Howe Truss in the Jay Bridge if properly repaired and maintained, is strong enough for modern traffic.
Photo by Dick Wilson.
       Well, this functionally obsolete old thing has survived more than 135 years of catastrophic North Country climate! The question to ask is, what if the new bridge fails? What about the ice that is sure to build up around the new structure? Does it not threaten the covered bridge?
       There is a solution to this problem. Rather than erect a costly new bridge whose construction will almost certainly require the by-passing of the Jay Covered Bridge -- and you do not need me to tell you what happens to bridges after they are by- passed -- let us rebuild what we already have.
       Last December, at the request of Bridge and Beyond, a highly regarded Vermont timber bridge builder came to Jay to examine our covered bridge. He is convinced that it can be shored up to withstand the weight of almost any vehicle compact enough to pass through it. At a cost of $315,000, such a plan will protect the covered bridge from virtually certain decay, preserve the splendor of an Adirondack vista, and save New York State taxpayers a couple of million bucks to boot!
       This is where you come in. The officials and agencies responsible for making the final decision need to hear from concerned citizens all over this state. While the decision may ultimately rest with the DOT, it must seek input from the Adirondack Park Agency and such entities as the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service. I urge you to contact them about the wastefulness of the DOT plan.
       Your state Senator, Assembly member, and U.S. Representative (not to mention Senators D'Amato and Moynihan) may also be very interested in $2 million being spent unnecessarily in another district. Although 80% of this project is Federally funded, the money is really New York's to spend.
Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson
The Jay Covered Bridge on a warm August afternoon in 1987. This photo was taken upstream at the approximate location of the proposed new highway bridge.
Photo by Dick Wilson.
       Finally, if anyone can influence the decision, it is our Governor. In this age of fiscal austerity and environmental awareness, who better to approach about pure wastefulness than Mario Cuomo? I have written to him myself to request a meeting in Albany or for him to visit Jay. Perhaps you could help convince him of this issue's importance to all New Yorkers -- for surely if such a plan could happen in an area as beautiful as the rapids above the Jay Covered Bridge, it can happen anywhere.
       The accompanying box lists relevant names and addresses. Your letters can make a difference, and that is why there is a real, if momentary, opportunity for people like us -- who care about the integrity of old inanimate objects -- to have an effect. Just as a small group of ordinary citizens made enough noise to at least slow down what appeared to be the inevitable, so can a band of bridge appreciators help reverse the direction entirely.
       Thanks largely to the letters, postcards, petitions, and phone calls generated by our group, the DOT was forced into reexamining alternatives once ruled out and postponing the public hearing that is almost always tantamount to the confirmation of a bureaucratic decision -- the public be damned. In the short window of time that exists before a decision is made, we have a chance to change people's minds.
       Save the Jay Covered Bridge!

[This material has been posted with the permission and support of Dick Wilson, President, NYSCBS - Ed.]

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Joe Nelson, P.O Box 267, Jericho, VT 05465-0267
This file posted April 17, 2004