jayny nyscbs3

Back to First Page.

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 1996

Last Covered Bridge In The North Country:
Historic Past And Uncertain Future

by Phyllis L. Wells

Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson, October 1983
This view of the Jay Covered Bridge is one you will not be able to take if the new bridge is built 600 feet upstream. Photo taken in October 1983 by Dick Wilson.
The 137-year-old wooden covered bridge in the village of Jay, New York, is the only one of this type in the Adirondack North Country. It became a tourist attraction after a sign was erected on route 9N about 1984. In increasingly poor condition, it may be closed as a result of the 1994 summer inspection by the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT).
       The bridge is on County Road 22 (Glen Road), two tenths of a mile south of the junction of State Routes 86 and 9N. It is Jay's only crossing of the East Branch of the AuSable River. When closed, vehicles must drive an additional seven miles via Upper Jay or six miles via the Stickney Bridge. The Glen Road has a year-round daily traffic count of 1355, nearly the highest in the county.
       An eight-foot overhead clearance and three-ton load limit now restrict vehicles to cars, pickup trucks and small school buses. This, of course, means detours for fire and ambulance vehicles, and trucks heading for Ward Lumber Company, the town's major employer. It also means more wear and tear on county roads in the area.


Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson, 1984
Jay, New York, built in 1857 using Howe Truss to span East Branch of the Ausable River
Photo by Dick Wilson, 1984
       The covered bridge in Jay represents the history of the town and its people. In the nineteenth century, the hamlet was a small service center and a prosperous industrial district focusing on the abundant water power of the AuSable River. The primary function of the bridge was to transport iron ore from the Palmer Hill mines to the mills and forge on the south side of the bridge.
       The first wooden bridge in Jay was built about 1846. The flood of September 30, 1856 destroyed all but eighty feet of the two north spans. The present bridge was built in 1857 by George M. Burt of AuSable Forks. He built a one hundred sixty foot span to connect with the two remaining spans. The new bridge was two hundred forty feet in length, with a five ton load limit. Roofing was put on in 1858.
       This bridge is of the Howe truss design, large wooden X's with vertical iron rods to strengthen them. It was an advance from the earlier all-wooden trusses because of the added strength. The Howe type was the favored truss design because it was simple, sturdy, and easily erected.
       On February 10, 1857, Reuben Comins of Troy, New York, patented a new design for a shoe for a truss frame or bearing block. This block is in the form of an inverted T. This design is very similar to, if not identical with, the ones found on the Jay covered bridge. It probably represents an early usage of Comins' patented design.
For many years past, this bridge has been endangered by vandalism, flood, fire, and accident. In 1992 some people picnicking had tom boards off the bridge to use in a campfire. They were surprised before the fire was lit, so the boards were recovered and put back on the bridge.
       Ice and flooding occur almost annually, and have damaged the underside of the bridge. In December 1976, an ice jam rerouted the AuSable River down the North Jay Road, and came close to the bottom of the bridge. Max Thwaits, Town of Jay Highway Superintendent, worked to clear a twelve-foot high, two mile long ice jam so water could flow through the flooded area.
       A Lake Placid News article in March 1979 noted that the bridge was the site of flooding in 1977, 1978 and 1979, but had escaped damage from ice cakes. Malcolm Alford, present Essex County Superintendent of Highways, says one good ice floe could take the bridge out.
       Mary Wallace, Town of Jay Historian, says there have been a number of fires on the bridge over the years. Fortunately, all of these were caught before serious damage was done. She herself came home late one night in the 1940's and found a pile of hay burning in the bridge.
       October 16, 1941 -- A town gravel truck, driven by Joseph Wilkins, broke the center span and dropped through the bridge.
       January 26, 1953 -- Rene Mercier drove his truck, loaded with eight tons of lumber, onto the bridge. The planking on the older north end gave way. The truck buckled in the middle, and the back end dropped through.
       November 7, 1985 -- John Cooper, driving a loaded Pepsi truck, lost his brakes on the Route 86 hill. He shot across Route 9N, headed down Glen Road, and tore through the covered bridge. Because the road on the south side of the bridge goes uphill, he was able to stop there. He tore out all the wooden cross beams and steel reinforcements at the top, and smashed both ends. The walls were held up by the roof, but the bridge was crooked and in danger of collapsing. Only the strong supports saved the bridge from complete disaster.
       August 11, 1986 -- An Action Moving & Storage truck from St. Albans, Vermont, lost his brakes and clutch as he came down the Route 86 hill. He went down Glen Road into the bridge, and struck a northbound vehicle which was exiting the bridge.
       October 5, 1988 -- A vehicle lost control on the slippery bridge pavement, coming to rest against the side of the bridge.
       November 10, 1988 -- A vehicle making a U-turn from the parking area on the north side of the bridge was struck by a vehicle exiting the bridge.
       May 12, 1989 -- A vehicle traveling too fast for the wet road lost control on Glen Road on the north side of the bridge, and became wedged crosswise in the bridge.
       February 7, 1991 -- A car about to enter the bridge from the south side, lost control and struck the bridge with the car's fender.

       1933 -- Fred Torrance, in his biography, notes that Essex County repaired the bridge for $5000.
       1941 -- New 23xi2x12 timbers replaced the flooring after the October 16th accident. Repairs cost $20,000.
       1953 -- As a result of the January 26th accident, the two older north spans were removed, and replaced with an earth-filled concrete approach and abutment. Three piers of concrete and structural steel were installed under the remaining 160 foot span. The cost was $20,000.
       1969 -- Numerous repairs were made: a new roof, wooden stringers, and a new floor. A single line of I-beams was installed down the center of the bridge. A new pier was built near the southern abutment to accommodate the I-beam installation. In 1968 the town received a $9800 grant for design studies for the bridge. Presumably this was for the extensive repairs made in this year.
       1985 -- The November 7th accident closed the bridge for a month while the Albany Bridge Company completed the $45,000 repair job. This was paid for by the trucker's insurance company.
       1989 -- The $2100 repair job was the result of the May 12th accident.
       1990 -- Wooden shingles were bought in 1988 for re- roofing the bridge. The Albany Bridge Company completed the job in 1990. The stone abutment on the south end of the bridge was encased in pneumatically applied concrete.
       1993 -- A red-flag deterioration problem, following the DOT yearly inspection, was repaired between August 11th and 19th.
Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson, October 1994
Jay Bridge. Notice the difference 10 years make. Between this picture and the one I took in 1984. Clearance has been reduced and new fence.
Photo by Dick Wilson, 1994
       As early as July 31, 1940, the DOT inspection report said: "This is an old covered bridge, very poor." At that time, the bridge was only eighty-three- years-old.
       A 1980 survey by the Federal Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Project said the bridge was in need of repair, and was fourth on the list of priorities for replacement. There was speculation that the covered bridge might be tom down, and a more modem structure built on its site.
       In 1986, the DOT's condition report said all verticals (metal rods) were rusted. Every diagonal member, and every top and bottom chord member (all rough timber) were damaged. The bridge was rated a four (on a scale of 3-7).
       The DOT condition report in 1988 described significant deterioration of various structural components of the bridge. Inspector Frederick Townsend was unable to determine a load rating, and called the bridge "highly redundant." The DOT advised the town that they planned to replace the covered bridge with a new one 570 feet upstream. In 1992, Tony Lavigne, of the Essex County Public Works Department, rated the bridge at 3.04.
       Essex County submitted a request in 1983 for building a new bridge. Later, New York State funding was withdrawn because of more critical priorities after floods in southern New York State. State and local funding is now back in place.
       In 1986, Ken Wheeler, Essex County Highway Superintendent, said the bridge was structurally worn out. It was one-lane, serving two-lane traffic from each side. This was a prime reason to get traffic off it. It was almost lost in 1985.
       When an accident had occurred, or repairs simply needed to be done, people would think of its conservation. In the late 1940's, the Garden Club of Jay focused its attention on saving the bridge from a modem replacement. They had fund-raising activities to contribute to its maintenance.
       After the 1953 accident, many people wanted to replace the bridge with a new, modern one. The old bridge was spared through the efforts of Dr. John D. Smith, Jay Town Supervisor, and William Calhoun, who wrote many articles and letters. Glyndon Cole editorialized in favor of its preservation in the Fall 1953 issue of North Country Life.
       Dorothy Madden, a Jay Town Board member, got a resolution passed in 1972 to pursue getting the covered bridge listed as a national historic landmark. In 1975 a letter was received from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation saying they were willing to consider this. Some work was done, but listing was never achieved.
       Within the framework of increasing local, state, and federal recognition of the value of historic resources, and the pending construction of a new bridge, in 1986 the Essex County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in support of retaining and maintaining the covered bridge.
       As a step in this direction, a plan was developed to preserve the covered bridge as part of a public park and a potential historic district. The design development process was completed in 1987, funded by two grants from the New York State Council on the Arts.
       At one time, construction was expected to begin in July 1987, and take a year to complete. Realignment and relocation of the road would be required. A spot on WPTZ's local news broadcast of October 23, 1992, stated that construction would begin in 1994. The latest word, from Walter Addicks, Design Engineer, says it is in the design process, and construction could begin in 1996, with completion that year or in 1997.
Jay Bridge. Photo by Dick Wilson, 1996
Th Jay Covered Bridge in 1996
Photo by Dick Wilson, 1996
When the DOT chose a sight six hundred feet above the covered bridge for the new one, Bridge and Beyond, a local citizens' group, was formed. They objected to the site as infringing on the scenery surrounding the bridge. The Town Board created a committee to study alternative sites. DOT is considering these as well as renovation to accommodate all vehicles.
       Some say the argument is over tourism versus industry. Perhaps one could say aesthetics versus jobs. Bridge and Beyond has recommended upgrading the covered bridge to acceptable standards. This would provide a viable bridge while ensuring its preservation. If a new bridge is built, would there be money for the old one?
       Preparation for the building of this bridge has been ongoing since 1983. Testing and examination of the surrounding terrain established the site 590 feet above the covered bridge. DOT considers this site the best because it does not impinge on historically sensitive sites. Also it is higher above the flood plain area, and construction would be easier.
       One letter to the editor of the Press Republican noted the curving, hilly approaches to the bridge from each side, and danger to pedestrians. In a Press Republican article, Malcolm Alford, Jay Superintendent of Highways, said he feared the delay might cost the town the bridge. The one the DOT plans to build is estimated to cost about $2.122 million. The county simply could not afford to build it.
       Meanwhile, the old bridge continues to deteriorate as its long-term fate remains unsettled. Let's hope that an agreement can be reached soon. A viable bridge is critical to the transportation needs of the village. As a significant architectural and trans- portation feature of the village, the covered bridge deserves to be preserved.
       Editors' Note: This information was received on Feb. 1st, 1996 from Bridge & Beyond. This would be the most up-to-date information on the Jay Covered Bridge.        Dick
       72% of Jay Residents Responding to Citizen's Group's Survey Say "No" to New Bridge Over Scenic Upstream Spot.
       JAY, NY -- The people of this Ausable Valley community finally had their say on the long-running bridge issue.
       Responding to a survey mailed to every postal patron in the Town of Jay by a local citizen's group, 72% of those participating agreed with the group's position on preserving the scenic upstream area within sight of the Jay Covered Bridge while opposing new bridge construction 600 feet upstream of the historic structure.
       More than 400 people responded overall to the survey -- a remarkable number, according to Bridge and Beyond, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of the small-town character of Jay. The ratio of citizens supporting the group's position to those opposing it was 3 to 1.
       An Overwhelming Response
       "Measured against any standard," the group declares in its just-released report on the town-wide survey results, "400-plus responses in a town the size of Jay should be interpreted as an overwhelming response to (our) call for a vote, as it were, 'of the people.' ...
       "While we are not yet ready to claim an absolute majority of the town, we believe that these results establish indisputably that there is a substantial proportion of Jay citizens and taxpayers who oppose the construction of a new bridge 600 feet upstream, period."
       The survey was mailed just before Election Day in response to actions taken last summer by a number of public officials that resulted in the rejection of the state DOT's plan to renovate the covered bridge, the abandonment of the bridge by Essex County to the Town of Jay, and a subsequent call for a new bridge to be built instead -- upstream of the covered bridge and over part of the local swimming hole.
       Giving Voice to the Will of the People
Particularly troubling to Bridge and Beyond was the decision by the Jay Town Board in August to recommend the 600 feet site after telling citizens in July they would be able to vote in a non- binding referendum on the matter in November.
       "Sensing an arrogant disregard for the expressed will of the people among many of our public officials," the report states, "Bridge and Beyond decided to give the people of Jay the opportunity to 'vote,' via the mail, that they were being denied at the ballot box."
       The group printed a questionnaire in the form of a self-mailer that presented the then-newly approved position statement. Each postal patron was asked to indicate support or lack of support for the position and then mail the form back using his or her own postage. The position statement reads:
       Bridge and Beyond's primary objective is the preservation of the scenic upstream area within sight of the Jay Covered Bridge, including the covered bridge and the swimming area. We adamantly oppose any new structure 600 feet upstream of the historic 1857 bridge because it would violate the preservation of this scenic area.        Substantial Cause for Rethinking the Issue
       Encouraged by the implications of the survey's results, members of Bridge and Beyond believe the project met both of the objectives expressed last fall -- 1) making the group's position clear in the wake of public confusion over the county's reversal; and 2) to find out just how much support Bridge and Beyond had in the community at large.
       "We took quite a risk in undertaking this," says the group's president, Fred Balzac. "The results could have gone the other way, and we had committed up front to reporting the outcome.
       "We're gratified to know that we speak for so many people in town."
       Bridge and Beyond will report the results to the DOT and the Board of Supervisors and will make its findings available to any other interested arm of government, as well as individual citizens, in the hope that the results will lead to some serious rethinking of the issue.
       The group has been working to preserve the scenic upstream area within sight of the Jay Covered Bridge ever since a DOT plan to construct a new concrete-and-steel bridge there surfaced in 1992. That plan was itself abandoned by the DOT in 1994, and these concerned citizens find it both ironic and frustrating to be faced with essentially the same bridge plan now in 1996.
       "For any plan to gain the support of a substantial number of people in Jay," the survey report concludes, "we believe it must address the need for emergency vehicle protection and do so quickly; guarantee a future for the Jay Covered Bridge, preferably as a traffic bridge; and protect the swimming hole and upstream corridor."

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

Return to top

Joe Nelson, P.O Box 267, Jericho, VT 05465-0267
This file posted April 18, 2004