December 2, 2016

Protecting Babb's Bridge - By Walter Lunt

Town leaders, Department of Transportation officials and other representatives of the towns of Windham and Gorham met recently to discuss vandalism and other security issues regarding the newly repaired Babb’s Covered Bridge which connects the two towns over the Presumpscot River.

The meeting, held at the Gorham Municipal Center, was led by Doug Carlson, a maintenance and operations manager for the Maine DOT, who told the gathering that the state cannot provide continued fixes to the bridge resulting from vandalism.

“We can address upkeep and safety on the bridge, (but) with this (vandalism) we’re just spinning our wheels,” said Carlson.

Attending the session were the town managers, police chiefs, public works directors, legislators and members of respective historical societies from both communities.

Windham Historical Society member and former senator Gary Plummer acknowledged that while Maine’s DOT will continue to maintain the bridge, the wanton destruction from vandals and graffiti “artists” now falls on the two towns. He recommended the formation of a group, Friends of Babb’s Bridge, to oversee protection and preservation. He recently told the Eagle that when he visited the aftermath of the bridge’s destruction from arson in 1973 he experienced a feeling of mourning much like a reaction to the death of a friend.

“I’m committed to saving this bridge. I think it’ll be necessary to do some kind of security monitoring. I’ve visited all nine of (Maine’s remaining) bridges. They all have a graffiti problem, but sad to say we win the prize,” referring to the words and pictures scrawled across the length of both interior walls.
Windham representative Patrick Corey lamented, “People don’t even love their own landmarks.”

Several attendees, however, said they believed much of the destruction, which included sawing holes through the roof and kicking away sideboards, was committed by out-of-towners, exhibiting callous disregard for public property to enhance their good times jumping from the bridge into the river. Residents who live near the bridge say locals, who swim and play near, but not on, the bridge show more respect and ownership of the property. 

Police chiefs from the two towns have agreed to beef up patrols in the area during spring and summer months, but concede 24 hour surveillance is not possible. It was also noted that passage of additional town ordinances related to trespassing would help give teeth to police pursuing arrests and prosecution.

Gorham town manager David Cole said surveillance and protection is difficult for many reasons, including the remote location of the bridge and limited resources exacerbated by dwindling state revenue sharing funds. And, he added, “As long as there are people, there will be graffiti.”

The bridge protection issue is particularly pressing right now as extensive repairs have just been completed. Following severe vandalism over the summers of 2014, ’15 and ’16 Maine DOT agreed to a complete fix, but warned that responsibility for any ongoing damages resulting from malicious mischief would rest with the towns.

Plummer and others want to form a panel that would monitor goings-on at Babb’s Bridge, especially during spring and summer months. The group, he hopes, would consist of concerned citizens and members of the local legislative delegation that would recommend security measures, secure funds and implement a plan by next spring.

“It’s a sound structure right now,” said DOT bridge maintenance manager Jeffrey Naum, referring to the extensive work this fall by D & D Construction at a cost of over $160,000. The work included new roofing and reinforced siding. Stabilization of the abutment supports had been completed earlier.
Suggestions for security ranged from the installation of surveillance cameras and continual repainting over the graffiti to signage and increased “eyes-on” by volunteers.

Windham Primary School children who regularly visit the covered bridge replica, built originally in the mid-19th century, also weighed in. Their ideas, recorded on chart paper by their teacher, were displayed at the meeting. Titled “Ideas to Protect Babb’s Bridge,” one young history devotee suggested “Make another bridge or something in town that people can break or spray paint.” Another student recommended “Spread the word! Talk to everyone we know about how important Babb’s Bridge is to us.”

Gorham resident Guy Labrecque said he was impressed by the students’ interest.

“If kids are involved at a younger age, maybe they won’t (condone) the destruction.”

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