Blenheim keeps historic designation--for now; bridge meeting 11am Saturday


By Patsy Nicosia

When the Schoharie Creek swept away the Blenheim Covered Bridge, it swept away the town's past.
But maybe not its future.
Built in 1855, the Blenheim Covered Bridge was the longest single-span covered bridge in the world and a National Historic Landmark.
That all changed in August, when flood waters from Hurricane Irene washed away the bridge.
Then, adding insult to injury, in February Blenheim learned in a letter from the National Park Service, which awards National Landmark status, that the NPS was considering withdrawing the designation.
"To a lot of people here, the bridge is Blenheim," said Don Airey, who's chairing the town's Longterm Recovery Team.
"To think about losing the designation...It was just one more blow. The bridge is a symbolic icon, but it's more than a symbol. It's Blenheim's soul. It connects us."
The designation is significant, Mr. Airey explained, because not only does it protect the site, it also makes the town eligible for grants and other funding-something that's essential if pre-Irene plans for a park with hiking and biking trails and a possible creek-walk at the bridge site are ever to become a reality.
It's also essential if Blenheim's to be successful in rebuilding the bridge.
After NPS wrote Blenheim Supervisor Bob Mann about the possible loss of the designation, Mr. Airey, Schoharie County Attorney Mike West, Old Stone Fort Director Carle Kopeck,y and others fired off letters of their own and it appears they've won a "stay": a letter from the NPS received March 8 said in light of other work, with agendas full until the spring of 2014, withdrawing the designation "has to be viewed by our office as a relatively low priority."
Any de-designation would also be subject to a study and 60-day comment period.
Ultimately, however, there will have to be a bridge, and to that end, recovery efforts are well underway.
Mr. Airey said numerous wooden timbers and rods from the bridge have been recovered and are bring stored in Blenheim.
Also, a Blenheim Bridge Search and Recovery meeting will be held this Saturday at 11am at the town hall for those interested in getting involved in the effort.
"If we'd known it was going to be such a mild winter, we could have gotten started on this sooner," Mr. Airey explained.
"But our first efforts had to focus on helping residents salvage their homes. Only now can we turn to this."
Mr. Airey said he and others in the town see the bridge as an economic lynch pin for the community, drawing tourists to organized events like Schoharie Valley Watch's Art Walk, but also those who've heard about the bridge and simply want to see it.
He believes Blenheim can build on that by incorporating the nearby school house into an expanded park that includes the bridge-in some form.
RPI students are already working on conceptual drawings of a possible replacement bridge; if it includes at least 51 percent of the original 1855 bridge-a figure that's itself fuzzy because the 1855 bridge had been repaired over time-it will still, officially, be the original bridge with the NPS designation.
There are other scenarios should recovery efforts fall short, including replicating the bridge or memorializing it as some sort of sculpture, but for now, Mr. Airey said, they're focusing on Plan A.
"This way, we could continue to look for funding," he explained. "We have to protect what we have. Our vision is to turn the bridge into an economic incubator.
"We see recovery as a 3-10 year plan and that bridge is an integral part of it-not just for Blenheim, but for all of Schoharie County."