WILMINGTON - Enjoy the historic bridge on state Route 86 now. It will be replaced in a year.
During the Great Depression in 1934, it was decided that a new bridge would be built over the West Branch of the AuSable River to replace the old iron bridge. This new concrete-and-stone bridge was an "ornamental entrance" to the new Whiteface Memorial Highway and was to accommodate the expected increase in traffic anticipated after the opening of the highway in 1935.
Eighty years later, the bridge now needs replacing. Time and the elements have taken their toll, deteriorating the existing structure and necessitating a total replacement of the historic bridge.
The historic bridge over the West Branch of the AuSable River in the hamlet of Wilmington will be rebuilt in 2015.
(Photo — Charles Potthast Jr.)
"The construction is scheduled to start in March of 2015," town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston said. "The bridge will be built to mimic the current structure and maintain its historic appearance."
The plan is for a 90-day closure with a detour utilizing Springfield Road and Fox Farm Road.
"The Department of Transportation is working very closely with the town in an effort to assure the project is completed in a timely manner," Preston said. "The objective is to have the bridge open for traffic by the tourist season, with as little detrimental effect to local business as possible."
The Wilmington bridge is located in the heart of the hamlet. It consists of two arches, faced with stone, spanning about 160 feet in length and roughly 25 feet above water level. The original iron bridge, built after 1881 to replace a wooden structure, was located south of today's site and was surrounded by mills and agricultural activity. In the 19th century, Wilmington's economy revolved around farming, iron works, harvesting lumber and the production of rye. Much of the rye was used to distill rye whiskey in local distilleries.
The 20th century witnessed Wilmington's economy shift from agricultural and small industry to tourism. In 1947, the state opened the first incarnation of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, located on Marble Mountain and accessed off the Whiteface Memorial Highway. The ski center was replaced in January 1958 with the current ski center, located off state Route 86, closer to Lake Placid. Santa's Workshop, one of America's first theme parks, opened in 1949 on Whiteface Memorial Highway. And Wilmington hosted the alpine skiing events at Whiteface Mountain during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.
The Wilmington bridge is a gateway to tourist attractions, motels, restaurants, campgrounds, hiking, skiing and some of the best fly fishing in the country. A dam was built near the bridge to support boating, skating and swimming. The bridge became part of the route used by Ironman USA in 1999. The next year, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The bridge is loved by residents and visitors alike. Its Depression-era design goes hand-in-hand with the beauty of the river and surrounding mountain ranges. The bridge has served several generations as they traveled to, and enjoyed, all the amenities the Adirondack Park has to offer.
"We are hoping for a short closure," said Michelle Burns, operations manager of the Whiteface Region Business & Tourism Center. "We are keeping the public informed to avoid any detrimental effects on businesses and tourism."
Burns also said the bridge is a popular fishing spot for both local residents and visitors.
The new bridge will be constructed from precast cement and brought up to current safety standards, while maintaining its aesthetically pleasing look.
"The original bridge had lighting, which was removed in the '70s," Preston said. "We intend to add the lights back as part of the construction project."
The Wilmington bridge has played a supporting role in Wilmington's history from the beginning, serving all who pass through this quaint Adirondack village. And it will continue to do so throughout the 21st century.