CHATHAM — The Mitchell River Bridge, a wooden drawbridge spanning a saltwater channel at the elbow of the Cape, looks today much as it did in the 1850s, when the clam diggers and fishermen making up Chatham’s Town Meeting counted out $1,300 for its construction. A small lobsterman’s shack sits by one corner, and skiffs bob at their moorings on both sides.
But years of use in the salt air and seawater have taken their toll, leaving the bridge “structurally deficient’’ and “functionally obsolete’’ in the words of state engineers, who want to dismantle it and erect a steel-and-concrete replacement.
Promising $11.9 million in state and federal funds, state transportation officials say the new bridge will last longer and be easier to maintain. Neighbors and preservationists counter that the plan ignores the significance of the Mitchell River Bridge, the last wooden drawbridge in Massachusetts — and, enthusiasts say, the country — as well as a vestige of Chatham’s days as a modest seafaring village.
“It’s a piece of New England history,’’ said Norm Pacun, founder of the Friends of the Mitchell River Wooden Drawbridge. “It’s a masterpiece of simplicity and beauty.’’
Pacun’s group wants to protect the bridge by landing it on the National Register of Historic Places, despite rejection last winter by the head of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, an important state gatekeeper to earning federal recognition.
The group’s appeal, wending its way toward the US Department of the Interior’s Keeper of the National Register, has drawn support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other preservationists nationwide, who see the case not just as a local fight but one that could set precedent for wooden bridges elsewhere.
The state’s historic preservation officer says the bridge is not worthy of protection, because many of its elements are less than 50 years old. Pacun and other preservationists, however, say that, unlike other historic structures, a bridge must be continually updated for safety reasons. They say such renovations should not disqualify the bridge, because it largely retains its original character and appearance.
Going back to the 19th century, Chatham officials periodically approved piecemeal fixes, in the tradition of Yankee reuse. That was the case until the mid-1970s, when the drawbridge was declared unsafe and bolted shut. The state stepped in to rebuild, and a debate emerged similar to the one waged now.
At the urging of town elders such as Spaulding Dunbar, a celebrated boatbuilder, and Clair Baisly, a noted Cape historian, the state ultimately agreed to reconstruct the wooden bridge deck — including the single-leaf draw, which operates much like a castle’s drawbridge over a moat. The work also kept most of the timber pilings that have supported the bridge since the 1920s.
A generation later, the bridge again needs repairs, so state officials included it in the Accelerated Bridge Program, an eight-year, $3 billion plan advanced by Governor Deval Patrick after a fatal bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007, to reverse decades of deferred maintenance.
The state proposed rebuilding it with concrete and steel structural elements, and an asphalt roadway, using wood for the sidewalk, railings, and selected trim. An all-wood bridge might cost $5 million less but fail in 20 years, whereas the state proposes a bridge that could last 75, said Luisa Paiewonsky, state highway administrator.
“The bridge is an investment by all of the Commonwealth’s taxpayers, so it’s important that we deliver a bridge that’s not only beautiful but durable,’’ she said.
Pacun is skeptical of the state’s analysis.
“If you have the last of anything, how silly can you be to want to dismantle it?’’ asked Pacun, 78. A former New York lawyer, he has vacationed in Chatham since the 1950s and lived there since the 1980s.
Along with his wife, Carol, a former schoolteacher, Pacun formed the friends organization and prepared a 122-page application in defense of the bridge’s National Register merits. They have appealed the state’s rejection of their request to the federal government, saying the structure has “exceptional importance’’ to Chatham’s history.
While the debate makes its way to the top — with a decision by the Keeper of the National Register expected as early as the fall — Chatham’s selectmen are trying to sort through a state and federal bureaucratic tangle and manage emotions in town, where some fear that fighting to preserve the bridge might cost the town time and money. With the help of US Representative Bill Delahunt, the board has slated a meeting tomorrow to bring state and federal highway officials, preservationists, neighbors, and others together in one place.
Len Sussman, chairman of the board, said the selectmen want to make sure that all the facts are out in the open and that the funding for the bridge “is not held hostage’’ to its historic status, or vice versa.
Meanwhile, at the bridge last week, the town’s harbormaster demonstrated for a reporter the opening and closing of the draw, something that ordinarily happens only a few times a month to allow for high-masted sailboats to pass. As the timbers creaked back into place, a collection of beachgoers and children with fishing poles gathered to watch. Pacun explained to those in earshot that the bridge was the last of its kind in the country, a suspicion he had confirmed through the Coast Guard and a network of bridge historians.
Karen Galinko, a New Jersey resident who rents in Chatham every summer, told Pacun she is drawn by the timeless feel of the community, down to the bridge beneath her feet.
“Who wants to take it down?’’ she asked.
“MassHighway — they want to give us a concrete bridge,’’ Pacun said, shaking his head. “Not without a fight.’’
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