By Dan Hust
CLARYVILLE Down in Bridgeville, Sullivan County hosted what’s considered the first covered bridge in New York State.
That one, a circa-1807 double-laned giant over the Neversink River, no longer exists.
Ironically, up in Claryville, the newest of the state’s historic covered bridges is literally in danger of falling into the Neversink River.
“At least half the pier is gone,” said Donna Freeland, president of the NYS Covered Bridge Society.
She’s speaking of the Halls Mills Covered Bridge’s west pier, which for the past century has supported the 90-ton bridge as it crosses the Neversink just south of Claryville.
Thanks to last August’s Hurricane Irene, much of the laid-stone pier has been swept downriver.
“There are basically three large rocks the bridge is resting on,” explained Christie Toohey, a Warwick resident whose parents, Cliff and Janet Carey, still live just down Hunter Road.
Toohey remembered growing up next to the 1912 bridge, its beauty a lasting fixture in her family and the rest of this Catskill Mountain hamlet.
In particular, she recalled “the absolute quiet” surrounding the picturesque bridge. That’s partly because it hasn’t carried traffic for the past half of its life and is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.
But on August 28, 2011, the Neversink was anything but quiet as it surged to record levels in Claryville.
“I thought it was just another flood,” said Toohey, who stayed in touch with her parents, somehow maintaining their phone service through the worst of the storm. “But it quickly became evident this was not normal.”
Around six feet of water poured over Hunter Road, rising up to the Halls Mills bridge’s underside. When the raging river receded, the western pier was deeply gouged yet unlike some its counterparts in points north, this covered bridge survived.
But the Town of Neversink, which owns it, and Sullivan County, which maintains it, had to cordon off the bridge itself, even though it’s only used these days by hikers and horseriders.
That’s because it’s at real risk of collapse.
“Nobody wants to see this down in the Neversink Reservoir,” said Freeland, speaking of the next stop on the river’s southward path, “but that’s what’s going to happen if we have a bad spring.”
So she and Toohey have spearheaded an effort to save the bridge.
“This is my favorite bridge in the state,” acknowledged Freeland, who’s visited all but one of them. “I like the setting. I like how it looks.”
They got FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to take a look, along with the state, town and county.
FEMA allocated $400,000 to complete repairs, but as always, that came with a requirement that the state and county split 25 percent of that cost.
And that’s where Sullivan County came up short.
“We don’t have $50,000 budgeted for this particular bridge,” said Public Works Commissioner Bob Meyer.
And with nearly 400 county-owned bridges under his jurisdiction, Meyer couldn’t justify taking precious funds away from the bridges still in active use some temporarily closed while they await desperately-needed repairs.
“We certainly want to preserve the covered bridge,” he acknowledged. “On the other hand, we have bridges travelled every day, and we have limited resources.”
So Toohey and Freeland organized a grassroots effort to raise the needed funds. They even hired an engineer to determine what to do next.
This past Thursday, however, the County Legislature agreed to employ their own consulting engineer who will draw up repair plans that will meet FEMA’s requirements.
“I think it’s worthwhile to move forward,” stated Meyer, who said he’s cautiously optimistic the bridge can be repaired. “We don’t want to stop this project.”
The $48,000 cost for that engineer will be shared among FEMA, the state and the county. The county’s share of about $6,000, said Meyer, will count toward its overall $50,000 contribution.
That contribution can be made with in-kind services, not just money, and Neversink Supervisor Mark McCarthy said the town is ready to help.
“Whatever the county tells us to do, we’ll go up and do,” McCarthy affirmed yesterday. “That bridge has been here forever, and we’d love to save it.”
Once the go-ahead is given, Neversink will likely contribute manpower and equipment to reroute the river’s current away from the pier, he said.
But since the county controls the bridge’s maintenance, the town must wait.
Freeland and Toohey, meanwhile, are moving ahead, creating a website and Facebook page and selling tote bags to raise awareness and funds.
They’re also planning a centennial celebration of the bridge for sometime later this year, which will double as a fundraiser in and of itself.
The donations have already started flowing, along with promises of volunteer help when work begins. Even the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges has pledged $1,000.
“This is one of the only attractions for this area,” said Freeland, “and so many people’s lives have revolved around this bridge locally.”
Gazing at the fog-shrouded bridge on a recent morning, Freeland knows what’s at stake.
“I totally understand the lack of money,” she admitted, “... but once they lose this, no one will have the money to replace this.”
As a native of this close-knit paradise, Toohey’s passion goes even deeper.
“None of us ever want to see something so beautiful that’s stood for so long in Claryville go down,” she said.
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To find out more, check out hallsmillscoveredbridge.com or look them up on Facebook.
You can donate directly to the effort by mailing a check to NYS Covered Bridge Society Treasurer Reid Bader, 201 Seneca Creek Road, West Seneca, NY 14224-2347.
Or just drop by the Neversink Town Hall on Route 55 in Grahamsville during business hours, where you can buy “Save the Halls Mills Bridge” tote bags for $20 apiece.