Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls to close in October for extensive repairs

By VIRGINIA RAY

For the Recorder

Published: 07-28-2023 6:55 PM

SHELBURNE FALLS — The Bridge of Flowers will close as usual in late October, but this time it will not reopen until major and much-needed repairs have been made, thanks to a $2.28 million state infrastructure grant.

The Shelburne Falls Fire District, which owns the bridge, has made the decision to proceed with the project with support from the Bridge of Flowers Committee, which oversees the bridge garden, and help from the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, after an engineering study revealed structural issues needing attention.

“The Shelburne Falls Fire District appreciates the investment the commonwealth is making to extend the life of the Bridge of Flowers and to strengthen the village public water system,” said Ron Dobosz, chair of the district’s Board of Commissioners. “This project is essential to the sustainability of our village’s public water infrastructure.”

The iconic arched bridge over the Deerfield River, while being a major economic driver for village tourism, also serves a crucial infrastructure need: carrying the only water main that provides potable water to Buckland residents.

Structural deterioration

In 2020, Tighe & Bond engineers were hired to complete a structural assessment of the bridge. The assessment was done to review cracking on the north side wall and took into consideration the extreme flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. There has not been a major structural improvement project on the bridge since 1983.

The study recommended addressing cracks and stabilizing the north spandrel wall. Tighe & Bond also noted that some of the rebar supporting the walls is failing.

While the bridge is not in imminent danger, the Shelburne Falls Fire District and Bridge of Flowers Committee plan to address these problems now to preserve the bridge’s structural integrity.

Scheduling

The start date and duration of the repair project, as well as planting removal and return, are being finalized now. Those involved with the project have decided the most cost-effective way to complete the repairs is to close the bridge for an extended period, likely to include the full 2024 season.

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“While we regret having to close our beautiful garden bridge for a season, we realize the importance of the structural work to ensure the viability of the Bridge of Flowers for another 94 years,” said Bridge of Flowers Committee Chair Annette Szpila. “We also know what a lot of work by many the successful completion of this work will entail, and are grateful to our gardeners and volunteers who are ready to do what needs to be done.”

Winter construction, which is highly weather-dependent, would take longer and be more expensive as it requires tenting and heating to be sure the concrete and other applied materials cure properly. Moreover, the heavy equipment cannot easily be moved in and out seasonally, were the work to be staggered.

In 2022, after Tighe & Bond updated its 2020 work estimate, the Shelburne Falls Fire District applied for and was awarded a $2.28 million Community One Stop for Growth grant from the state to address structural repairs and install a new water main.

The district has retained Tighe & Bond to complete project design and engineering, which is underway.

History and work to come

The 115-year-old former trolley bridge once carried goods between the Buckland rail yard and Colrain. It was closed in 1927 with the advent of motorized vehicles.

In 1929, an initiative to transform the bridge itself into a public garden was undertaken by the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club, the umbrella organization of the Bridge of Flowers Committee. Since then, the bridge has been maintained by volunteers of the Blossom Brigade who assist the paid head gardener and assistant gardener.

Among the myriad tasks to be accomplished are removing all plantings and soil from the bridge. Trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs will need temporary or permanent homes. A few trees deemed by engineers to be too large to be returned to the garden will likely be donated to the new pocket park at Bridge Street and Deerfield Avenue. Other plants will be housed on farms and in local gardens.

Other familiar objects must be removed and replaced, too. Lampposts, kiosks, fencing, lighting, memorials, most benches, and the pathway and flag pole will be removed.

“We are in the process of finding temporary homes for many of the plantings as we look to move everything on the bridge to safe and appropriate locations for the duration of the project,” Szpila said. “The good news is that this will be an opportunity to upgrade fencing, lighting and the pathway — projects we have long been considering.”

Some of the work to remove soil and large plantings will be done by professional landscapers, but volunteers will remove bulbs and perennials, as was done in 1983 when the bridge was last repaired.

Minimizing impact and looking ahead

Those who labor on the bridge are taking the long view of the project while also taking care of short-term needs.

“Ever since we understood that the bridge repair project would include removing everything from the bridge, we’ve been making lists and planning,” said Head Gardener Carol DeLorenzo. “We have a different strategy with regard to managing plants this season. For example, after blooming, we are digging up many of the bulbs and spring ephemerals, such as daffodils, allium, trillium, dodecatheon and hepatica, before the plants go dormant and we lose track of where they are. Some of the shrubs will be pruned back harder than usual and partially root-pruned as well in preparation for the fall relocation.

“While we won’t save every single posy, we have many specimens and hope to send them home to be planted and looked after by our volunteers,” she continued. “We’re also reviewing sites where we can store a majority of our bridge perennials, shrubs and trees. It’s definitely a huge job to remove a garden across a river and then rebuild it, but it’s a challenge we’re up to.”

Despite the hard work, DeLorenzo said she thinks it will be fun and invigorating, too.

“While it’s a daunting task, we are confident that we will successfully relocate all that we need to move,” said Szpila. “In addition to the needed structural repairs, when we reopen the bridge, you’ll see new railings, pathways and lighting, and a few more wonderful surprises, so we’re focused on the end result: a safer, more structurally sound, more beautiful bridge.”

Understanding that the village economy was greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the bridge was closed, the Bridge of Flowers Committee, as well as local arts organizations and businesses, are planning numerous events and activities to help keep local residents and visitors engaged.

The committee will hold a first-ever art show and sale on Oct. 14 and Oct. 15 at the Shelburne-Buckland Community Center. Then in the spring, the committee hopes to offer tours of local “hidden gardens.”

“We plan to host garden tours and more next year while the bridge work is being accomplished to continue to celebrate our local gardens,” Szpila said.

“We’re looking forward to the end prize and making a kind of horticultural magic that will bring the entire bridge a fresh bloom in 2025,” DeLorenzo added. “But until we close in October, there’s plenty to enjoy and we hope you’ll take time to stop and smell the flowers.”

A public information session will be held in August or September to share more details about the repair project and answer questions. The final project schedule is anticipated to be released in late summer or early fall.

Project information and periodic updates will be posted online at shelburnefallsfiredistrict.org/news and bridgeofflowersmass.org. Updates also will be shared with the business community and available for Buckland and Shelburne town e-newsletters.

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