GREAT BARRINGTON — The long wait is nearly over. Contractors this morning were putting the finishing touches on the railings of the span formerly known as the Brown Bridge. Except for a few traffic cones protecting the painting contractors, both lanes are now fully open at their regular widths.
Both lanes remained open in both directions for almost the entire construction period, which started last summer. A contractor on the site this morning said, weather permitting, the painting on the south-side railings should be completed by the end of the week.
The $1.6 million price tag cost the town of Great Barrington almost nothing, beyond the aggravation. Work had been delayed during much of July when several rainstorms soaked the area. The COVID-19 pandemic had also caused earlier delays.
All of the steel work underneath and part of the painting of the trusses was completed, but in the last several weeks the combination of rain and high humidity had prompted the state Department of Transportation to put the rest of it on hold.
“Any summer road construction in our town can be a big inconvenience for residents, visitors, and commercial traffic,” Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said in a statement this week. “We thank everyone for their patience over the past year.”
The Brown Bridge, which crosses the Housatonic River and links North Main Street and State Road, sits at the intersection of routes 23, 7, and 41, all of which are state highways. The western end of the bridge empties at Domaney’s and the “GB” hedge. It is the main artery in and out of the northern end of downtown. As a result, the bridge carries an estimated 18,000 vehicles per day. Prior to the latest repair, MassDOT had rated the bridge “structurally deficient.”
The storied bridge was a subject of some controversy last year after the town Design Advisory Committee met in late 2019 and recommended to the selectboard that the trusses be painted “primer red” or roughly the same hue as the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco with Marin County, California.
The selectboard voted 4-1 to approve the request. Then-board member Kate Burke preferred rainbow colors, which, ironically, now adorn some of the town’s crosswalks. The information about the color was passed on to MassDOT, which paid for and is in charge of the project because Route 7 is a state highway.
Once painting on the trusses began in December 2020, however, it became apparent that the color was not exactly what some town officials had in mind. Instead of International Orange, which is another name for the Golden Gate’s unique hue and is somewhere in between orange and bright red, the trusses appeared to be pink or pale red. It is an open question as to what the Brown Bridge will now be called. Some have called for renaming it the Great Bridge, as it was known in its heyday.
Local historian and Edge contributor Gary Leveille said the first bridge to span the river at that spot was wooden and was erected in approximately 1735. Town records indicated that the span needed major repairs or replacement every 12 to 15 years for well over a century.
Voters agreed to replace it in 1884 with a Berlin iron lenticular truss bridge — a popular design in town. That span lasted until 1931, when it, too, was replaced. According to Bernie Drew, another local historian and Edge contributor, that span was 93 feet long and cost $4,300. Not long in service, it began to shake.
Drew said that bridge was replaced with a 108-foot Parker pony truss, and that, too, continued to shake. The sensation is still commonly experienced by southbound motorists stopped on the bridge for the traffic light when a truck roars over the span.
“For many years, it was known as the Green Bridge until it was painted brown, perhaps to make the recurring rust less obvious,” Leveille told The Edge last year.
Drew, the author of “Great Barrington: Great Town,” said there could be a couple of reasons why the span was known as the Great Bridge. The name could have been a holdover from the Great New England Fur Trail of the 18th century.
In a history of the bridge he penned for The Edge, Drew offered an alternate reason for the name. He noted that the Pittsfield Sun for Sept. 25, 1834, referred to the “Great Barrington Bridge.” That polysyllabic moniker could easily be shortened to “Great Bridge.”
“There’s a simple reason it’s the Great Bridge,” Drew wrote. “Economy of verbiage.”
Two other bridges in Great Barrington remain closed: the Cottage Street bridge has been closed to traffic since late 2018 because of structural deficiencies. The town is awaiting state grant money to repair it, but the funds won’t become available for two or three more years.
The Division Street bridge has been closed since September 2019 after a MassDOT inspection revealed structural deficiencies. It’s a long story that is explained here, but suffice it to say MassDOT made an error in its analysis and said last October that a town-funded rehab of the existing bridge is now out of the question.
Instead, the department recommended the demolition of the existing structure and the purchase and installation of a temporary truss, using the two existing abutments for support, until a new bridge could be constructed.
Sean VanDeusen, who heads the town’s Department of Public Works, has said that the temporary truss project will go out to bid in late fall. Town officials expect the temporary truss to be in place by mid-2021. The permanent bridge replacement is contingent upon approval and funding by MassDOT, which is several years away.