By Mike LaBella
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Say goodbye to detour signs and hello to the rebuilt and reopened Rocks Village Bridge.
The latest chapter in the tale of two local bridges has concluded. The new Groveland Bridge spanning the Merrimack River and connecting Haverhill to Groveland opened two weeks ago after several years of construction.
Now the state has reopened the Rocks Village span connecting West Newbury to Haverhill.
The historic bridge is used by residents of West Newbury, Merrimac, Haverhill and several southern New Hampshire towns. The bridge had been closed to traffic since June 18, 2012, to allow work crews to do $14.1 million in renovations.
The span was originally expected to reopen in late August, but workers ran into unexpected problems this summer with the mechanism that opens the bridge for boats to pass underneath.
The delayed reopening meant vehicles that would normally use the bridge, including school buses, had to continue using alternate routes. Because of that, students riding buses to nearby Whittier Regional High faced longer rides than usual during the first month or so of school.
The bridge, built in 1883 and rebuilt in 1914, was closed to traffic on June 18 of last year, forcing drivers who used the 812-foot span to find alternate routes. The state installed detour signs in various locations to help drivers find other routes.
Whittier Regional High had to change several of its bus routes during the last school year due to the bridge being closed. Whittier Superintendent William DeRosa said the change affected four Whittier buses.
DeRosa said the four buses that used the bridge were rerouted, adding about 20 minutes to both the morning and afternoon trips.
He said three of the four buses are back to using the bridge again, while a fourth bus will continue using the alternate East Broadway route. He said it is more convenient for that bus than crossing the bridge because there is always a lot of bus traffic near Pentucket Regional High School.
“To me, the biggest attribute is that it’s a shorter ride for students and we will use less fuel as well,” DeRosa said about the reopening of the Rocks Village Bridge.
Earlier this year, Whittier carpentry students built an exact replica of the quaint wooden toll house that stood next to the drawbridge from 1828 to 1911.
The one-room building, which also served as a cobbler’s shop, is an impressive artifact from Haverhill’s bygone days. It’s also tied to the school’s namesake John Greenleaf Whittier, who tells of the toll keeper in his poem “The Countess.”
The toll house was built at the school based on design specifications the Rocks Village Memorial Association neighborhood group obtained from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The little building was trucked to the site and now sits on the Haverhill side of the bridge, just like the original toll house.
Built in 1862, the toll house was used to collect tolls until 1868, when all highways in Essex County were declared free to travel. The little building remained in use for the drawbridge until 1911, when the drawbridge was torn down and the toll house was moved to a former bridge-tender’s yard.
Henry Ford bought the toll house in 1928 and took it to his museum of American collectibles in Michigan, where it is on display today. Built in 1828, the quaint little building housed a toll keeper who assessed fees from the horse-drawn carriages and wagons that crossed the river.
The neighborhood group was also responsible for the restoration of the old Hand Tub House nearby, which once served as a fire station.
The Rocks Village Bridge project was funded through a $3 billion state effort to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts.
According to state transportation officials, the Rocks Village Bridge contains the oldest movable span among all bridges presently under MassHighway control. It is located next to the Rocks Village National Register Historic District, on a site which has been utilized as a major Merrimack River crossing since the early 18th century. To date, only 44 movable bridges have been identified in the MassHighway database. The Rocks Village Bridge, the oldest of them all, is still operated by hand.
As one of the earliest riveted metal trusses yet identified in the MassHighway inventory, the Rocks Village Bridge is also the earliest known surviving work of the Boston Bridge Works, a Massachusetts bridge building firm active from the 1870s through the 1930s.