Published March 30. 2013 4:00AM Updated March 30. 2013 2:43PM
North Stonington - When asked if he remembers the day the bridge went, First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II doesn't skip a beat.
"March 30, 2010," he says, as solemnly as if it had been Pearl Harbor.
For a tiny, rural town where historic landmarks are cited as frequently as street names, the washing out of the Town Hall Bridge in the waterlogged aftermath of the March 2010 flood was certainly a tragedy in its own right. Not only did it mean the destruction of a monument listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it quite literally split the town in two, slashed right across its Main Street.
Now, three years to the day of its demise, townies will celebrate the bridge's triumphant return officially in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon today.
It's a long-awaited moment that will cap one massive headache of a rebuilding process. Once, during a Board of Selectmen meeting, when asked how the grand opening of the bridge would be celebrated, Mullane replied that he would jump off of it.
The historical status of the bridge ratcheted up both the cost and the timetable to close to $2 million and three years. Historical societies on the local, state and federal level all had a say in the design's approval. An archaeological dig was required to study the foundation. The engineering details had to be thoroughly reviewed to ensure the Federal Emergency Management Agency would cover the entire 75 percent reimbursement rate.
And a rather large sticking point lay in the "one arch or two" debate. The original bridge, of course, had two, but one big arch would have the capacity for the hellacious storm waters that destroyed its predecessor, should they ever recur.
Bill Hixson, one resident thrilled with the new bridge's arrival, has lived in town for 20 years. As a retired aerospace engineer, he approved of the one-arch choice. "That was the right thing to do, from an engineering standpoint, which I am," he said.
In the main office of Old Town Hall, a small, framed black-and-white sketch of the old bridge hangs on one wall, depicting two arches so shallow they nearly graze the water.
But evidence of the past three years is abundant, and in vivid color - in snapshots of the final product, crisp and clean, its single arch curving high above the river; and in blurry photos filed away in cardboard boxes, documenting the damage bit by bit for the FEMA paperwork - cracked asphalt, roadways overrun by floodwaters, and those two arches plowed jaggedly through, close to collapse.
Rocks, tree stumps and other large detritus sent hurtling down the swollen Shunock River to crash into the stones were to blame - for the destruction of the bridge arches, and the failure of the support beams below the Watermark Café, the back end of which crumbled into the water days later.
"It's a beautiful little stream," Mullane said, "that turns into a monster."
It was on a morning drive with Public Works Director Stephen Holliday that Mullane first saw the remains of the arches, along with the rest of the devastation - the water line licking up to just under the red front door of Old Town Hall; the bridge's guard rails floating, ripped clean from the ground; the washed-up pastoral debris. As laid out on a hazard mitigation plan map, every last one of the red circles warning of a flood hazard proved prescient.
"I had seen an inch of water," Mullane said of the area around Main Street. "I'd never seen a foot."
In the end, Mullane said, the bridge project came in slightly under budget, by about $100,000. But there are still some finishing touches to add, some landscaping, and straightening out a stone retaining wall whose deterioration only began to show slowly over time.
Anna Coit, a North Stonington Historical Society mainstay who, at 104, is North Stonington's de facto matriarch, recalled the momentous occasion last August when a crane brought in eight 46,000-pound pale chunks of concrete that together would form the bridge's new, singular arch. A small crowd gathered to applaud the first sign of tangible work, reassurance that maybe, finally, the town would get its bridge back.
"We were all very happy when we saw that," Coit said.
Coit will be cutting the ribbon today, though she insists the event ought to be a ceremony to award Mullane a medal for his patience in both cutting through the red tape and not lashing back at the impatient, finger-pointing naysayers.
In the bridge's absence, Coit said those headed from the Historical Society building just across Wyassup Road had to make a detour of a mile and a quarter just to make it the few steps the bridge allowed them to take to Town Hall.
Now, fully restored, the bridge has Coit's stamp of approval. "It looks very much like the original bridge," she said. "A little more sturdy."
Anne Nalwalk, who has lived in town since 1968, said she is pleased with the restored efficiency the return of the bridge has provided. "Life is much better," she said, "because you can go straight to where you need to go."
Now, though, Nalwalk added, the through traffic is back to speeding full-out down Wyassup and across the bridge. There is talk of installing speed bumps, but for now, one victory at a time.
Hixson, the retired engineer, lives in the northwest corner of town on Patricia Avenue. His errands route, which would frequently take him the fifth of a mile from Wheeler Library down to Town Hall, turned into a mile-long journey, detouring around to the traffic light, onto Route 2, then Rocky Hollow Road and onto Main Street again.
"It was very inconvenient," said Hixson, who is now quite happy to be back on his normal beeline track.
Hixson's route was not the only one thrown a monkey wrench - the town's annual Memorial Day Parade was also detoured the long way 'round.
"Everybody's been excited about the parade," said Town Clerk Norma Holliday. "We'll finally be able to go back and forth on the old route."
Holliday also gets her old commute back, from Mains Crossing to Town Hall - the one that eludes the beach traffic that often clogs Route 2 in the summertime. "I'm thrilled to death," she said.
As for her route now in the off-season?
"Well," she said, "instead of 10 minutes, it's five minutes now."