The Man Who Saves Covered Bridges
The same could be said for the Gratons. Their work and their knowledge, says David Wright, longtime president of the Vermont-based National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, serve as a link, about the only remaining link we have, to 19th-century bridge building. When their business started, covered bridges were at a precipitous crossroad. Many of them hadn’t been touched almost since they were built, and a movement to preserve the old structures was only just getting off the ground. In many towns, the inclination was to take down these wooden bridges and replace them with steel or concrete spans. Milton, and then Arnold, helped change that thinking.
“I can’t think of any builders who’ve done as much for covered-bridge work as the Gratons,” Wright says. “The original old bridges would have been erased. They might have looked like covered bridges, but because they [wouldn’t have been] renovated exactly how they were built, they wouldn’t have been the same.”
Asking Arnold which bridge has been his favorite to work on is like asking which of his three sons he favors the most. But some projects stick out more than others. In Newport, New Hampshire, crowds poured out seemingly every day onto the banks of the Sugar River to watch the Gratons build a replica of the Corbin covered bridge, a 158-year-old span destroyed by arsonists in May 1993. Then, on a sunny October day, when the new span was pulled into place, a weekend festival kicked off to mark the occasion, the biggest event in the town’s history.
It was much the same in Highlands, North Carolina. There, Arnold found a new home for the Bagley Bridge, which he and his dad had purchased from the town of Warner, New Hampshire, in 1966 for a dollar. They took it apart and put it in storage. Forty-two years later, Arnold hauled the timbers south and erected the old bridge at the site of a museum in the same way it had stood before. “I had mixed feelings about seeing a New Hampshire bridge moved to North Carolina,” he says. “But I’d offered it back to the town several times for free, and each time they said no. So it was good to see somebody put it to work.”
But of all the bridges Arnold Graton has placed his hands on, the one that may just mean the most is the one down the road from his house. The Squam River Bridge in Ashland was constructed in 1990, and it’s the last new bridge Arnold built with his dad. Even though early Alzheimer’s had slowed him, Milton was at the site most days, looking over the work, offering advice when he could. The end result was something that has all the hallmarks of a Graton bridge: its gentle but defined camber, its intricate latticework, its covered walkway, the more than 1,100 trunnels, many of them as long as 27 inches, used to hold the structure together. As much of a premium as the Gratons have always placed on how a bridge is constructed, the importance of how it looks and photographs has also never been lost on them.
On a mid-September day, Arnold climbs into his ’55 Ford to make the short journey to the bridge. A few boats are docked on the river below, and at the water’s edge a woman is looking up at the 61-foot span with her camera. “It’s so beautiful!” she exclaims, huffing her way back to the road.
For Arnold Graton, each bridge is a little time capsule representing a particular moment of his life. Back when he built this bridge, he was in his mid-fifties, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to put in a 15-hour day, grab a little sleep, then do it all over again. Now he’s more inclined to take a day off, even forgo working through an entire winter. “I can’t climb around like I used to,” he says. “I’m not as flexible. I fear falling more than I used to. I don’t dare jump from one timber to another or one ladder to the next.” It’s one of the reasons why his stepson, Tim, has shouldered more of the work in recent years.
Still, Arnold isn’t afraid to push himself when it’s needed. Last fall, when the town of Ashland needed some emergency work done on a concrete bridge, Arnold worked until midnight, pouring cement. “My hands were cold, but the town needed it done,” he says matter-of-factly.
Besides, he has a preference for staying busy. In December he headed down to Kentucky to rebuild a covered bridge in the river town of Maysville. A few months later he returned to check on his house and put in a last-minute bid for a job in nearby Campton, which he eventually landed. Then in June he headed to Dayton, Ohio, where he was an honored speaker at the Second National Covered Bridge Conference.
On this day, Arnold takes his time walking across the Squam River Bridge. A few years ago he redid the roof, and now it looks as though the walkway will need some attention. “They get torn up with the snow machines,” he says. Yet it’s not hard to detect some admiration from the builder for the way his bridge has held up.
“I suppose I get attached to them,” he says. “I like to see them stay here and stay in good shape. It’s nice to know you accomplished something that will be around for a while.”