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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Work has begun to renovate the Main Street Bridge sidewalk in downtown Nashua. The area will soon feature an enhanced walkway with automatic lights to control traffic by pedestrians. A center island and plantings will also be added.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Work has begun to renovate the Main Street Bridge sidewalk in downtown Nashua. The area will soon feature an enhanced walkway with automatic lights to control traffic by pedestrians. A center island and plantings will also be added.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    A Department of Public Works crew removes a streetlight footing and wiring as work begins to renovate the Main Street Bridge sidewalk in downtown Nashua.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    The new walkway will feature a curve in the center, designed to orient pedestrians' view into oncoming traffic.
Thursday, April 26, 2012

Replica lanterns, lighted crosswalk part of Main Street bridge renovations

NASHUA – They were there in ’36, and they aren’t there now. That much we know.

But what’s unclear is when and why the handsome, tri-globe bronze lanterns disappeared from the Main Street Bridge.

Six replicas of the vintage appointments will soon be rising along the Nashua River span as part of a three-phase bridge improvement project that also includes rebuilding the sidewalks and installing a lighted crosswalk midway across the bridge.

The Aldermanic Finance Committee approved a pair of bids for the project last week: $55,890 from Union Metal Corp., of Canton, Ohio, for the construction and installation of the six “retro” lights, and $23,260 by LightGuard Systems, of Santa Rosa, Calif., for the crosswalk. LightGuard installed the same crosswalk system in Keene roughly two years ago.

The bids need final approval by the full Board of Aldermen.

The remainder of the work, including removing the existing light poles and footings, clearing the sidewalk pavers and preparing the surfaces for the new cement-and-brick sidewalk, will be done by city employees, city engineer Steve Dookran said.

The west side of the bridge will be done first, mainly in an effort to allow the Nashua Farmers Market to open for the season as scheduled on June 3. Crews will then move to the east side.

Several parking spaces will be used as pedestrian walkways during the main part of the construction, Dookran said.

That both the lights and sidewalks have been in need of an upgrade and officials have been considering a mid-bridge crosswalk prompted a consolidation of the projects, Dookran and deputy engineering manager Jeanne Walker said last week.

“We can’t keep the globes clean, and it’s been a problem keeping them lit because of wiring issues,” Walker said.

They’re also suffering structurally, Dookran said, the result of years of nicks and dings and exposure to the elements.

Dookran, Walker and other Public Works officials began tossing ideas around, looking to strike a balance between the most economical but also the most practical and lasting solution, Dookran said.

They visited Keene, a city reputed for its clever and progressive community and urban improvement programs, and Parks and Recreation Superintendent Nick Caggiano reached out to the Nashua Historical Society at the request of Public Works Director Lisa Fauteux.

A couple of lucky breaks soon came their way.

Walker learned that copies of the bridge’s original design plans were stored in the office, and the Historical Society hit pay dirt on Caggiano’s request. Walker found the plans.

“My first thought was, ‘They’re so beautiful,’ ” she said. “They’re certainly something you don’t see every day. The craftsmanship is really neat.”

Meanwhile, it took Historical Society researcher Barbara Comer two weeks to mine a boatload of background and historical data to pass on to Caggiano.

“It’s extremely helpful to us. It’s unbelievable she found all that so quickly,” Caggiano said of Comer.

When he saw the original drawings and a photo Comer provided, Caggiano echoed Walker’s first impression: “They’re beautiful lights,” he said.

Fauteux said a photo also would answer a more basic question: whether the lights depicted in the original design were the same ones installed.

“I thought it would be helpful if we could get a picture of what the bridge looked like before the lights were removed,” she said. “Until we saw the picture, we didn’t know if they were ever erected.”

Indeed, they were. Installed as aesthetic adornments when the current double-arch bridge was constructed in 1924, the lanterns appear in photos occasionally. The one Comer provided was taken in March 1936 during the great flood. Two stanchions are visible, mounted on either side of the bridge about midway across.

When the work is complete – Dookran estimates September – pedestrians admiring the new lights will find themselves on much firmer footing and have a quicker, safer way to cross Main Street.

While certainly an improvement over the old concrete and asphalt sidewalk surfaces, the red pavers installed around 30-40 years ago have had a fair share of problems, loosening, slipping and breaking to create uneven, unsafe walking conditions.

In their place, crews will pour a cement base, the surface of which will be accented by brick, Dookran said.

“Much more high-heel friendly,” Walker said.

As the lights represent the project’s “retro” element, the planned crosswalk is its high-tech, 21st-century component.

Under consideration for some time, the walkway will be set off in brick, Walker said. It won’t be raised, as some walkways near schools are, but will be lined on both sides by a series of tiny flashing LEDs pedestrians will trigger simply by entering the crosswalk.

A new, innovative way to grab drivers’ attention, the design – purported to be “snowplow resistant” – is growing in popularity even in snowy climates. Walker said the lights, which rise just a half-inch above the road surface, are protected by a metal edge against plow blades and other hazards.

“Keene has had great success with them,” she said. “They said they haven’t had any problems.”

The work is the most comprehensive on the storied bridge since the upgrade of 30-40 years ago, when crews replaced the thick cement walls with a metal railing that, among other things, allowed pedestrians to view the river below without hanging over the wall.

The present-day structure, constructed after a major fire destroyed its wooden predecessor – and several neighboring buildings – in December 1924, opened to great fanfare in June 1927. For those two and a half years, cars, bikes, pedestrians and everything else either teetered across a temporary bridge or used the Canal Street Bridge, at the time Nashua’s only other north-south river crossing.

The reason it took so long to build the new bridge, according to period documents Comer provided in her research, lies with the hired crews – especially the Cunningham and Burdwood Construction company, a Lynn, Mass. firm whose $173,800 bid won the job.

Cunningham and Burdwood, the report states, threatened to sue the city for breach of contract, which set off a long delay as the city worked with its insurance company.

Eventually, insurers allowed the city to seek another set of bids, from which Boston-based Blakeslee-Rollins was hired to finish the job.

The new contractors ran up against “many obstacles and serious underwater conditions,” the report states.

But they persevered, “and on June 18, 1927, the bridge was formally accepted by the Board of Public Works.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).