COVENTRY — In the village of Arkwright, stretched across the Pawtuxet River, an abandoned bridge harks back to the days when area mills flourished and carriages were a common mode of transportation.
“This bridge is our legacy — it’s who we are,” Norma Smith, treasurer of the Coventry Historical Society, said of the Arkwright Bridge, built in 1888 by Dean & Westbrook of New York. “To me, communities should be trying to hang onto their heritage.”
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the 128-foot-long Phoenix column bridge connects Coventry to Cranston, and is apparently the last of its kind in Rhode Island. It was closed to traffic in 2011 after it was determined that the weight limit should be reduced to three tons, and is scheduled to be replaced in the coming years by the state Department of Transportation.
Hoping to hold onto this piece of local history, Smith and Sandy Lukowicz, president of the Coventry Historical Society, are determined to save the old truss bridge — and they’re seeking other residents and organizations who are interested in joining the cause.
“[We’re looking for] people who want to see it preserved and are willing to work to have it preserved,” Smith said. “We need to start growing that community base.”
Their hope is that the bridge can be disassembled and rehabilitated, new life breathed into its wrought-iron beams and pins, and then brought to a new location. It might become a pedestrian bridge, Smith said, or be decorated and used as a scenic spot for photo opportunities.
According to a rehabilitation feasibility assessment of the Arkwright Bridge by Emeline Young, a then-Roger Williams University graduate student who conducted the study in 2019 as the thesis for her Master of Science in Historic Preservation and Conservation, it would be possible to restore and relocate the bridge — and it wouldn't be the first time this kind of a project was tackled.
In Simsbury, Connecticut, for example, a 19th century bridge adorned with donated flower boxes and hanging baskets has become a destination for residents and tourists alike.
“It’s beautiful,” Lukowicz said of the Old Drake Hill Bridge, which a coalition of community groups, town officials and local businesses worked to have restored in the 1990s.
With enough local support, something similar could be done with the Arkwright Bridge, Smith and Lukowicz said. The bridge could end up anywhere in the country, they added, but ideally it would remain in the town where it’s lived for more than 130 years.
“We would like to see it stay in Coventry. It belongs here,” Smith added. “If nobody says anything, it could disappear.”
One possible location, she suggested, is a property near the Harris Mill, where it could connect to the riverwalk. It wouldn’t necessarily need to cross water, however.
The Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission runs a program through which it mitigates efforts to protect historic places, like the Arkwright Bridge. As for funding the bridge’s restoration and relocation, the state agency has said there are grants available that the Coventry Historical Society, as a nonprofit, could apply for.
“But it’s not specifically a Historical Society project; it has to be a community project,” Smith said. “And it’s not specifically a Coventry project. It’s for anyone who wants to see history preserved.”
Fundraisers could be organized to cover costs associated with future maintenance of the bridge, she added.
There are plenty of reasons to fight for restoring historical landmarks like the Arkwright Bridge, Smith and Lukowicz agreed. And it’s important to act quickly, they said, before the old structures that hold the stories of Coventry’s past deteriorate beyond repair.
A decade ago, the two made several attempts to save the Byron Read building on Washington Street, but to no avail. The Coventry Town Council last month awarded a contract for just over $109,000 to have the historic building demolished.
“Ten years ago it could have been saved,” Smith said.
But now, its floors caving in and its foundation crumbling, the town has no choice but to raze the circa-1882 building.
“We’ve got to work to stop any other demolition,” Lukowicz said.
And that includes ensuring the Arkwright Bridge is preserved so that future generations can enjoy it.
“The Byron Read building has a story to tell,” Smith said, “and that bridge has a story to tell.”
Those interested in joining the movement to have the Arkwright Bridge restored should contact the Coventry Historical Society at CoventryHistoricalSocietyRI@gmail.com.