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A walking bridge in western Massachusetts was badly damaged in an autumn storm, but the town doesn’t own the land under it. So residents have banded together to take on the project — for its practical and historical value.
The bridge is in the village of Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts. Once a resort destination, the village sprung from a religious community in the 1800s known as Spiritualists. Among their tenets, they believe the dead communicate with the living.
For a time, thousands of people came to the village for Spiritualist meetings as well as political conventions, staying in tents and cottages scattered across 50 acres of land. While most of the Spiritualists are gone, Lake Pleasant still houses the wood-framed headquarters of The National Spiritualist Alliance.
Today, the lakeside village, which is part of the town of Montague, is a tight-knit community of about 170 people living on small lots.
“Hey, guys. Hi, how are you?” resident Matt Atwood called out to a family leaving their house on a recent afternoon.
“We're off to go down to see their grandma and grandpa,” a woman replied.
Atwood is president of the Lake Pleasant Village Association, a casual organization that watches over village affairs.
The most pressing affair is what to do about their broken pedestrian bridge.
Spanning about 200 feet, the bridge has existed in some form since 1888, when — according to historians — it was built to help Spiritualists get to and from meetings, séances and healing events on different sides of town.
“We are currently on the Bluffs side of the village,” Atwood explained, giving me a tour of the village. “The other side is called the Highlands.”
Today, the post office, where everyone picks up their mail, is on the Bluffs side. So is a new park.
“There is access to both sides via car,” he said, “but there is not access between them.”
Flanked by two wooden pavilions, the bridge goes over a steep, sunken area of dirt next to the lake, which is now a public water supply.
In most towns, the government is responsible for bridge repairs. But this bridge sits on land owned by the Turners Falls Water District. Water Superintendent Mike Brown considers the bridge a sort of no-man’s land.
“We could never find anything in the deeds that would give the village association a right-of-way or that we owned the bridge,” Brown said. “I just think it was a handshake deal back in the late 1800s.”
Since then, maintaining the bridge has been up to the villagers. It’s been rebuilt twice, most recently in 1975, when residents raised money by selling naming rights for individual fence pickets. That’s why, for almost half a century, it’s been known as the Bridge of Names.
“The Bridge of Names … unites the village, literally and metaphorically,” Atwood said. “People use it on a daily basis. It's got a great view of the lake and it’s this quirky, charming bit of history.”
But in October, a quick-moving storm blew through Lake Pleasant and took down a large chunk of the bridge.
“This was just all trees right here, this whole mess you see here,” Atwood points out, as we walked under the tall bridge supports and looked up at the wooden platform, which ends abruptly. “Missing the blockhouse on this side, missing all the bridge there.”
After news of the storm got out, many in the village jumped to action. They had two work parties to clear storm debris. And now, they’re hoping to get the bridge rebuilt, again.
On a warm November weekend, about 30 people attended an outdoor Bingo fundraiser for the bridge.
Lisa Barsaleau sat at her own table, far away from the caller because of COVID concerns. She was a teenager during the last bridge raising.
“My dad helped build the bridge, so I would bring food down or drinks or whatever they might need,” she said.
Barsaleau spent years having parties with friends on the bridge. She said Lake Pleasant was, and still is, an insular place.
“We all only had each other, she said. "So that's where we would socialize.”
So when Barsaleau heard the bridge was badly damaged, “I was heartbroken,” she said. “I mean, it's a piece of history.”
A few days after the Bingo event, the town’s historian, David James, invited me to his house. It has a close connection to the Bridge of Names.
“We’re sitting on the front porch of the second house of Frank Bickford. He was the one who built the first bridge that connects the two halves of the village,” James said.
James is the sole employee of the village post office. He believes he is the only modern-day Spiritualist who lives in Lake Pleasant. Spiritualists still come here from all over the world for meetings, medium trainings and healer events, though James said they are currently on a COVID-related hiatus.
James said the bridge, like the village itself, has eclipsed its religious origins, though its religious history is on his mind.
While he hasn’t personally sensed any spirits from the bridge’s early days, “that doesn't strike me as something that couldn't be,” James said. “And I'm sure that probably people who come to different programs here do feel the spirits of the last 150 years that have a vested interest (in the bridge).”
Of course, it’s up to the current residents to take care of it. The Lake Pleasant Village Association set a fundraising goal of $50,000, based on contractor estimates.
The water district’s insurance company said it won’t cover the costs, according to Brown.
“We've come to an end with our responsibility,” he said. “I mean, I would love to help them out more, but we just can't.”
The town doesn’t consider the bridge its responsibility either, though Town Administrator Steve Ellis said there may be “conversations” on ways to help.
The Lake Pleasant Village Association is hoping to get grants to help, but Matt Atwood said there is an upside to taking on the project as a community.
“It's the people directly affected by the bridge that will be responsible for it,” he said. “I think it fits into that New Englander ethic of getting things done.”
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media on Nov. 24, 2020.
This segment aired on November 27, 2020.
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