My view of it came from the highway bridge that parallels the railroad structure. My childhood friends and I spent hours leaning against the cement railings of the Rt. 20 bridge looking at the river far below, at the dam that creates a pleasant cascade and, as I said, at the amazing old railroad bridge beside it.
I was probably 12 before I got up the courage to walk 273 feet across that handsome double-arch bridge with its nearly 2500 visible blocks of sandstone. It is about the same height as the highway bridge, but it is only 11 feet wide. And there were never any handrails or barriers. Even standing in the exact middle of the structure—with five-and-a-half feet on either side—it was easy to imagine tumbling off and freefalling 80 feet into the shallow water below. Scary.
And, of course, prior to 1976 there was always the possibility of a train coming. On the rare instances when I walked across that bridge, I spent a lot of time calculating whether I could outrun a freight train.
As children, we did not see the bridge for what it most certainly is now: a gigantic piece of engineering artwork. We didn’t appreciate that its builders had employed a construction principle from the ancient Romans, using arches to build an unbelievably sturdy viaduct.
But, even as kids, we knew it was a cool bridge.
Let me see now…where was I?
Oh yes, I started by telling you that Bruce Chapin, despite living in Norwalk and never hanging out with us Wakeman kids, saw this bridge almost as often as I.
That’s because his parents, Robert and Troa Chapin, had a large framed print of the Wakeman railroad bridge prominently displayed in their home. It had been given to them by Kenneth and Lucille Buckley. The Buckleys and Chapins were friends. And the entrance to the driveway of the Buckleys’ Wakeman home was just a stone’s throw from one end of the big double-arch railroad bridge.
Mr. Buckley knew that Bob Chapin, a professional road builder, appreciated what a marvel of engineering and construction the old railroad bridge was, and he gave him an artistic remembrance of it.
Mr. Chapin was so fascinated by the amazing stone bridge that when the railroad line was abandoned in the late 1970s he bought the bridge and some of the land around it. He felt the bridge was historic and beautiful and it had to be preserved. He wanted to make sure that happened.
On his passing, Mr. Chapin bequeathed the Wakeman railroad bridge to son Bruce.
Bruce was born the same year Bob established his construction company, Chapin and Chapin, and had a lifelong involvement with highway construction himself.
Genial, personable, active Bruce surprised everyone with his untimely death in 2008. He was just 62.
But the graceful old sandstone bridge in Wakeman will outlive us all.
And the Firelands Rails to Trails organization has made it easy for us to enjoy. The bridge was transferred from Bruce Chapin’s estate to the local non-profit group and they have cleaned up the area around it and added sturdy railings to protect walkers and bikers. It’s now one of the scenic highlights of the North Coast Inland Trail (NCIT). The views to the river far below are wonderful.
This Saturday, August 18 is the grand opening of the fine old double arch structure which has been officially named the Bruce L. Chapin Bridge. A good crowd is anticipated at the 10 a.m. event which will also celebrate the new U.S. 20 NCIT Bikeway east from Wakeman.
I hope to be there myself now that there is no longer any danger of falling from the bridge or being chased off it by a train.
Jim Busek is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] hotmail.com.