2006-04-20 / Front Page

The end of an era, a 'bittersweet' day for Jamestowners

By Donna K. Drago

Just a few sections of tangled steel could be seen after the explosion. Demolition workers will now remove the steel from the bay. Photo by Don Miller Just a few sections of tangled steel could be seen after the explosion. Demolition workers will now remove the steel from the bay. Photo by Don Miller The morning's mostly cloudy skies and moderate winds gave way to a perfect April day in time for the much-anticipated demolition of the center span of the old Jamestown Bridge.

At precisely 11 a.m., with the hands of the state's dignitaries stacked up on the ceremonial detonator, the bridge tumbled into the West Passage of Narragansett Bay amid the whooping and hollering of some 200 people gathered to watch the demolition from the park-like waterfront grounds of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth D'Ambrosio, he a former threeterm North Kingstown town councilman and partner in the public relations firm of Cote and D'Ambrosio.

Among the guests were Rhode Island's entire congressional delegation: Senator Lincoln Chafee, Senator Jack Reed, Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Congressman James Langevin. Also present were Governor and Mrs. Donald Carcieri, state and local representatives and a swarm of reporters and photographers from media outlets all over the state.

Gerard Kaiser (left) attended Tuesday's bridge demolition to honor the contributions of his father and grandfather, who both had a part in the building of the bridge. Town Councilman Bill Kelly secured Kaiser's invitation to the event, held on private property in Saunderstown. Photo by Donna Drago Gerard Kaiser (left) attended Tuesday's bridge demolition to honor the contributions of his father and grandfather, who both had a part in the building of the bridge. Town Councilman Bill Kelly secured Kaiser's invitation to the event, held on private property in Saunderstown. Photo by Donna Drago Jamestowners who were invited to join in to watch the literal downfall of the bridge included Rosemary Enright, president of the Jamestown Historical Society, who said she was there because "we built the bridge," noting that the initiative to construct the old Jamestown Bridge did not come from the state or federal government. "This was our project," Enright said, giving full credit to the Jamestown Bridge Commission that came up with the plan and helped to secure funding for construction of the bridge, which opened in 1940.

Enright said the historical society has taken possession of two lamps and some road signs with pictograms that show the "skidding" at the top of the old bridge. The historical society is planning an exhibit of artifacts and photos for summer 2007, she said.

Ed Day, 75, who grew up near Quonset Point but has lived in Jamestown since 1989, said, "I watched it being built when I was a kid" from the beach near his home.

Now, "it's awful looking," Day said before the demolition. "I think it's about time to let it go," he added.

Gerard Kaiser, 50, who grew up in Jamestown but now lives in Middletown, said, "It's very important for me to be here." He almost wasn't. At least, not until Councilman Bill Kelly heard about Kaiser's forebears. His grandfather, Louis Kaiser, was on the Jamestown Bridge Commission, and his father, Theodore Kaiser, was the person who put the ceremonial final rivet in the bridge when it was opened in 1940.

Gerard Kaiser said he was there Tuesday, after Kelly made a couple of phone calls to wrangle him an invitation to the media event.

"I'm here to honor the memory of my father and grandfather, and the contributions they made," Kaiser said.

The only elected official from Jamestown to attend the event, Kelly said of Kaiser, "He really needed to be here."

Governor Carcieri apparently agreed. During his speech prior to the demolition, Carcieri acknowledged Kaiser's family's contributions, as well as those made by the three other men present who helped construct the old bridge.

Carcieri called the moment of the demolition "bittersweet," noting his nostalgia about having the bridge be a part of his entire life, having been born in 1942. But, he added that one of the first things he planned to do when he became governor of Rhode Island was to "get that bridge down."

The governor finished his speech by reading a poem called the Jamestown Prayer, in which a frightened motorist implores the powers that be to help him get safely to the other side of the span.

Sen. Jack Reed said that he'd been to hundreds of events in his years of public service, but, he noted, "This is my first explosion," to which virtually everyone could relate.

Edmund Parker, chief engineer of the state Department of Transportation, the state agency that oversaw the demolition, introduced Sen. Lincoln Chafee as the man who secured some $19.5 million in federal aid for the demolition of the old bridge.

Chafee took the podium, looked at the governor, and in a mischievous tone said, "I've been waiting to say this for a long time - Governor Carcieri, tear down that bridge!"

Chafee noted that part of the funding includes money to create a state fishing pier "somewhere in Rhode Island," pointing out that while it was originally believed that the North Kingstown side of the old bridge could be rehabilitated, it has since been learned that it too will have to be torn down because of its deteriorated condition.

Congressman Patrick Kennedy commended Sen. Chafee for finding the funding to blow up the bridge and told the gathering, "Enjoy the explosion."

Congressman James Langevin described driving over the old bridge as a "rite of passage" that every newly-minted local teenage driver had to go through for decades. He noted that he was able to drive for just three months before the tragic accident that left him paralyzed. His experience of driving over the bridge for the first time was "terrifying," he said. Langevin feared he would "fall into the drink," he said. "But, we all survived," Langevin noted amidst a tent-full of heads nodding in agreement.

The dignitaries were called to a ceremonial platform where they stood for pictures with the pair of bridges, old and new, at their backs, then pushed down the ceremonial plunger as the gathering counted backward from 10.

Three . . . two. . . one . . . Fingers of black smoke shot upward as gravity dragged the massive span to its watery end. The sound, like the report of fireworks, came last. The "through truss" sank except for a few steely punctuation marks piercing the surface of the bay. Smoke followed the winds south and, within seconds, all was clear and quiet. And the old Jamestown Bridge center span was gone from the skyline forever.

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