Opening of Slatersville’s iconic bridge brings relief for businesses, residents

Opening of Slatersville’s iconic bridge brings relief for businesses, residents

Jocelyn Labrecque, owner of Quik Stop Deli on Main Street, said she expects business to improve now that the nearby Stone Arch Bridge is once again open. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – It may have been a “labor of love” for state officials, but for residents, the news that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s two-year reconstruction of Slatersville’s Stone Arch Bridge was coming to a close couldn’t come fast enough.

Last week, residents and officials celebrated the historic bridge being reopened for the first time since last January, when the 150-year-old structure closed for the second time for extensive repairs. Those repairs include reinforcing the bridge’s base with modern concrete components while maintaining its historic character, a painstaking process that involved disassembling and reassembling its two arches and hundreds of stones.

“Every stone and every piece of the bridge was marked and carefully replaced in the exact same position it was before construction,” RIDOT Director Peter Alviti Jr. said during an opening ceremony last Thursday, Jan. 3.

The Stone Arch Bridge traces its history to 1855, when it was built to replace a previous wooden bridge over the Branch River. At the time, the Slatersville Mills operated a successful textile operation on the river’s northern bank, where the accompanying mill village was still developing. Today, the bridge is the oldest of its kind in the state, a longstanding icon of a critical era in the Blackstone Valley’s development.

Though the bridge has displayed an impressive longevity, it was overdue for a rehab after 150 years of use. In 2007, the bridge was declared structurally deficient and closed to trucking, and in 2014, traffic was reduced to one lane. In 2017, RIDOT broke ground on a $13.5 million reconstruction project intended to improve the bridge to contemporary standards while keeping its historic structure intact.

“This was really a labor of love. This was an iconic structure that’s part of the community here,” said Alviti.

The bridge’s continued importance in the community became evident last spring, when several business owners shared concerns about a drop in customers due to the prolonged closure. At Quik Stop Deli, owner Jocelyn Labrecque said traffic decreased by as much as 40 percent at certain times of day as the deli’s breakfast and lunch customers found easier places to buy their morning coffee without detouring around Railroad Street. Since the bridge reopened on Dec. 21, she said, business has begun to return to pre-bridge closure levels, and regular customers are returning. Even more exciting, she said, the deli’s annual stock of holiday meat pies is completely sold out.

“It’s been great. It’s been much, much better. Previous customers are coming back. We had a lot of faithful customers that continued even while the bridge was closed,” she said.

Three storefronts away from Quik Stop in the Commercial Block, Slater Clothing Company co-owner Leslie LaForest-Branchaud said she looks forward to a new year without the bridge closure. While the store’s November 2017 opening makes it difficult to gauge what impact, if any, the closure had on business, LaForest-Branchaud said she expects an increase in drive-by traffic now that residents can access the village center more easily.

“I’m thinking in the next few weeks, I’ll start seeing some activity,” she said.

Town Administrator Gary Ezovski praised the cooperation of RIDOT with town officials and said the opening generated wide interest among residents, including on social media, where a video of the December opening by local filmmaker Christian de Rezendes garnered 15,000 views. The bridge opening was a welcome change for residents, he said, even if the easier traffic route took some getting used to.

“People are thrilled to be able to go north and south again. Some of us, I think, forget once in a while and wind up on the detour route. I know I did it yesterday,” he added.

Town and RIDOT officials are now turning their attention to two other upcoming bridge projects. Within the next few months, work will begin on the Route 146 bridge over Connector Road, also known as Old Great Road, resulting in a temporary road closure under the bridge. Then, in April, RIDOT will begin a two-year restoration of the Branch River Bridge on Great Road, a project that is expected to close eastbound traffic for an extended period of time. Ezovski said he is working with RIDOT officials to improve traffic flow during the projects.

“We get concerned about all these things, how they go together. We’re working with DOT to make sure they recognize that,” he said.

All three projects are funded by the $4.9 billion RhodeWorks infrastructure legislation passed in 2016. The initiative will address more than 600 bridges around the state over the next 10 years.

Work on the Stone Arch Bridge will continue to restrict pedestrian access into 2019, including paving and the installation of ADA-compliant railings and sidewalks. The project was originally scheduled for a 2020 completion but is now on track to finish up in 2019.

Local and state officials and business leaders present at the Stone Arch Bridge ribbon cutting last week included, from left, Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr., Sen. Thomas Paolino, Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, Town Councilor Douglas Osier Jr., Town Administrator Gary Ezovski and Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce President John Gregory.
The historic Stone Arch Bridge, constructed in 1855, reopened on Dec. 21 after an extensive reconstruction project by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.