Theirs was the first state in the union to start a lottery, way back in 1964, so we could be forgiven for thinking our neighbors in New Hampshire are once again trying to pull a fast one. But they’re not.

They really do have a bridge to sell.

That’s right, bargain hunters. For the low, low sum of one dollar, you could be the proud owner of the recently closed Memorial Bridge – that 1,200-foot rusting hulk that spans (last time we checked) the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth and Kittery.

But just so you know, you’ll have to move it.

Oh yes, and you’ll have to pony up a fully refundable, $50,000 deposit in case New Hampshire has to clean up after you.

And finally, at the risk of being a total buzz kill here, you’ll have to “satisfactorily meet historic preservation requirements as enunciated in ‘The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.’“

“It is a bit large,” conceded Kevin Nyhan, environmental manager for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, in an interview this week. “And I think we all recognized, going into this, that the chances of somebody having a pretty solid plan and being able to use (the bridge) in another location are pretty slim.”

So … why bother?

Because even in the state where they boast “Live Free or Die” on their license plates, they have to follow federal rules.

The soon-to-be-replaced bridge, you see, is old. When they built it back in 1923, they simply named it the “World War Memorial Bridge” to commemorate, as the plaque hanging over the entrance still states, “the sailors and soldiers of New Hampshire who participated in the World War 1917-1919.”

Hence the bridge long has been eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s not actually on the list, mind you – apparently nobody ever took the time to nominate it.

“But it’s eligible,” said Nyhan. “That means it’s afforded all the same privileges as being listed.”

Which brings us back to the “For Sale” sign – mandatory per order of Uncle Sam for any such structure before it can be cut up and shipped off to the nearest steel recycling plant.

Crazy, you say?

Perhaps.

But before you dismiss this as a ludicrous speed bump on the never-ending path to progress, consider what’s being lost here.

Just two years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Memorial Bridge on its list of “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

It was, the trust noted, the first major “vertical lift” bridge (meaning the entire middle section is hoisted to let boats pass below) ever built in the eastern United States.

What’s more, the Memorial Bridge served nobly for more than 85 years as “a sturdy and dramatic landmark” linking the historic communities of Portsmouth and Kittery.

“Our nation’s historic bridges are being destroyed at the alarming rate of one every two or three days,” lamented the trust in its futile alert. “Lack of maintenance and knee-jerk preference for replacement often counters the directive of Congress that historic bridges be preserved whenever possible.”

Nathan Holth couldn’t agree more. He’s the author of www.historicbridges.org, a clearinghouse for old-bridge enthusiasts all over the United States who see the aging marvels as more than just a way to get there from here.

“I suppose a lot of people look at the rust on it and think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really ugly,’” Holth said Tuesday in a telephone interview from his home in Lansing, Mich. “But when I look at a bridge, I see its potential. I see so many other aspects of the bridge that are so much nicer.”

Holth is still mourning the 2008 demolition of the Norridgewock Bridge, a multi-arched engineering feat that spanned the Kennebec River in central Maine for 80 years. Its $21 million, single-arch replacement, which at least resembles the old bridge, officially opened last month.

“I can’t overstate how significant (the old Norridgewock Bridge) was,” Holth said. “It was the largest, probably, of its kind in the entire northeastern United States.”

Don’t get Holth wrong – he’d faint as quickly as the rest of us if someone stepped forward and announced they actually want to purchase, portage and forever preserve the massive Memorial Bridge simply for posterity.

Still, Holth insists, Maine and New Hampshire easily could have avoided the bind in which we now find ourselves – late last month, skittish inspectors abruptly ordered the Memorial Bridge permanently closed rather than wait until its $90 million replacement opens in 2014.

“What it really comes down to is, the federal funding system encourages the states to let these bridges deteriorate on purpose,” Holth said, noting that all-out replacements often rely heavily on federal funds and thus make it easier for state and local governments to sidestep maintenance and repairs to the old bridges (particularly when there’s steel involved).

“Over in England, they have bridges so much older than ours and there’s not a spot of rust on them,” Holth said. “All they had to do was paint them – rust doesn’t happen if there’s paint on a bridge.”

No matter. Paint or no paint, New Hampshire now has a bridge to sell … or not.

According to New Hampshire’s Nyhan, cautious buyers can bid on any one of the Memorial Bridge’s three sections rather than the whole thing.

What’s more, once your offer is accepted, the feds will even help out financially: Each of the bridge’s outlying sections comes with a $50,000 removal subsidy, while the much trickier center span has a $2 million sweetener attached.

Need time to think about it?

Sorry, you have only until Aug. 25 to get your bid in (although Nyhan says even that’s negotiable). After that, its mandatory nod to history fulfilled, New Hampshire can go ahead and call in the wrecking crews.

So all kidding aside – does the Granite State honestly expect to move this baby?

“My gut feeling is no,” Nyhan said. “But there could be some pretty creative people out there.”

He’s right.

There’s one born every minute.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]