SACO — A group of residents is taking an unusual approach to saving a 166-year-old stone bridge that they say is an important piece of Saco’s rural history.

Neighbors and fans of the bridge have created a nonprofit organization, The Fund for Stackpole Bridge, to raise money to help restore the structure and make it safe to carry motor vehicles once again. Without the private support, they fear, the Stackpole Bridge could soon be replaced by a simple concrete span.

The 1848 dry-laid stone bridge – believed to be one of the oldest stone bridges on a public road in Maine – carries Simpson Road across Stackpole Creek, which empties into the Saco River near the Dayton border. The bridge, eligible for National Historic Preservation status, is remarkable for its vaulted arch, which is shaped like a giant keyhole and rises 21 feet over the creek.

“It’s pretty unusual to raise funds for what should be taxpayer-supported services,” said Margaret Mills, a former city councilor who lives near the bridge. “But why not try to get private funds? What have we got to lose?”

Their effort comes as the Saco City Council prepares to consider sending to voters a new borrowing plan to replace or repair the bridge. Last year, voters rejected a plan to borrow $1.7 million to keep and restore the original bridge, which engineers say needs repairs to the stonework and additional supports.

With that vote in mind, the council is expected to vote April 28 to hold a referendum as soon as June on using $990,000 in bonds to replace the existing bridge with a pre-cast concrete modular bridge.

The Maine Department of Transportation offered to let Saco borrow $495,000 from a low-interest loan program to help replace the bridge. The city would use a second bond to borrow the remaining $495,000.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit group aims to raise $600,000 to add to the public funds and offset the cost of repairing the existing bridge. It has just begun the fundraising effort and collected $1,000, and members have applied for grants that they hope will bring much more.

The fate of the Stackpole Bridge has been discussed by city officials since 2002, when an MDOT report said it should be monitored for maintenance and repair. The bridge, which has been closed to traffic for nearly a year, won’t reopen until it is replaced or repaired, city officials say.

Patrick Fox, the city’s public works director, said that although the bond amount would cover the cost of a new bridge, it is still possible city officials would consider repairing the existing structure if the price is right.

“Right now the City Council is leaving it open to both options,” he said.

The rural Saco neighborhood, dotted with 200-year-old farmhouses, has rallied around the bridge, which was restricted to one lane for a decade before it was closed to all traffic last year.

“It’s one of the few public structures in the rural part of Saco, which makes it even more important to save,” said Sue Littlefield, president of The Fund for Stackpole Bridge. Her property abuts the bridge and she has advocated for many years to repair the span.

Since the bridge was closed last year, Saco residents on the Buxton side of the bridge have been essentially cut off from the rest of Saco. The detour adds about 13 miles when Littlefield needs to travel to and from the downtown area.

While supporters of the bridge recognize some people may be concerned about the price of fixing it, they believe it would be a good long-term investment because a repaired stone bridge has a longer life expectancy than a concrete structure, Littlefield said.

Group members are consulting with engineers about the feasibility and cost of repairing the bridge. City officials have placed a focus on providing a fully functional bridge so the city can resume its own emergency response and other services to residents on the far side of the bridge. Right now, an existing mutual aid agreement with Buxton ensures people have quick access to emergency services.

Mills, the former city councilor, said she hopes voters will support a plan for the bridge so the city doesn’t have to go back to the drawing board. Like other neighbors, she wants to save the historic bridge.

“It makes it special back here,” she said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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