Windham police are investigating a hit-and-run incident that completely dislodged a key wooden pole supporting Babb’s Bridge, the landmark covered bridge over the Presumpscot River that connects Windham and Gorham.

According to Lt. Jim Boudreau, a Windham Public Works Department plow driver reported the damage at 6:34 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24. Based on evidence collected at the scene, police have determined that an automobile driver struck the Windham entrance to the bridge and left the scene without reporting it to officials.

The Department of Transportation has closed the state-owned bridge and will keep it closed until the pole has been fixed, according to John Buxton, the department’s bridge maintenance engineer. The rural bridge connects Hurricane Road in Gorham and Covered Bridge Road in Windham, a sparsely populated area. The department has set up detour signs at the intersections on both roads closest to the bridge in order to prevent non-residents from entering. The nearest river crossing between Gorham and Windham, on Windham Center Road, is a roughly 3-mile drive to the north.

Janice Labrecque, of Gorham, a longtime resident of 13 Hurricane Road, said the bridge closure has interrupted her usual driving route south. Until the bridge re-opens, Labrecque plans to travel south on North Gorham Road and Route 237 to get to Portland.

“When we’re headed in town to Portland we usually go down Hurricane Road and through the bridge,” Labrecque said. “It adds mileage. It’s not too much of an inconvenience.”

Buxton said he has not previously seen a covered bridge suffer from a vehicular hit-and-run before.

“This is hit pretty good,” he said. “It’s serious. The bridge isn’t going to collapse because of this, but it’s compromised, that’s for sure.”

According to Buxton, the vehicle dislodged the structurally important “vertical member” – a tall wooden pole, on the left side of the Windham bridge entrance. The bridge’s 16 vertical members support the roof, which shields the wooden interior of the bridge from the elements. The crash also damaged nine decorative wooden interior boards.

“It’s not going to kill the bridge right now, but we’ll go back, we’ll evaluate it and see what we have to do to fix it,” Buxton said.

According to Boudreau, Detective Rob Hunt is investigating the incident. If found, the perpetrator could be charged with the crimes of leaving the scene of a property damage accident or failure to report a property damage accident, Boudreau said. Both are Class E misdemeanors, which can result in up to six months in prison.

The 37-year-old bridge is one of nine covered bridges in the state. It was constructed in the mid-1970s as a replica of the original Babb’s Bridge, which was built in 1864 and destroyed by arson in 1973.

Following the arson and much community outcry, the 106th Maine Legislature appropriated $75,000 for the Maine Department of Transportation to build the replica, on the condition that the towns of Windham and Gorham protected “the new bridge against vandalism and destruction by fire by adequate police protection, or insurance coverage, or a combination of both.”

If the bridge were destroyed by “fire, vandalism or otherwise,” the state would only replace it with a conventional steel or concrete bridge, according to the bill. Windham Public Works Director Doug Fortier said the bridge is not insured.

The interior of the bridge, including some of the boards damaged in the hit-and-run, is covered in graffiti. Last September, vandals poked holes on the edge of the shingled roof in the middle of the bridge. According to local officials, the holes’ size and location were no coincidence, given that the rope-swing next to the bridge has made the location a popular one.

According to Buxton, it will likely cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix the damage from the hit-and-run, as it will take a department crew at least a week to finish the job.

“Now the taxpayer’s paying for this, versus the insurance company,” Buxton said. “The vehicle that hit this – their insurer should be paying for this.”

According to Fortier, although no people were hit, it is appropriate to describe the incident as a “hit-and-run.”

“Somebody didn’t want to stick around and take responsibility,” Fortier said. “By law, they should have reported to the PD. That’s a hit-and-run.”

According to Windham Historical Society Executive Director Linda Griffin, the second Babb’s Bridge was inaugurated on the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 when a fife-and-drum militia led a parade through it. The covered bridge is a popular tourist destination, Griffin said.

John Buxton, the Department of Transportation’s bridge maintenance engineer, said he has not previously seen a covered bridge suffer from a vehicular hit-and-run before. “This is hit pretty good,” he said. “It’s serious. The bridge isn’t going to collapse because of this, but it’s compromised, that’s for sure.”Staff photo by Ezra SilkA vehicle struck and damaged the Windham entrance to Babb’s Bridge Saturday, according to Windham police.Staff photo by Ezra Silk

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