Brian Brenner, P.E., F.ASCE, is a professor of the practice at Tufts University and a principal engineer with Tighe & Bond in Westwood, Massachusetts. His collections of essays, Don’t Throw This Away!, Bridginess, and Too Much Information, were published by ASCE Press and are available in the ASCE Library.

In his Civil Engineering Source series More Water Under the Bridge, Brenner shares some thoughts each month about life as a civil engineer, considering bridge engineering from a unique, often comical point of view.

photo of the Bridge Restaurant
The Bridge Restaurant.

One of the best places to dine is The Bridge Restaurant. The food is good, and the restaurant’s name is truly excellent. The Bridge Restaurant is situated off a pleasant byway in Chimney Point, Vermont. It is on the New York border, and in 2023, The Bridge Restaurant is back up and running.  

If you weren’t in the know, you would not realize that this calm and beautiful place is a survivor, both the bridge and the restaurant. Lisa Cloutier graciously serves down-home food in her establishment, having weathered U.S. infrastructure challenges and a plague thrown in.  

In a sense, part of the story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when infrastructure is taken for granted. Should we lose our bridges, or water, or roads, or power, we may all need to become activists to get our facilities back. Maybe it makes sense to be active before emergency closures. 

But this summer, we can relax maybe a little for now, and go enjoy a cable-stayed fish sandwich at The Bridge Restaurant.

It is an important part of the restaurant’s charm. The border between the two states is a narrow passage of Lake Champlain. At this site, the waterway is crossed by the spectacular Lake Champlain Bridge.

Frequently, we have gone on bridge road trips to Chimney Point to visit the bridge and then have lunch at the restaurant. A group of us bridge engineers would walk back and forth across the bridge for hours, looking at the cable details and steel framing and taking in the scenery (mostly the bridge, but also the mountains and lake setting). Then it would be time for lunch. We would walk to The Bridge Restaurant and sit at a booth. A waitress came over to take our order.

I said to the waitress: “We are bridge engineers!”

“That is fascinating,” she responded. “I am a waitress!”

I thought that people would be more impressed, what with us being bridge engineers at The Bridge Restaurant. That would be like being a football player at the Football Restaurant, or a stockbroker at the Stockbroker Restaurant.

Over the years, I have wondered about the menu. The Bridge Restaurant serves such items as “Haddock Fillet Sandwiches.” I wondered why this wasn’t a “Cable-Stayed Haddock Fillet Sandwich” in keeping with the overall theme of the restaurant. A Haddock Fillet Cable-Stayed Sandwich would be similar to a Haddock Fillet Sandwich. But it would be able to span much longer distances, and it could be constructed by cantilevering the bread over its central supports using the balanced cantilever method. Posttensioning could be an option.

Perplexed by this menu dilemma, I contacted the restaurant’s owner, Lisa Cloutier, to discuss these issues further. Lisa shared many back-stories about the history of The Bridge Restaurant. Getting to 2023 has been a challenge. It turns out that the restaurant’s struggles echo overall U.S. infrastructure issues that have affected the nation and are to be addressed by civil engineers. In the middle of it all was a pandemic that decimated the service industry. So it is a bigger story than the construction staging of fish sandwiches.

Lisa comments:

“The Bridge Restaurant has been here at the corner of Routes 17 and 125 [in Addison, Vermont] since the late 1970s. Before that, there was a small hotdog shack here on the property. The building of the restaurant and the house were done by a Mr. Gianelli and the restaurant when it opened was called Mr. G’s.

“I came here in 1995 after working for BF Goodrich in Vergennes as senior buyer to be the manager for Dana and Lorriane Franklin. I was the manager until 1998 then I leased the business until I bought it in 2001.”

The restaurant is in Vermont, but many customers come from New York. It is an easy drive to the restaurant across the bridge – when there is a bridge. For several years, there was no bridge.

The original Lake Champlain Bridge was constructed in 1929. It was a continuous deck truss where the truss leaped over the deck for the main span. The design, by Charles Spofford of Fay, Spofford and Thorndyke, was novel for its time. The structural form was widely used for longer-span bridges around New England and the U.S. The two Cape Cod Canal bridges, also designed by FST, use this design approach.

photo of bridge

The old Lake Champlain Bridge was an appreciated infrastructure icon around the area. By permitting easy travel between shores of the lake, it helped to foster a stronger local economy and community. Before its construction, residents on both sides were separated. The shape of the bridge and its beautiful location further enhanced its status as an iconic scenic backdrop.

Nothing lasts forever, including bridges. Over the decades, the bridge structure was painted and repaired, but by the 21st century, the end of the structure’s useful life approached. New York and Vermont DOT jointly established a committee in 2007 to plan for bridge rehabilitation or replacement. Before significant progress could be made, a 2009 inspection found critical flaws in the bridge substructure. The bridge was abruptly closed on October 16. For an area dependent upon its beloved bridge, the closure was a blow.

photo of bridge under construction

Lisa comments:

“The day the Champlain Bridge closed, it was a beautiful Friday early afternoon, October 16, 2009, a day I will never forget. I was cooking and we were quite busy. Then my waitress Vanessa came into the kitchen and started marking up the tickets as to what I needed to do as takeout. I asked what’s this all about and she said, ‘Tom from the Museum just came in and made an announcement that they are closing the bridge down.’ I said, “What? They have been working on it since early July.’” 

Closing the bridge was a shock to the community. More so than most areas, the residents relied on their bridge. There were no good detours, and the closest fixed crossings were a hundred miles north or south. In between, some ferries crossed the lake such as the one at Ticonderoga, N.Y. (digression: if you are ever in Ticonderoga, and if you are a Star Trek fan, which you should be, a local resident has built impressive replicas of the original sets from the U.S.S. Enterprise that you can tour).

But even with some ferry service, a formerly five-minute drive would now take an hour or more. The shore communities were not quite back to the days before 1929 when they were completely separate , but it was close.

Lisa notes:

“The effect of the immediate closure was devastating. The shock, and the fear of not having the traffic out front. At this time, we probably had 80% of our business from New York as the gas was cheaper on the Vermont side and the cigarettes as well. When the Jersey barriers came in and blocked the ramp to the bridge, it seemed so final. I was very scared of losing everything as the restaurant depended on the New York travelers.”

The news immediately after the emergency closure was not good. Engineering evaluation determined that the structure could not be repaired. Hopeful thoughts of a temporary closure gave way to the reality that the crossing would be down for years before a replacement could be designed and built.

During this time, Lisa became an activist:

“I had to get involved. I was always camera shy and never wanted to draw attention to myself. But on the other hand, I had too much to lose if I didn’t do something. I would lose my restaurant and my home as [it’s] all together on my mortgage. I contacted my state reps and had meetings with other local businesses and farmers who had livestock and crops on the other side of the bridge.

“I started rebranding the restaurant as ‘The NO Bridge Restaurant.’ I marked my sign on the roof of the restaurant as The NO Bridge Restaurant.

“I got up and spoke out at the VTRANS meetings and I got on the radio, TV local and national, and newspapers from the Burlington Free Press to The Boston Globe and The New York Times. This was a very big deal. Where in the world is there a 100-mile detour when a bridge is closed? Yes, there are ferries, but they cost money and not everyone can use the ferry. Fuel trucks and hazardous trucks can’t use the ferries at all.

“I quickly learned as much as I could about our old bridge and what it took to build it here in the first place. I fought hard and loudly to get it built back here. The states of Vermont and New York were considering building a new bridge elsewhere. I was not going to let that happen. I went to Albany and to Montpelier with a coalition [saying] that we the businesses were affected by the bridge closure. We formed our coalition and we all had our assignments and communicated via emails and texts many times a day. I was named the watchdog of the bridge. LOL.”

A low point was the bridge demolition. Any hope of repairing the old bridge was blasted into the lake that day. Residents gathered on the shores on a gray and grim Dec. 28, 2009, to observe the old structure’s departure.

photo of bridge under construction in winter

When it was gone, focus was on mitigation and planning for a new bridge. A big step was establishment of a new temporary ferry at the site:

“Getting the ferry was amazing. It was amazing to be here on ground zero and watch them get something in place to open up our corridor again. Having the ferry here helped the business get out of a tailspin and got our customers coming back.

“Now, having the ferry had some drawbacks, because at first we only had one ferry that was going across [and] it was about a 20-30 minute wait. Once nice weather came there was traffic jams,  fistfights, and horns honking at the long lines at the junction of Vermont Routes 125 and 17 right in front of the restaurant. My husband, who is a tall man and in law enforcement, had to go out and break up the fights and direct traffic. I called the sheriff’s department and requested we needed some support on Friday nights. The ferry company also saw the need for an additional ferry for this location as well. Which definitely helped with the large volume of traffic.”

The replacement bridge was designed and constructed in two years, a very fast schedule for a job that might normally take many times that. The new structure is an elegant tied arch that mimics the shape of its predecessor, but with an updated, more modern form.

photo of Champlain Bridge

The arch section is beautifully detailed so that it seems to leap from its support points below deck. But in reality, the ‘V’ shape extending from the piers below performs more like a table, where the tied arch section rests, and not a continuation of the arch itself.

You can see how this worked  in construction. The arch section was prefabricated at a marina on the New York shore. It was floated across the lake and lifted into position on the V-supports.

photo of Lake Champlain Bridge


photo of Lake Champlain Bridge

Says Lisa:

“The opening day of the new bridge was a very busy day. I was so busy it was impossible for me to leave the kitchen to see what was going on. There were people everywhere wanting to be the first or just be here because it was a great new thing. I think I finally got to drive over the new bridge that night at 10 o’clock after I closed the restaurant.”

The Bridge Restaurant enjoyed profitable years with traffic and access back to normal. And it seemed like things were back to normal, because what other calamities could befall the region?

It was a welcome respite until the beginning of 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S., many service establishments in Vermont and New York either shut down or had business severely curtailed. Lisa had to adapt to new, dire circumstances:

“Because we are a small restaurant, we couldn’t social distance people inside. Again, we had to rearrange our way of doing things to accommodate the new way of curbside for us. We stayed open from April to October of 2020 and closed once the campgrounds and tourist season was over. The restaurant is a bit out of the way to drive just for takeout. COVID definitely had a negative impact on the business. But we are survivors.”

It's not clear when the pandemic ended (or if it ended), but business slowly returned to something like normal. The Bridge Restaurant had made it through two crises. Then a key access road to the south, Vermont Route 125, caved in at the lake shoreline in 2021 and it was closed:

“Oh my god, what did I do to the universe to have this happen? It was almost as bad as the bridge closing. But again, it’s another detour to get to us, and it’s winter. I decided it was too much to try to stay open since it was COVID the previous year and we were closed for winter. It was best to close for winter again in 2021. We re-opened late April of 2022.”

photo of Lake Champlain Bridge

In 2023, The Bridge Restaurant is back up and running.

If you weren’t in the know, you would not realize that this calm and beautiful place is a survivor, both the bridge and the restaurant. Lisa Cloutier graciously serves down-home food in her establishment, having weathered U.S. infrastructure challenges and a plague thrown in.

In a sense, part of the story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when infrastructure is taken for granted. Should we lose our bridges, or water, or roads, or power, we may all need to become activists to get our facilities back. Maybe it makes sense to be active before emergency closures.

But this summer, we can relax maybe a little for now, and go enjoy a cable-stayed fish sandwich at The Bridge Restaurant.