First driver over the old I-91 bridge travels it one last time

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BRATTLEBORO — Back nearly six decades, the new Interstate 91 rolling its way north from the state's southern border was part of, in the words of Vermont Life magazine, "the largest public works program ever attempted on earth, some 30 times greater than the combined construction of the Panama Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Grand Coulee Dam."

The accompanying 1,000-foot bridge erected over Brattleboro's West River was, as the Reformer reported, the biggest such structure ever commissioned in the state.

As for Lawrence Wright, the area man who eyed it all in 1960? The then 20-something-year-old was just another construction worker who, after leaving high school as a sophomore to enlist in the Marine Corps , found himself back home in search of a sense of direction.

"School and me just didn't jingle," the 82-year-old recalls today. "I loved to drive equipment and be outdoors."

So when the young Wright was asked to steer a concrete truck over the newly finished arch, he happily complied.

"The roadbed was roughed out, but I went up over the bridge and never thought nothing about it," he says today. "Then I realized, 'Good God, I was the first person to cross.'"

Fast forward to 2013: Wright, learning the state was set to replace the $5 million rusting steel span with a record-setting $60 million platform, phoned the Agency of Transportation to recount his story.

"I said, 'I have no documentation and I can't prove anything, but I'm not trying to pull anyone's leg and why would I want to lie about something like that?'"

State officials apparently agreed. On Thursday, they invited Wright to be the final motorist to travel the bridge before its coming demolition.

"How many people get a chance to be the first and last person?" he said before driving his pickup over the old structure.

A typical daily count of 20,000 commuters, tourists and truckers — speeding to and from Massachusetts, Connecticut and other population centers along the East Coast — usually motor through I-91's southern gateway between exits 2 and 3. But construction and lane closures the past four years have led to detours and delays that should end with the recent opening of the new bridge.

Wright is sympathetic to the plight of the old arch.

"Salt just does an awful number on stuff," he said.

The passage of time can age a person, too. The Grafton native worked in carpentry and construction, then 26 years as a maintenance man at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon before retiring to his childhood hometown of Chester to "tinker a little bit" at his nearby sawmill.

"I have been struck by lightning twice, I've had four discs dug out of my back, my arm pinned and artery severed when I was unloading an excavator, a metal knee — my right one is titanium — and had throat cancer, but they got it with radiation," Wright said.

"But I've been kind of lucky," he continued. "I've got two kids — one boy, one girl — and put them both through college. My wife, Shirley, and I will be married 60 years this Aug. 31. I've got no complaints. I'm still walking the face of the earth."

And, as seen Thursday, still cruising life's highways.

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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