A walking tour of the Middlebury Bridge & Rail Project

By Becca Amen and Florence Wu

Florence WuGish and Amen walk down the tunnel that replaced the bridges on Main and Exchange St.

If you’re walking around the concrete of the new Triangle Park in downtown Middlebury, look down at the ground. You’ll be able to see two parallel diagonal lines on the sidewalk that reflect the shape of the new rail tunnel directly below.

Last Wednesday, Bridge and Rail Project Community Liaison Jim Gish took the two of us on a tour of the recently finished Bridge & Rail project. As community liaison, Gish relays updates on the project to Middlebury residents by publishing weekly blog posts, among other methods. Along the way, we were able to learn not only about the technicalities and logistics of taking on such a huge construction project but also about Gish’s life and what led him to this crucial work.

 A native Californian, former resident of Princeton, N.J., and alumnus of Swarthmore College, Gish studied English in college and worked as a textbook publisher prior to assuming his current role. He’s lived in Middlebury since 1998, noting that while the day-to-day has sped up over the course of his time here, the town is still more oriented toward quality of life than his previous hometowns have been.

“I got embedded with the project team here, so all these construction guys and designers, engineers and everything,” Gish said. “For the last almost six years, I’ve just been a part of the [Bridge & Rail] team day in and day out, but my job is to be an advocate for the town and also to communicate between the state and the town.”

Florence WuAs the community liaison for the project, Jim Gish is in regular contact with the major stakeholders in the project and updates the community through his project blog.

As we were walking down to the tunnel, Gish pointed out Cross Street Bridge, which spans Otter Creek and passes above Mister Up’s Restaurant & Pub. The overpass was built about 10 years ago, and according to Gish, its existence has made the Bridge & Rail project possible. When Main Street closed to enable the most drastic underground and aboveground construction, the bridge became the sole artery for foot and vehicle traffic across town.

A train derailment in October of 2007 — which happened right where the mouth of the tunnel closest to Cross Street Bridge is — was caused by the breakdown of the tracks and prompted the complete overhaul of the rail line. But the team took this needed rebuilding as an opportunity to account for every detail. For example, the new tracks have been laid with continuously welded rail, which makes the transit of freight traffic quieter and reduces vibrations with the passing of trains. Rail traffic through Middlebury resumed last year. 

Other thoughtful details included lowering the rail line to accommodate double-stacked cars, which encourages more diversion of freight traffic from Route 7, and taking care to make the finished product as aesthetically pleasing and as minimally disruptive as possible, complete with a mix of clean horizontal and vertical lines and concealed infrastructure.

The project has been hard on the town. It meant closures to downtown roadways for some time, cutting off traffic to local businesses and complicating commutes and errands.  Still, Gish reminisced about the summer of 2021 when townspeople would gather to watch the large crane that was stationed in downtown Middlebury.

“In a pandemic summer, where everybody was close to home, it was nice for everybody to come outside and enjoy being with one another,” Gish said.

Florence WuThe new train platform is located in the same place as the shire’s former train station.

Nearing the end of our tour, as we emerged from the other side of the tunnel near Marble Works, Gish also mentioned that, after the two of us graduate in the spring of 2022, we’ll be able to come up to Middlebury via Amtrak and visit our alma mater. The platform is already finished, and Gish estimates — perhaps optimistically, he notes — that trains will become available in the area at the end of the first quarter of 2022. As of now, the Amtrak station closest to the college is in Rutland, nearly an hour’s drive from campus.

The new platform was built in the original location of the shire’s train station. The town of Middlebury plans to go in and create parking in front of the platform by Christmas, according to Gish. It will then be ready for Amtrak to fulfill its end of the deal next year. 

Florence WuAmtrak service between New York’s Penn Station and Middlebury is expected to be completed during the first quarter of 2022.

 

Before we parted, Gish pointed out the stone labyrinth — a space intended for both meditative reflection and play — funded by the Parish of St. Stephen’s. It wasn’t an original feature of the new Lazarus Park, but the church separately conceptualized it, and the town of Middlebury installed it for them. He also highlighted the sidewalk poems etched into concrete, a project funded in part by the Vermont Arts Council.

As we turned around, we looked upon the campus, pondering how the Middlebury Chapel appeared to be the same height as Old Chapel from our vantage point. The bell of the Congregational Church of Middlebury chimed 10 a.m., and a friendly couple passing by congratulated Gish on the completion of the project.

“That’s the thing that blows my mind about Middlebury,” Gish said. “You walk 100 feet, and the view changes.”