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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — “We did it the hard way,” Rep. Robert Hargraves said of the 10-year effort to replace the landmark Chester A. Waterous covered bridge. He watched as a small crowd of residents and officials gathered to kick off the rebuilding of the shaky, 45-year-old structure on a sunny, 60-degree day.

Monday morning’s gathering included several residents and DPW Director Robert E. Lee, DPW Commissioners Louis Shattuck and Frederick Farmer, Highway Superintendent Peter Shattuck, Board of Selectmen Chairman Lyndon B. Johnson, Hargraves, Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, MassHighway officials led by Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky, and Secretary of Transportation Bernard Cohen.

“It’s been a long time coming. It should be named the Pepperell Covered Bridge. It’s been that way for centuries,” Hargraves said when it was his turn to speak. “I’m pleased to see this finally come to fruition.”

Cohen said the $7.97 million project is one of the first beneficiaries of a $3.5 billion bond bill authorized in 2007 and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick two weeks ago. A combination of federal and state money, the borrowing will fund a comprehensive highway and offshore infrastructure program. He said he had been apprised of the bridge’s place in Revolutionary-era history.

Cohen took the opportunity to announce that the governor will be forwarding a new $3 billion statewide, bridge-specific reconstruction initiative next week, focused on structures with the most urgent need of repair.

Paiewonsky said Pepperell’s bridge is special among the state’s 4,400 bridges because it is the only wooden one in eastern Massachusetts.

“There is a huge new bridge program coming looking to restore bridges all over the state,” Paiewonsky confirmed. “MassHighway is very committed to restore historic bridges such as Pepperell’s, having done one in Colraine and Conway with two more in the works.”

“This wouldn’t have happened without the Pepperell DPW keeping its nose to the grindstone along with Steve (Panagiotakos),” Hargraves said. “We worked as a team, and MassHighway is second to none with its cooperation all the way through.”

Panagiotakos also had a grasp of history. He noticed Jerilynn Bozicas in the crowd and invited her to participate in the ceremonial dirt toss. Bozicas’ late father-in-law, Steven, had made headlines in 1963 holding a 500-name petition to finish building the current bridge, five years after work had started in 1958.

“Jeri, you’ll be allowed to drive that first car over,” Panagiotakos said.

He said the all-wooden rebuilt bridge, scheduled for ribbon-cutting in October 2009, will be a source of town pride and a landmark that will identify the community.

“We made this a priority after the people of Pepperell quietly got the word out,” Panagiotakos added. “Hundreds of bridges need repair. We want to return this to the greatness it formerly had.”

“We heard from Pepperell officials, the delegation, and Historical Society that they wanted all wood,” Paiewonsky said. “It’ll be great.

“Secretary Cohen is pushing to do our jobs better and faster,” she added, “for example getting a bunch of people in a room rather than meet in committees.”

“The people of Pepperell have been absolutely exceptionally patient,” Hargraves said. “I’m proud to represent this wonderful town.”

The first step is construction of a pedestrian/utility bridge across the Nashua River, expected to be complete within two months.

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