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A thing of beauty and strength in South Ferry Hills

JULIE LANE PHOTO Just added to the New York State Register of Historic Places is Shelter Island’s Smith-Ransome Japanese Bridge.
JULIE LANE PHOTO Just added to the New York State Register of Historic Places is Shelter Island’s Smith-Ransome Japanese Bridge.

The bridge arched gently over a narrow inlet flowing from a lagoon, mirrored in the water that was dappled with rain one morning this week.

Beyond the bridge the calm blue water of Smith Cove opened up under the sky.

The Smith-Ransome Japanese Bridge in South Ferry Hills, 60 feet long and 6 feet wide at both ends, is such an enchanting structure that it transforms everything around it, the centerpiece of an elegant scene of the lagoon’s moorings, docks, boats and the wider water beyond.

Unless you live near the bridge or approach the area by boat, you’re probably unfamiliar with one of Shelter Island’s hidden jewels. But that’s not the case of the New York State Register of Historic Places, which thanks to efforts by the South Ferry Hills Association (SFHA), recently placed the bridge on its prestigious list.

According to David Lichtenstein, president of the SFHA, which acquired the bridge in 1969, within a few months the bridge and 3.82 acres surrounding it could be added to the National Register of Historic Places. With the state listing, an application automatically goes to the National Registry, Mr. Lichtenstein said.

In addition to the prestige and protection the National Register of Historic Places affords, the SFHA would become eligible for federal historic rehabilitation tax credits and a wide range of technical assistance for rehabilitation.

The bridge and lagoon — which can be viewed from a public path just south of 22 Merkel Lane — were constructed circa 1905 on the estate of Francis Marion Smith. Known as “the Borax king,” Mr. Smith made his fortune mining the mineral, which is used in everything from detergents to the manufacture of fiberglass.

The Shelter Island span is one of only two known surviving bridges built by architect and engineer Ernest Ransom, an early user of reinforced concrete in American structures. The design is, according to the national registry, “based on Japanese inspired precedents.”

The other bridge Mr. Ransom built that’s still standing is the Alvord Lake Bridge in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

His engineering is ingenious, with the deck of the bridge arched from end to end and side to side, and water flows underneath into drains adjacent to its posts, according to the draft application being prepared for the national registry.

It took the SFHA about a year to gain its approval from the state, Mr. Lichtenstein said.

First, the neighbors — about a third of who are full-time Island residents — had to approve the idea. The descendants of Mr. Smith rapidly got on board and local attorney Edward Shillingburg assisted in creating a conservancy that will raise money to fund repairs and maintenance of the structure with tax-deductible contributions.

An engineer assessed the condition of the bridge and concluded that while it needs some work, it’s structurally sound, Mr. Lichtenstein said, even though it’s deteriorated a bit because of more than a century of exposure of its iron reinforcing rods to all weather conditions.

The sturdiness of its construction was proven, however, when it survived the massive hurricane of 1938, while Mr. Smith’s house was destroyed in the storm.

Mr. Lichtenstein described the process of getting everyone involved with the project as “terrific.” He has written to Supervisor Jim Dougherty thanking him for his assistance in placing the bridge on the state’s registry.

Mr. Dougherty called the listing “a good move for Shelter Island.”