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Joyce Endee

Built to Last

Group of Bethlehem-area residents say golden age of municipal pool not over yet

February 22, 2012
BETHLEHEM — For years the municipal pool filled with debris — a concrete souvenir of Bethlehem's golden days. After it drained overnight in 2005, many residents thought that was the end of another era. Rumors were swirling around that the concrete had gaping cracks or that the ground beneath the pool had been undermined — they thought that "in this economy it would be too much to fix."

But those naysayers had forgotten the part of Bethlehem that has held it together since its crowds of visitors slowly dried up throughout the latter half of the 20th century; they forgot the power of memories and strength of a community.

"Everything revolved around that pool in the summertime," said Dick Robie, a longtime resident who had worked as a lifeguard in his youth.

It was place were families hung out and socialized, and it was also a place where children loved to go and actually stayed out of trouble.

For Phil Bell, the "perfect evening" was in a game of water polo followed by a walk up the street to get ice cream. And for many children, the pool's "famed" high dive was a rite of passage.

"If you could jump off that, then you were growing up," said Bell.

Those kinds of memories are hard to suppress, and last year Robie and Bell made a "solemn vow that this was going to be the year" to rehabilitate the pool.

At more than 70 years old, one could hardly be surprised that the pool is a little rough around the edges. However, as one of the many projects that came out of the Great Depression, Bell said the pool was almost "over built" — and certainly built to last.

In 1929, the town dammed up a stream to create Sunset Lake as the local swimming attraction for tourists and residents, but its lifespan was destined to be short. The Great Hurricane of 1938, which was far more devastating than the recent Tropical Storm Irene, destroyed the dam and drained the lake.

Lucky for Bethlehem, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal had given rise to agencies that carried out public works projects, and within a few years of Sunset Lake's demise, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had built the town's municipal pool.

By 1940, the pool appeared on the town's inventory with the appraised value of $25,000, said Robie. Outfitted with the high dive, a baby pool and a depth of 12 feet at its deepest, the WPA's pool was something to brag about. Tourism pamphlets touted the municipal pool as one of the many amenities Bethlehem had to offer among its grand hotels, theaters, stores and restaurants, and activities such as golfing, hiking, dancing, tennis and fishing.

"Here is happy relaxation in sparkling clear mountain water under the watchful eye of a full time life guard and a pleasant matron-in-charge," says a circa-1950s pamphlet, which also shows the town's famed Magic Mountain Express.

Sixty years later, the big question was: Can that "sparkling clear mountain water" fill that pool again?

The first step for Bell and Robie was to check that the concrete was worth saving; if it wasn't, that likely would have been the end of the pool.

Beginning last June, they checked for cracks: There were small ones, but none that couldn't be repaired. Then they drilled holes in the bottom of the pool to dispel theories that it had been undermined. About 10 holes satisfied them that the base was sound, and they knew then that the pool had a chance, but there was more work to be done.

The fill pipe was damaged, and equipment and pipes in the pump house also needed attention. However, it was all doable and even more amazing, it all was done without costing taxpayers a penny.

Throughout the summer, locals volunteered their time and materials without looking to gain financially — proof that in this day and age, community still matters and having something to rally around is good for everyone.

Though Robie and Bell tried to keep their project quiet until they knew for certain the pool could be rehabilitated, good things have a way of getting out. On the day that they cleaned the drains, Robie said they started with four workers, but soon 30 people had gathered to lend a hand.

"Once people got word that we were trying to repair the pool, it got a lot of support," said Bell.

On July 21, which was a very hot day, they decided to test the fill pipe and how well the pool held water. Noises indicated the water was coming, and then suddenly it appeared, said Robie. "A little rusty at first, and then Bethlehem's clear water came through."

"Now that was exciting," he said, as for first time in years, Robie was able to go for a swim were he had for so many summers.

They filled the pool with five feet of water and then filled it all the way — all 330,000 gallons — and they never had a problem.

Unlike other public pools, which can be filled with chemicals, Bethlehem's swimming hole is fed directly by the Gale and Zealand rivers. Filters and a water pump do their job in keeping the water clean, and that equipment was a very important piece of determining how much it would take to revitalize the pool.

"When that pump started, that was a watershed moment," said Bell. "At that point we knew we were viable."

"After we hooked everything up, the pool continued to do its job and circulated the water by itself," said Robie. "It was just a question of taking care of all of the little things that a lack of maintenance had caused."

As the volunteers became more and more invested in the project, each milestone became more important. One of the most nerve-wracking times was when they had a state official look things over.

"We were on eggshells at that point," said Bell. "He could have at any moment told us that we were finished worrying about that pool."

But he didn't. "We never found a deal-breaker," said Robie.

Currently, the Parks and Recreation Department has to bring children to Bretton Woods for lessons and Echo Lake to swim, but with a little more work the town could get its pool back, and it already appears to have a lot of support.

At the behest of the select board, a pool committee — consisting of Robie, Bell, Sandy Laleme, April Hibbard, Claire Brown, Jared Ryan and John Tholl — was set up. Then when Bell recently described the project at the deliberative session, it received a round of applause — not the jeers he could have heard if people didn't believe in it.

Now all voters will have a chance to voice their opinion. A warrant article seeks $60,000 to finish making the repairs to the pool, and the pool committee can only hope that others will see the project their way.

"There were a lot of doubting Thomases in town that thought we were on a fool's errand," said Bell, but "we continued working on it because of the memories that we have."

Now, after the work of so many volunteers and local experts, it seems as though those doubting Thomases have been silenced. Terry Welch, Bud Miller, Kevin Schofield, Rod and Justin Marvin, Derek Brown, "Big Donnie" and "Young Donnie" Leavitt, all have been a big help, said Robie and Bell, and they can only hope that voters will decided to help as well.

"In its day, in the days of the hotels, they would have a couple-hundred people there," said Robie. "After Bethlehem lost that crowd, people forgot how valuable that pool was to the kids in town."

But he's frank about what drives him. The project isn't just for the kids; Robie also wants the pool for himself.

"At my age, I want to go off that high dive some more," said Robie.

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