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What Lies Beneath: NEWS7 finds old Halesford bridge under Smith Mountain Lake

July 18, 2011|Chris Hurst | Anchor/Reporter

PENHOOK, Va. — PART 2

It’s something no one has seen in a generation; the old bridge that crossed the Roanoke River, before the river became part of Smith Mountain Lake.

But it's getting bleak on the surface of Smith Mountain Lake. The team from the lake's Marine Fire and Rescue has searched for nearly two hours for the old Halesford bridge.

“Look, we know it’s laying this way,” says chief Jack Gautier, motioning with his hands where he think the bridge lies. “But we don’t know if were on top of it or if it’s [on the north or south side of marker buoys.] We need to make another run this way.”

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The bridge is supposed to be sixty to seventy feet under water. After several passes with the ROV, or remotely operated vehicle called the Video Ray, we make one last attempt to find the long submerged bridge.

The problem is, in the choppy waters at the busiest part of the lake, the boat and marker buoys constantly drift.

“That’s what’s screwing us up,” he says. “Because our base is turning with us.”

We were just about to give up when the camera ran right into it. It hit one of the lower steel support girders.

“Follow that piece right there Matt and stay right on it,” he says to video operator Matt Burns.

Slowly, Burns climbs the camera up the beam covered in silt. Using a video game controller, Matt brings us back to the bridge.

“You can see the rivets when you went by the first time,” says Gautier, pointing at the video monitor. “Look at that! See the four rivets? Wow!”

Up about twenty feet from first contact, the camera shows the underside of the old roadbed. The camera shows even the small rocks in the concrete

And there's more out there. Further down by the dam, old maps show entire communities used to be there. The question is: Do any homes, churches, or entire towns still remain buried under water?

The search continues with the Fire and Rescue team later on this summer when the cameras go down again.

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PART 1

What's under there? That question has been asked of anyone who's been to Smith Mountain Lake. The myth goes back and forth with reality, depending on who you ask. Are there forests underwater? Houses, roads, towns? That's what NEWS7 wanted to find out.

Most impressive of all is a bridge said to be submerged deep under the lake at the North Shore.

As the sun rises above Vista Pointe and the Smith Mountain dock, the work begins; loading of a special underwater camera on one of Smith Mountain Lake Volunteer Fire and Rescue's fireboats. They have eight stationed around the lake and its a truly unique operation.

“There's no other lake in America that has a marine volunteer fire department,” says Al Busch with the department.

The crew this morning is Al Busch, chief Jack Gautier and video operator Matt Burns. We're going ten miles up the lake near the site of the current Halesford bridge. But before the lake was created, filling up nearby valleys, the old Halesford bridge crossed the Roanoke river. Now the rumors flow back and forth: is the bridge still there? Sonar images show it, but we wanted video proof.

Before casting off, one last crew member is put together; the Video Ray. It's used to find bodies trapped underwater. We need him to settle a decades old mystery.

Sonar images show approximately where to look. The buoys mark the spot. Then the search begins.

As we search 70 feet underwater, visibility is poor. The lake is murky. After an hour of searching-- no bridge.

“You’re going to have to run into it,” says Burns.

“That’s why I say, let’s go 90 [degrees] off of [the buoy markers,] because we know it’s going to be one side or the other, it’s not going to be in line,” says Gautier.

And frustration on the boat is growing.

We spent the better part of two hours looking for the bridge.

Not only did we have to get the location exactly right, but the depth too. We were afraid we had gone under it.

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