Four Massachusetts Historic Bridges Coming Down in 2014

Tunnel view of the Schell Bridge. All photos courtesy of Nathan Holth

University Avenue Bridge in Lowell already gone. Schell Memorial in Northfield, Salem Street Overpass and South Canal Bridges in Lawrence to follow.

Massachusetts- not officially the first state in the union, but the first to make history. The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620 and together with the Wampanoag Indians, celebrated their first Thanksgiving a year later. The first shots of the Revolutionary War went off at Concord, sparking an eight-year struggle that ultimately resulted in the Colonist’s winning the war for independence and the British being expelled. The state became one of the first 13 states to create the United States thanks to the ratification of the Constitution, four years later.

Massachusetts was also one of the key laboratories for experimenting with truss bridges, as various structures were built, resembling a stark contrast to the bridge types we still see today in the US and Europe. One of the first Parker truss bridges was built in 1871 at Fitchburg, despite not being patented until 1882. An unusual truss bridge built using a combination Parker and Thacher designs can be found over the Powwow River at Amesbury. Lenticular trusses are more plentiful in the state than in Connecticut, despite the design originating from there and the fact that almost all of them were built by Berlin Iron Bridge Company. And an unusual combination cantilever and Pennsylvania petit truss bridge, known as the Schell Memorial Bridge, was built in Northfield in 1903.

Sadly that bridge will soon become history- as with numerous other bridges- unless MassDOT widens its horizons and looks at other ways to preserve its historic bridges. While other bridges, like the Big Four Railroad Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky, were revitalized for recreational use, despite being abandoned for over 40 years, the state has considered many abandoned historic bridges as eyesores and have used tactics to draw enough support to demolish them, despite the potential to restore them at a fraction of the cost. This tactic worked wonders with Fitch’s Bridge in Groton last year, as the group working to reopen the 1885 double-intersecting Warren through truss bridge, backed a proposal by the city to replace the structure– one of the oldest riveted truss bridges in North America- with a welded pony truss bridge. While the group took pride in this achievement, the plan sparked outrage throughout the country by many who claimed that despite its abandonment since 1965, the bridge would have served many more years with restoration and a new roadway. But this bridge is not alone as the Chronicles’ has a preview of four historic bridges that are about to meet the cutting torches and cranes and one that has already been torn down to the dismay of many locals. Without further ado, here are four bridges that represent the reasons to overturn the decisions to tear these structures down before it is too late and one reason to cuss and swear at politicians for letting one go already.

Schell Memorial Bridge in Northfield

History is about to repeat itself with the Schell Memorial Bridge, scheduled to come down this year. Built in 1903 by the New England Structural Company of East Everett using the design by Edward S. Shaw, the bridge was originally built to connect the chateau of prominent resident and patron Francis Schell and the train station. It spanned the Connecticut River with a length of 515 feet and its portal bracings resemble similar Corinthian arches. The 22-panel Pennsylvania through truss bridge has two Wichert trusses supporting the concrete piers in the river, and all connections are riveted. Masonry approach spans are on the southeast end of the truss bridge. The bridge was in service until its closure in 1985 for structural concerns. Despite plankings being placed on each portal entry to keep everyone off the bridge, the people of Northfield still wanted the bridge saved and a group was formed to push for rehabilitating and restoring the bridge for pedestrian use. Things were working out well until late last year, when MassDOT presented the cost difference between restoring the bridge (which was $20 million) and complete bridge replacement ($5 million). The group responded by supporting replacing the bridge, using elements from the 1903, and replicating the span. This has caused some confusion for there is questions about the origin of the mathematics behind the costs. More so is why the group was so swift in deciding in favor of replacing the bridge at the cost of several thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money. And lastly, despite having its website on the bridge and its fundraising efforts for preserving the bridge, no current information as to the plans of building the new bridge were presented. An act of bribery with a spice of cowardice on the part of the Schell Bridge group? Perhaps, but more will most likely be revealed once the bridge is dropped into the river with dynamite this spring. More so is when we find out how much of the old bridge parts will be reused for the new bridge, or whether the bridge will really look alike or totally like an ordinary mail-order welded truss bridge, as was seen with Fitch’s Bridge. More will come when the information is revealed, but this bridge is early in the lead for Nathan Holth’s Wall of Shame Awards for 2014, let alone the Chronicle’s Author’s Choice Award for the Worst Example to Restore a Historic Bridge- if one can say “restoration” for this unique artwork that has been sitting abandoned for almost 30 years but will now be sentenced to the dumpster….

South Canal Bridge in Lawrence

Sometimes, an abandoned bridge needs minimal maintenance so that it does not serve as a hazard for pedestrians and people passing underneath the structure. The South Canal Bridge, spanning the South Canal at Access Road represents a bridge that has not received any sort of treatment and therefore, been put out of sight, out of mind. End result, the riveted Pratt pony truss structure, a product of the Boston Bridge Works Company, has partially collapsed for the bottom chord has corroded away to a point where it no longer holds the decking. The outermost panel of the decking has sagged with the rest of the planks set to collapse at the next flood, unless the thick layers of snow from this past winter season has done the trick already. Good news: The bridge will be replaced this year as part of the City’s plan to reopen Access Road. A sad ending for a bridge with potential to be reused again, even if it was integrated into the new bridge as an ornament instead of a functional truss.

Salem Street Overpass in Lawrence

The logic behind the demolition of the double-barrel quadrangular through truss bridge, spanning the railroad tracks is questionable. The 1928 structure, another example of a bridge built by the Boston Bridge Works Company appear to be in pristine condition, with some minor rusts that can be fixed, according to on-field research done a couple years ago. Even the lower truss chords would warrant rehabilitation and the decking to be replaced. But instead, the Salem Street Bridge will be removed beginning in 2015 and replaced with a concrete bridge, despite the fact that concrete bridges cannot withstand massive traffic crossing it and trains passing underneath it as well as steel bridges, like this one. An illogical decision that needs to be clarified before the work begins.


Close-up of the 1913 truss span and the 1952 girder bascule span (foreground)

Bates Memorial Bridge in Groveland

Construction has been in the works for this bridge, spanning the Merrimack River in Groveland. Originally a six-span iron swing bridge with a double-intersecting Warren through truss design and A-frame portal bracings, the bridge was replaced one-by-one over the span of 132 years. Fire destroyed three of the eastern spans in 1913, and they were replaced by fixed Pratt through truss spans with riveted connections. Boston Bridge Works, which had originally built the bridge in 1882, replaced those spans. In 1952, the American Bridge Company replaced the remaining spans with two riveted Pratt truss spans and a pony girder span that functions as a bascule bridge. By the end of June 2014, that bridge will become a memory as a fixed span, constructed alongside the old span, will open to traffic rendering the old bridge as useless. Whether there is a chance to save at least one of the spans for reuse or not is doubtful.

University Avenue Bridge in Lowell

Jack Kerouac is rolling around in his grave. Many people are scratching their heads in bewilderment. A piece of history, built in 1896 is now gone. The University Avenue /Textile Memorial Bridge, spanning the Merrimack River and featuring three spans of pin-connected Pratt deck trusses, was demolished a couple weeks ago with crews removing the trusses from the piers and placing them on barges, to be dismantled. Currently, the old stone abutments are being removed. This all in the name of progress, as a new crossing opened to traffic in December. Despite the doom and gloom, the bright side to the bridge replacement is that the new structure features a blue-colored cantilever deck truss design. A rarity considering the fact that these bridge types are disappearing in vast numbers. The project to remove the Textile Memorial Bridge and improve the area for university students is scheduled to be completed by September.

How many more bridges in Massachusetts will fall prey to progress, depends on the narrow-mindedness of politicians in Boston and the MassDOT. Perhaps these examples will serve as a reminder of how important these relicts of history are to the state. If not, there are some examples of bridges that still exist and are not threatened with demolition but deserve to be restored or at least recognized for their importance. Two of them will be mentioned in the coming articles. Only when the state recognizes these bridges will they then do something about them in the name of preservation. This includes looking for more concrete facts that will justify the actions, working together with preservation groups to save their bridges, and setting examples for other states to follow.

Author’s Note: Click on the links in the paragraph to learn more about the history of these structures. Special thanks to Nathan Holth for use of his photos and Steve Lindsey for keeping the Chronicles up to date on the developments involving some of the mentioned bridges.

2 thoughts on “Four Massachusetts Historic Bridges Coming Down in 2014

  1. Emboldened after the Northern Avenue Bridge…

    Sad to see this, but with the demolition of the Textile Memorial Bridge in Lowell, the floodgates have been opened. MassDot will not be stymied as it was with the case of the Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston. The Northern Avenue Bridge had been bypassed by the Evelyn Moakley Bridge, named for the late wife of Congressman Joe Moakley who lobbied for the demise of the Northern Avenue Bridge, a relic from Boston’s days as a working seaport. He was joined in by others including Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi and more. His untimely death and a growing backlash against the gentrification of the harbor let the Northern Avenue Bridge live.

    But all bets are off now. With few voices raised in opposition, a historic preservation community demoralized and a economic climate that is unrelenting in the scale of its punishment, expect wholesale losses of Bay State civil engineering and other heritage.


  2. I collaborate with an online English based in Madrid, Spain and I was looking for interesting information around the Internet, so, here I am… I found your web and I´ve been taking a look and reading some of the information you have. Congratulations! I liked it a lot!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.