In the seventeenth century, two settlements in Massachusetts grew up right next to each other. Cambridge and Boston were separated, however, by the Charles River. For more than a century and a half, the two towns were connected only by ferry service. It was not until 1793 that the first bridge was constructed to link them.
The West Boston Bridge was built by private investors who were chartered by the Commonwealth. They recovered their expenses and made a profit by the tolls charged to use the bridge, which remained in place until 1858. The bridge left Boston at the foot of the West End, near the present-day site of the Massachusetts General Hospital. It connected to the eastern part of Cambridge, which was very sparsely inhabited. After construction of the bridge, however, there was a building boom connecting Main Street to the bridge. Swamp land around the river was reclaimed to feed the building boom.
In 1898 the Cambridge Bridge Commission was formed to plan and build a new bridge. In addition to foot and vehicular traffic, the new bridge would need to accommodate trains from the Boston Elevated Railway Company. State and national rules and regulations required that the bridge be a drawbridge, although that would make it more expensive. It literally took an act of Congress to permit the building of a less-expensive and better-looking bridge. Construction took six years, and it was finally opened to traffic in 1906.
After more than a century of use, the bridge was in dire need of repairs, and is now in the middle of a $215 million project to replace structural elements and restore much of the historic character that has been lost over the years. The construction companies working on the bridge, however, are having quite the adventure. Because of the historic nature of the bridge, the project requires that all of the work must be done exactly as it was done when the bridge was first constructed.
There are multiple issues surrounding a construction project like this. The first, and most major, is that bridges are made differently now than they were a century ago. Late-nineteenth-century construction manuals have had to be studied to determine how the bridge was built so that it can be repaired properly.
One of the biggest changes: metalwork. In the early part of the twentieth century, the metalwork of buildings and bridges was fastened using rivets. Heated to thousands of degrees, and inserted into holes in the metal where, as they cooled, the metal would expand and hold the pieces together. Nowadays, this process is achieved using nuts and bolts. Construction workers have had to go to school to learn this outdated process.
Another problem is the granite used in the bridge. Rockport granite has not been quarried in more than 80 years, but it must be used in the bridge. First, it must match the granite already in the bridge. Second, the bridge’s nickname is the Salt and Pepper Bridge. This comes partially from the parapets on the bridge that look like salt and pepper shakers, and partially from the black and white flecks in the granite that look like salt and pepper. Fortunately, they were able to find a source.
It is nice to see building project such as these, that maintain the historical accuracy of monuments, buildings, and bridges, keeping them as close as possible to how they were when our ancestors walked over them. In 1927, the bridge was officially renamed the Longfellow Bridge. In 1845, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about the original bridge, called “The Bridge.” Part of it reads:
Yet whenever I cross the river
On its bridge with wooden piers,
Like the odor of brine from the ocean
Comes the thought of other years.
And I think how many thousands
Of care-encumbered men,
Each bearing his burden of sorrow,
Have crossed the bridge since then.
I see the long procession
Still passing to and fro,
The young heart hot and restless,
And the old subdued and slow!